The current conversation on gender identity and labeling seems quite recent and unique. However, all throughout the twentieth century, the fashion industry has been challenging traditional gender roles and the looks associated with them. In this article, we explore the evolution of gender images and the driving forces behind the changes throughout fashion history.
Exploring the boundaries
In the early years of the twentieth century, societal rules required that you dress according to your gender. This meant that trousers, for example, were strictly for men and hence weren’t to be worn by women. Around World War 1, resistance emerged as gender definitions and roles started to blur as a result of the introduction of trousers to women’s fashion by Coco Chanel. Clearly inspired by menswear, Chanel designed shirts with clean collars, loose jackets and trousers for the female audience, and like that literally liberated women who were previously constrained by corsets and tight underclothing. This progress was embedded in and facilitated by the broader fight for women’s rights that was initiated by the Women Suffrage Movement (the famous ‘Suffragettes’), who fought for the women’s right to vote.
In fashion, this liberation of women was led by famous actresses such as Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich, who were both notable for their androgynous style and their preference for loose fits and masculine suits. They were encouraged by many, but were also deemed scandalous because trousers, let alone complete suits, still weren’t truly accepted for women. As a response, women chose to to take action more subtly during the roaring twenties. Instead of sporting masculine suits, they adopted the flapper style, notorious for the feminine look thanks to the glittery dresses, but also for the short hair that gave a more masculine look.
Challenging gender roles
During the sixties, second-wave feminism emerged, which not only fought for the right to vote, but challenged the broader existing gender roles. It was also in this decade that influential designers started to support the feminist movement. The best known example is Le Smoking for women that Yves Saint Laurent designed in 1966. By dressing women in tuxedos, attire that was to be worn exclusively by men, Yves Saint Laurent proved that women aren’t the fragile human-beings people previously believed they were. Because if a man can wear it, why can’t a woman?
Next to feminism, progress was also made on the men’s side of the struggle for liberation. During the late sixties, the peacock revolution, endorsed by some of the most successful artists of that time, fought for the acceptance of femininity in men. For example, Mick Jagger, the lead singer of the Rolling Stones, was seen performing in a white dress, while Jimi Hendrix regularly sported heeled boots. With David Bowie’s androgynous style becoming more mainstream, the adoption of gay men’s style and flamboyance by heterosexual men became a statement for gender fluidity. These changes were made possible by a broader societal evolution. Along with the decline of conservatism, the sexual offences act of 1967 in the UK decriminalized homosexuality, while in the US, the sexual revolution normalized homosexuality.
Blurring the lines
In the eighties, the conversation around gender went one step further. Through the rise of avant-garde fashion and gender-ambiguous pieces, designers like for example Yohji Yamamoto tried to challenge the social constructs around gender. By acknowledging that you don’t have to be constrained by your gender in what you wear, people tried to completely blur the line between being a man and being a woman so there wouldn’t be a gender that could constrain you anymore.
Because of the growing equality between men and women, women started to take on jobs in which they had the same power as men did. This evolution on the job market induced the power dressing trend for women. Shop windows were filled with suits with broad shoulders, narrow waists and tailored trousers, that were designed for the career woman that wants to exert the same power a man would. The power dressing trend, exemplified by Grace Jones and Annie Lennox, soon exceeded the traditional workspace and was quickly adopted by a broader audience.
The nineties are typified by the grunge movement, that was embodied by Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain and that aspired to completely blur the line between the two genders. Cobain didn’t fear to add feminine elements in his style (he once even performed in a dress) and considered it a rejection of machoism, which used to be a persistent cultural norm. The movement even went one step further and pressed for the anti-binarizing of gender and sexuality: people had to acknowledge that gender was fluid with male and female on both ends of the continuum. Fashion was used as a way to express yourself without having to fit into one of the extreme ends. As such, men were allowed to dress in a more feminine way, while women more often chose for more masculine looks by wearing flannel shirts and boots.
What started as an uproar in the eighties and nineties quickly grew into a contemporary, genuine movement that fights for gender neutrality. Unisex fashion and gender-neutral fashion seem to have become the norm with big fashion houses like Gucci and Burberry composing unisex runway shows and luxury brands taking a stance for social change and equality. Through genderbending, the line between male and female seems to have been erased profoundly.
So, what’s the underlying message that has driven the struggle for gender equality for almost a century? We don’t want to be labeled as only male or female, and we should be able to express that gender identity in any way we want to. We don’t seek approval from society anymore, because gender norms are officially out of fashion. And that message seems to excellently match the initial idea of blurring the exisiting gender roles and societal norms that started the evolution early in the 1900’s.