I found myself often wanting to explore how the concept of femininity relates to the fashion industry. Women around the world are constantly pressured by society to be ‘feminine’ and to be such in a specific way, thus to comply with an arguably erroneous, definitely constructed, generalized idea of what it means to be a woman. As it is expected, in areas and cities with a more diverse population as well as a more open-minded environment, but not only, the socially accepted idea of femininity is oftentimes challenged, contributing to the slow progress that is being made to shift away from the view of gender being a binary. Fashion seems to be one of the tools women use to embark on this honorable quest, challenging what a woman ‘should wear’ and rather expressing what a woman ‘can wear’ through their clothing and personal style. I would like to argue, moreover, that the industry of fashion itself has in the past and is currently also often working alongside the thankfully changing views on gender. The increased popularity of gender neutral fashion, ie. outfits that do not suggest nor define the gender of the wearer, has been an important contribution of the fashion industry to the popularization a style of dress that includes every one on the gender spectrum.
The most compelling thing at the heart of fashion is the fact that what you wear can say something about who you are. Fashion seems to be a wonderful tool with which one can express something about their identity, which includes and is not limited too how one wants to be perceived from the outside world. That is great, unless how we want to be perceived is distorted by how we feel we should be perceived. The fashion industry dictates what is in, somewhat trying to reflect the aesthetic of a time and culture as well as the personal one of the designer. The variety of pieces seen across the collections around the world, show how there is no such thing as one shared aesthetic, although what is considered in style may be generalized through some overarching similarities across the runways. From this perspective, the fashion industry I would say suggests, rather than dictates, what each of us should be wearing.
It is no secret that the fashion industry is run by money, and that financial concerns are at the heart of every major brand and designer. It follows that whenever an art is fueled by business, the artist is faced with the challenge of reconciling their creativity with what will bring them success. To say that fashion designers are purely expressing their own aesthetics and aren’t affected by what is already considered ‘in fashion’ would be naïve and completely erroneous. Fashion collections are reflections, developments or responses to what has already been done, making fashion trends cyclical and only rarely, I would say, revolutionary. On the other side, pre-existing notions of beauty, aesthetics and in women’s wear, femininity, dictate how the public perceives, incorporates or rejects what is proposed on the runways. What we wear on a normal day, whether we are knowledgeable, passionate, or completely unaware of the latest fashions, is a result of this tension between expressing something personal about identity, and conforming to pre-existing notions of beauty both on the designer end and on the consumer end. It is hard to see then how at the end of it all what we wear says anything about who we are or how we see ourselves. Yet, how we perceive ourselves does not necessarily equate to how we want to be perceived. If fashion cannot say anything true or pure enough about our core being, it can definitely speak to how we expect the world to see us. In this scenario the fashion industry can become, and has already been moving towards being, a powerful tool to change preconceived notions of femininity and gender roles. Just like pre-conceptions of what women should wear affect what is being made by designers, the opposite is also true.
Menswear on women has been popular since Coco Chanel introduced trousers as women ready-to-wear in the 20s. Katherine Hepburn wore what were considered men’s clothes in the 40s. The woman tuxedo became popular in the 80s, and for decades women have been wearing trousers, t-shirts, pullovers and other men’s clothing items that yet do not bring people to question their sexuality or femininity. Although ‘menswear for women’ has been around since the 1920s, it is not until recently that designers have begun to propose fashions that are not in need for any gender specification at all and that challenge the societal pressure for women to conform to traditional gender norms. Lately you can notice women wearing shoes, shirts and straight shapeless trousers, that are not menswear refitted for their shape, neither are they women’s-wear meant to imitate menswear. They are just clothes.
Coco Chanel introducing pants for daily women’s wear was a fashion revolution. This is not a revolution; this is a development unfolding alongside a new mentality about gender stereotypes. The belief that there is a way each sex should behave is a synthetic social construct. There is nothing innate about women’s or men’s social roles, but unfortunately gender inequality is deeply rooted in our culture. In the past few decades society has started to question and challenge this widespread misconception, and I am pleased to see that fashion brands such as Hood By Air, Acne, KTZ and Alexander Wang are taking a stance by either responding to recent social developments, or spreading awareness of the synthetic nature of gender roles.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not criticizing feminine clothing, which I happen to wear myself. I am not even criticizing the classic suit look for men. What I’m trying to say is that between the suit and the bodycon dress there is space for androgyny and for gender neutral fashion that suits all genders of the spectrum.