As a society we’re questioning the old-fashioned gender binary — and this conversation is being reflected both on the runway and at the makeup counter.
The world’s “first gender-free clothing store” opened in Manhattan this March. Founded by fashion industry veteran Rob Smith, who has worked for brands as diverse as Nike and Victoria’s Secret, The Phluid Project doesn’t have male or female sections, instead displaying clothing simply by category, such as jeans or knitwear.
While The Phluid Project claims to be the first store where every single item can be worn across any gender, it is by no means the first to explore the idea; last year John Lewis announced its children’s clothing lines would not be categorised by gender, and ASOS collaborated with GLAAD on a unisex collection. In February this year, River Island launched its ‘Labels are for clothes, not people’ campaign.
So what does genderless fashion actually look like in 2018? Jayden Smith might have donned a skirt for Louis Vuitton two years ago, but examples like this remain a rarity. I’m reminded of a quote by the character Julie from Ian McEwan’s novel The Cement Garden, immortalised by Charlotte Gainsbourg in the film adaptation and later borrowed by Madonna in her single ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’. It perfectly encapsulates the old guard of clothing binaries, in which “unisex” really just means encouraging women to dress more like men, while failing to challenge men’s preconceptions of what is and isn’t acceptable to wear. It goes like this: “Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it’s OK to be a boy; for girls it’s like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, according to you, because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading.”
Until now, a fair few brands’ views of unisex fashion seemed to mirror that sentiment and err on the side of caution with muted colour tones and loose-fitting, masculine-of-centre styles. If they did blur gender lines, it pretty much extended to “cute girls in oversized menswear” and “boys with abs in crop tops.” (Or, of course, rompers.) Thankfully, a more expressive and colourful unisex style is emerging thanks to players like Nicopanda, who recently partnered with MAC on a new genderless makeup line, and the aforementioned Phluid Project store, which certainly covers some of the easier bases of genderless style, stocking lines from streetwear brands like Champion and FILA in sizes suitable for all body types. But it doesn’t end there; shoppers will also find garments from more niche labels, such as Gypsy Sport and Meat.
Fashion houses have been pushing gender boundaries on the runway for years; androgynous supermodel Andreja Pejić walked the catwalk for Jean-Paul Gaultier in both men and women’s shows before coming out as trans in 2013. More recently, there has been an emergence of high profile transgender models who have mass market appeal, like Munroe Bergdorf, who was the first trans spokesmodel for L’Oreal and has since been the face of an Illamasqua campaign; Hari Nef, who was the first trans woman to grace the cover of Elle magazine in the United Kingdom; and Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox, who teamed up with ORLY on her ‘Celebrate Yourself’ nail polish collection.
On YouTube, male influencers like Jeffree Star, James Charles and Manny MUA have been able to leverage their love of makeup into careers, complete with their own cosmetics lines, fashion shows and endorsements. Not only that, but they are often the first ones teen girls will turn to when it comes to beauty tutorials; these younger audiences don’t even question the idea of a man in makeup.
And why should they? What we tend to think of as gendered trends these days are relatively new inventions. High heels, makeup, brightly coloured clothes and wigs were all en vogue among men in the court of Louis XVI, for instance. In fact, throughout history a flamboyant appearance has been more associated with your class and standing in society than with your gender.
In Ancient Egypt, makeup and jewellery were used as a way to show off your wealth, but they were also means of warding off illness and misfortune; it was believed that wearing certain colours and stones invoked the protection of the gods. In Elizabethan England, pale skin was all the rage thanks to Queen Elizabeth I, and so men and women alike would cake themselves in white makeup. Again, this was aesthetic-as-status-symbol; a white complexion signified that you were wealthy enough to not have to spend all day labouring outside, and could spend your leisure time indoors. (Ironically, these days, a tan signifies that you have the leisure time to bask on a sun lounger.)
And up until the early 1900s the colour pink, which was drummed into my generation as being “for girls” while growing up, was considered primarily a male colour, as it was seen to be a diluted version of red, the colour of the military and hot-blooded masculinity. Conversely, the light blue we associate with baby boys was deemed dainty and more suited to girls.
It was toward the end of the 18th Century that men’s fashion began to lose its shine, thanks to what historians call the Great Male Renunciation, during which conventional male attire began to eschew bright colours, ornate jewellery, and high-heeled shoes, becoming less of a class signifier and more of a gender signifier. In his book The Descent of Man, artist Grayson Perry describes the traditionally masculine look of the last hundred years as “default man,” characterised most often by a bland grey suit which has the purpose of blending in rather than standing out.
“An erroneous subtext that hovers around gender is that femininity is more applied, more of a show than masculinity,” he writes. “The female wardrobe is seen as one extraneous addition, all artifice, hairdos, makeup, frills and heels, while men’s clothes are entirely necessary for function and little more.” The implication here, of course, is that the drab way in which men are encouraged to present themselves to the world is more serious, more genuine, than feminine gender expression.
This boxy, ill-fitting, off-the-rack brand of masculinity is being rejected by young men all over the world. In Japan, there is the phenomenon of “jendaresu-kei,” or “genderless style,” which is seeing more and more young men in Tokyo’s vibrant Harajuku district reject the traditional suit in favour of more adventurous fashion, beauty and grooming trends. This often crosses over with “kawaii,” an aesthetic which is all about looking carefree and cute. In South Korea, the competitive term “ulzzang” (which translates to “good-looking,” or more literally “best face”) has morphed into an entire online subculture in and of itself, wherein young men and women go all out with the makeup and filters to create an idealised version of themselves.
Fashion, like gender, is a construct. And just as the way we think about gender identity will surely continue to evolve in the future, so too will the seemingly arbitrary divides between what we think of as “male” or “female” style. It is possible to imagine a fashion-fluid future in which every shop on the high street follows the example of these forward-looking subcultures and the brands catering to them, where there is no such thing as a men’s or women’s section, and where you will see people of all gender identities and sexual orientations trying on products at the makeup counter.
And what could be more exciting, more liberating, than that? When the limitations placed on what we are and aren’t “supposed” to like are taken away, we will be able to express ourselves more fully and authentically than ever before.