My title is rather provocative: can fashion change our preconceived ideas on gender, or fashion is not a field that can help reconsider the gender binary? I came up with this question after listening to Hari Nef’s Abecedarium Presentation on Unisex Fashion by MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art, Items: Is Fashion Modern?) on coursera.org. He states:
“I do not think (…) fashion is fertile ground for a discussion of gender”.
I partly agree with Hari Nef’s affirmation if we consider his perspective on the androgynous style provided by the iconic Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking Suit (Fall 1966).
Drawing of YSL Le Smoking Suit (1966)
Here, the woman is ‘empowered’ by a black suit, which inevitably resembles ‘manly’ clothes. In these terms Hari Nef is right; is this really an erasure of boundaries? Isn’t this approach simply shifting the perception of ‘woman’ towards another limited concept, that of a stereotypical image of masculinity? I think so. Through this image we are still conceptualising the woman according to the binary distinction that entraps both men and women.
How can we subvert gender roles through clothes? Is this possible?
Gender is a social construct, and, as such, it forces us to think according to a fixed binary, man and woman. Apparently, this binary is justified by the biological, yet artificial, distinction of male and female. Having said that, I think that fashion can become a powerful tool that through self-expression can help eradicate those ideas that impose a certain dress code on both women and men.
Yves Saint Laurent, SS 1967 Haute Couture Collection
As Judith Butler affirms, if gender were not a fixed boundary, anyone would “decide(…) on its gender” (Butler x), which implies that we could select any gender as if we were choosing clothes from our wardrobe. While, instead, clothes do not reflect a genderless society, because every person’s “existence is already decided by gender” (Butler x). We should think about the source of inspiration when we select clothes: if the source is either woman or man, we are not erasing barriers, but simply encasing our identities.
It’s true that gender roles cannot be dismantled by fashion, but gender can actually improve through fashion. Recently, we have witnessed a change in fashion thanks to the introduction of unisex fashion. Substantially, unisex fashion stands for fashion that can be possibly worn by both men and women, which favours a genderless conception of both categories. Despite the fact that many people judge unisex fashion as boring and colourless, it is a good example of clothes that are boundary breaking. H&M, for instance, promoted a unisex capsule collection, Denim United, where white tees and denim pieces are interchangeably worn by both genders. Among other examples, And Re Walker Spring 2018 Ready-to-wear Collection shows unisex pieces, where both women and men wear a similar style (men also wear skirts). Calvin Klein by Raf Simons Spring 2018 Ready-to-Wear Collection shows men wearing pink; or Gucci, thanks to creative director Alessandro Michele, has started to show men wearing flowery textures and lace.
Gucci, SS 2017
The important aspect of these collections is that they do not follow rules, the designers’ minds do not focus on what women or men are supposed to wear. Their collections are examples of experimentation, where there are no preconceived ideas that can create boundaries.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. New York and London: Routledge, 1993. Print.
Hari Nef, Abecedarium Presentation on Unisex Fashion by MoMA, 2017.