For centuries, clothing has been a reflection of community and a depiction of the complex cultural shifts that take place within society. It can be studied and appreciated as a part of history, but it can also be used as a catalyst for change. Fashion, in a sense, has acted often as a form of self expression; however, variance between self expression and gender identity has a long and controversial history. The creation of couture dresses for women by English designer Charles Frederick Worth, considered the first fashion designer, marks a shift in the initial gender binary in clothing in nineteenth century Europe. From its beginning centuries ago to present day, fashion limited to a gender binary has existed and flourished for both men and women in the world. With this binary came a great deal of unspoken rules and expectations, specifically for women, much of which is still felt today. Yet, the term “Gender” was not invented until 1955, when it was used to describe the social and cultural expression of biological sex (Paoletti, Jo B., Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and The Sexual Revolution, Indiana University Press, 2015). This creation and commodification of gender, and specifically of the “ideal woman”, emerged within mainstream Western society, prompting fashion designers to take note and create clothes to fit the definition of who this woman was. From the corsets of the sixteenth century regaining popularity in the 1900s, to the 1950s housewife, or the hyper gendered children’s clothing of today, the representation of the ideal woman has changed. Yet at its core has remained the same. However, through social justice movements around female liberation and the media’s portrayal of women, the evolution of fashion for women has shifted toward more unisex clothing as it relates to the female body.
Through these inadvertent changes in fashion that challenge the gender binary, sartorial history has seen an increase in mainstream representation of fashion that reflects the rejection of stereotypical femininity and embraces being uniquely authentic through self expression via fashion. For example, the Gucci Spring/Summer 2020 runway show presented looks such as 70s style outerwear as well as tailored two piece suits all worn by androgynous models. Although there has been a surge of emerging designers creating androgynous and genderless clothing lines, a more commodified femininity is still succeeding within the fashion industry. The hyperfixation on the female body within the gender binary continues to influence women’s fashion in a highly commified way, perpetuating stereotypes and excluding those who don’t fit into the physical representation of the mainstream woman. However, with the reemergence of genderless fashion and the growing popularity of this style, fashion became a visual identifier of cultural change and a ubiquitous form of self expression not limited to outdated gender stereotypes.
Within the United States, the clothing worn by men and women throughout history have been used as a signifier for moments of immense change. Historically, Western culture places a significant importance on appearance and respectability politics, both of which lend themselves to strict codes and laws around appropriate dress. Beginning as early as the 1700s through the 1950s, fashion rules operated within a gender binary: an assumption that there are two genders that behave, look, and dress two different ways. As a result, the early adoption of a strict visual distinction between man and woman, especially during the 20th and 21st centuries, inadvertently created the gendered clothing of today. However, as women were often on the frontlines of social change during this time, the forms of protest and self expression became evident through drastic fashion changes that abandoned strict codes and laws. For example, in 1920s, the first sexual revolution began within the artistic community: seeking out music, culture, and fashion that represented a sensual youth culture that rose in response to moving away from the destruction of World War I (Paoletti, Jo B., Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and The Sexual Revolution, Indiana University Press, 2015). Pioneering feminist and psychoanalyst Beatrice Hinkle found that women had gained a sense of financial and personal independence during World War I and carried that with them following the war’s end (Clark, 2016).
This break from traditional gender roles and repression inspired the fashion of the time, with couture pioneer, Coco Chanel, straying from the corset design and opting for loose trousers for their women’s clothing. This external expression of the rejection of sexual limitations sparked the embrace of female sexuality culturally–– and within the fashion industry––as makeup became more drastic, hemlines were sewed shorter, and hair was cut short. This shift in fashion was popularized in early cinema through famous actors such as Marlene Deitrich, who was credited with bringing androgyny to the silver screen through her affinity for dressing in masculine clothing on screen and off (Henderson, 2017). Coupled with the extreme rejection of forced conformity was the beginnings of the Suffragette movement, featuring early activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the mid and late 1800’s, protesting in her cousin’s early take on trousers, or what are now known as bloomers (Akkaya, 2020). As the roaring 20s gave way to the Great Depression, however, a push for stability at home gave way to traditional gender roles once again, ushering back in more stereotypical fashions for women.
As Paoletti argues, unisex clothing was a baby-boomer corrective to the rigid gender stereotyping of the 1950s, itself a reaction to the perplexing new roles imposed on men and women alike by World War II (Paoletti, 2015). By the beginning of the 1960s, the distinction between life and lifestyle began, reducing fashion controversies to simple lifestyle choices which negated the experience of so many who sought to be their own person and express their gender identity freely through clothing. This desire for freedom of self and the liberty for existence in any form was especially prevalent during the sixties. To use US Vogue editor Diana Vreedland’s (active years 1963-1971) coined term, a proverbial and sartorial “Youthquake'' swept the nation as young people became influential as they never had before. This surge of a massive, young, more free generation ushered in a second sexual revolution as reproductive rights and the invention of the birth control pill gave women a previously unknown agency when it came to the disconnection of sex and reproduction. American author of The Feminine Mystique (1963) and feminist pioneer, Betty Friedan, even went so far to say that a woman is denied “individuality and human agency” in a culture that gave men more freedom and used human biology as a variable in determining one's worth.
The sexual repression and stigmas against women that had once translated into cultural expectations now were dissolving, making way for discussions of the possibility of a “unisex society” (Paoletti, 2015). As this wave of new information led to the dissolving of outdated laws, women found an old freedom of self expression, packaged in new, more liberated fashions. The introduction of “unisex style” in the mid-1960s intentionally blurred gender lines as part of a growing movement surrounding social roles for men and women. The rejection of any gender in the style of dressing was emblematic of the rejection of cultural gender roles.
In 1968, what was then described as “gender blending”, dressing and behaving in a way that combines the characteristics of both sexes, within the fashion industry reached its zenith as the most popular trend of the era. Through the cultural shift surrounding this second-wave of feminism, the work of designers too became genderless.
For example, in a time when it was controversial for women to wear pants in public, designer Yves St. Laurent created the “Le Smoking” suit in 1966, known as the first tuxedo for a woman, arguing that the wearer of the garment did not matter as much as the attitude in which it is worn, as St. Laurent projected that “fashions come and go, but style is forever” (Shardlow, 2011). Additionally, the most visionary and famous proponent of unisex fashion, Austrian born American designer Rudi Gernreich, created the “no-bra” bra in 1964, in the hopes of emancipating women from the confines of current trends. Finally, the idea of creating comfort and dissolving the gender stereotypical clothing for women continued with American Designer, Roy Halston’s creation of the Shirtwaist Dress. This garment became a fashion staple following its introduction in the fall of 1972 as it did not aim to create a women’s garment as if it looked like a men’s garment but rather as a classic piece that reflected true unisex style (The Museum at FIT, 2015).
As sexual liberation, the civil rights movement, and equality for the LGBTQ+ community were all part of mainstream conversation and debate, the fashion reflected a more free society where choice and acceptance were slowly becoming available to marginalized groups. However, as the 1970s went on and ushered in the consumer-core decades of the 80s and 90s, capitalism became a mainstay of American culture. This led to a resurgence in popularity of dresses for women, and a visual nostalgia for traditional femininity, proving that fashion and the increasing consumer culture around the industry had a defining role in the conversation around gender identity and expression.
As the 21st century began and an ever increasing capitalistic society came to fruition, media and advertising became ingrained within a gender binary, finding it difficult to market to a genderless consumer base. Hyper-gendering became the norm as everything from razors to baby clothes were sold in varying hues of pink and blue, with gender neutral colors and styles fading from the mainstream. Within this limited view and show of gender, beauty standards for women began to adapt, favoring a slim female figure that exuded effortless chic without being too sexy. The conflation of femininity and sexuality gave way to age compression, where children seemingly aged younger and the fashion offered to women from a young age perpetuated the gender stereotypes that they were expected to follow throughout adolescence into adulthood. This duality eventually became restraint as women were labeled in childhood and expected to physically reflect what society represented them as.
Today, we continue to see rigid gender binaries throughout some of the fashion industry, however as youth culture, grunge, and skate-core have a moment in fashion, genderless clothing has begun to make another resurgence in popular culture. Unfortunately, this fashion is reflective of social movements not too dissimilar from those in the 60s as many women today feel dissatisfied and unrepresented by the outdated roles and views of the stereotypical female. This, in addition to a much deeper understanding and acceptance of the spectrum of gender identity has led to a wide sense of change. For instance, Jordan-born Canadian designer Rad Hourani launched his eponymous label in 2007 at the age of 25 and in January 2013 he became the first designer in fashion history to be invited by the Chambre syndicale de la haute couture to show a Unisex Haute Couture collection in Paris.
Additionally, following The Council of Fashion Desinger in America’s (CFDA) creation of the category Unisex/Non Binary in 2018, a number of non binary and transgender designers and other creatives have had their work recognized and influencing the styles of the modern woman: such as Pierre Davis of No Sesso, Gogo Graham, Chella Man and so many more (Lee, 2020). Nonetheless, despite the progress made, the sexualization of femininity and consumerization of gender identity are ever present and heavily represented within the fashion industry.
Fashion designed for women within the gender binary inevitably continues to exist through the commercialization of the female body. However, as decades passed and a deeper understanding of gender has become more commonplace, so too have more genderless and androgynous forms of self expression. In order to see true androgynous and genderless fashion become part of the sartorial zeitgeist, the lense through which we view fashion must change. There must be an elimination of the corporate led perspective and an emphasis on acknowledging personal style as a reflection of self, not a tool for product placement and capital gain. Through the evolution of female fashion, the adoption of masculine trends, and the reentry of unisex clothing into modern culture, the questions and theories around femininity are still very much unanswered; its desirability, social constructs, and role in society are still not fully understood today. However, through the work of designers who create outside of the scope of commercial fashion, the emphasis on gender may begin to move out of the spotlight, making way for the liberation and free expression of women and of modern society.
Words by Blythe Tokar
PHOTOGRAPHS CREDITS IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE:Cover Photo: An illustration circa 1855 of a group of drunk female police officers wearing "bloomers" ignoring a street fight nearby (Hulton Archive / Getty)
Photo 1: The “ideal woman” in the 1930s and 1940s - Alfred Eisenstaedt (1930s) - The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images.
Photo 2: Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 film Morocco in her costume, a full tuxedo and top hat (Alfred Eisenstaedt, 'Marlene Dietrich at Berlin Press Ball', 1928, 33.8 by 26.7 cm. Photo: Sotheby’s)
Photo 3: Elizabeth Cady Stanton wearing bloomers (© Currier & Ives, The Bloomer Costume
Photo 4: Tom Boome and Renée Holt Picture by Patricia Faure
Photo 5: First tuxedo, worn by Ulla. Autumn-winter 1966 haute couture collection. (© Gérard Pataa)
Photo 6: Pink and blue arrived as colors for babies in the mid-19th century; yet, the two colors were not promoted as gender signifiers until just before World War I. (© TongRo image stock Corbis)
Photo 7: Backstage at Gucci RTW Spring 2020 (© Kuba Dabrowski, WWD)
Photo 8: Selection of looks from Rad Hourani Haute Couture Spring Summer 2013 Paris
Photo 9: © No Sesso, Spring Summer 2020