Monday, February 28, 2011

An Inconspicuous Influence: A Case Study on the Power of Androgynous Fashion

by Emily Mann

From the moment we're born, our clothing and accessories thrust us into a hegemonic expression of gender. Baby girls wear pink; boys wear blue. Our clothing defines to the rest of the world who we physically are. As we grow older and make conscious fashion decisions, we have the opportunity to solidify or redefine these gender stereotypes. Androgynous fashion subtly transcends these established societal gender codes by combining both genders' characteristics into one overall look.

In the early 1920s, Coco Chanel introduced her signature suit in an early form of androgynous fashion. It was made from jersey fabric with a knee-high skirt and wool-woven jacket that bore striking resemblance to a man's suit. It represented gender power for females, as its functionality hinted at the woman's newfound place as a working woman in society. Yves Saint Laurent's invention of "le smoking" in 1966 also came at a time of woman's rise in social standing, representing the power of breaking away from our culture's hegemonic ideas of femininity.

We tend to associate different traits with different genders. Males are considered more dominant, aggressive, and independent, where women are often viewed as more expressive, submissive, and emotional. Androgynous fashion has the power to break down these gender stereotypes by associating both gender's traits with the individual. The power gained relies heavily on the social context. For example, a woman in a more masculine business suit would fit in well in a corporate setting, and a man in a feminine cardigan would fit in better in an elementary school setting. The power gained by their clothing would be irrelevant in the reverse situation.

The power in androgynous fashion also comes from its imperceptibility. Thus, being in the spotlight threatens such power. Consider the case of andrygynous fashion of pop musicians in the 1970s and 1980s such as Annie Lennox, Boy George, David Bowie, and Prince. Annie Lennox's masculine suits were under constant analysis of the media with the rise of MTV in the 1980s, which resulted in speculation into her motivations for wearing such outfits in her music videos and diluting the power that image had before.

However, in today's society of constant media coverage, the opportunity for a dialogue with the media can bring about a new power to this fashion. Singers like Janelle Monae, Rihanna, and MIKA sport more androgynous looks, but by talking back with the media, can bring a power of individuality to their looks. (Janelle Monae's music video "Tightrope," in which her personal androgynous style is apparent).

It is also important to note that most of the androgynous fashions that are seen on a regular basis are designed for women. However, with the increase of androgynous styles for males in fashion comes a legitimacy of the look. Jean Paul Gaultier explored such power in his Fall 2011 Men's Ready-to-Wear runway show that combined the inspiration of James Bond, who exudes masculinity, with feminine details and even skirts and dresses. The confidence in that masculinity adds another element of power to the look.

In addition, chain clothing stores such as Uniqlo and The Kooples sell clothing for both men and women that is often undistinguishable. Even H&M is introducing a men's line of clothing including skirts.

In conclusion, the rise of androgynous fashion demonstrates unique forms of power through transcending established gender codes, as well as through expressions one's individuality and self-confidence in a subtle manner.


  1. Nice Blog! I like it.

  2. I wrote an article on fashion and gender. It is quite interesting that unisex fashion is considered from the point of view of semiotics as the peak of emancipation of women.

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