Today, the line between male and female fashion is constantly blurred.
Pieces traditionally worn by men have expanded into women’s fashion, and similarly women’s fashion has permeated the male fashion industry. We pride ourselves on our acceptance of different lifestyles and modes of expression, so why are we just now blending the genders?
In contemporary society men aren’t usually associated with makeup, but kings used to smooth their complexions with a little help from a powder similar to today’s foundation. Egyptian men, women and children used black and green kohl to ward off eye diseases and appeal to their gods.
In addition to creating a smooth complexion, kings such as Henry VIII in the 16th century wore elaborate gowns made from rich fabrics and furs to show their royalty. Male nobility frequently wore robes that resembled ball gowns because they valued the elaborate designs.
As stated on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, in 1806, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres painted a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte in an intricate gown on the imperial throne with a milky white complexion, which was achieved with makeup. Instead of clothing manufacturers designing clothes and selling to kings, seamstresses would construct pieces with the input of the person buying it. For nobility, everything could be considered haute couture because no two pieces were exactly the same.
It wasn’t until the 1850s when Napoleon III established the second empire that the idea of a designer emerged. Napoleon III married Empress Eugenie, a patron of the arts. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she worked with Charles Frederick Worth, who some call the father of high fashion, because he was the first to aggressively promote the idea of consumers purchasing clothing created exclusively from a designer’s vision.
The shift to designers creating clothing for consumers set the stage for contemporary gender constructs because rather than people creating their own clothing, designers began to tell each gender what they should be wearing. In short, designers created an “us vs. them” mentality in apparel because they marketed certain pieces to each respective gender.
As people started working for factories and corporations in lieu of farming and other work around the home, clothing manufacturers marketed male clothing as utilitarian and disconnected from appearance. Conversely, women were supposed to care about their image and wardrobe.
The shift in men’s and women’s fashion gave rise to magazines like “Harpers Bazaar” and “Vogue,” and department stores like Wannamaker, now Macy’s, in the mid-1800s. For the first time, designers could market their pieces directly to consumers and show buyers where to purchase their designs.
The department store widened the gap between genders because it told men and women where they should be shopping. The men’s selection was located nowhere near women’s merchandise, and it looked completely different than the women’s section.
It wasn’t until mod culture that women’s fashion began to blur with men’s. As women entered the workforce, they began demanding more practical clothing, like pants instead of poodle skirts.
According to “The Independent,” In 1966 Yves Saint Laurent introduced “Le Smoking Tuxedo Suit” for women. The tux featured a blazer, wide cut high-waisted pants and a button down blouse. It was advertised with an androgynous model smoking a cigarette. Women flocked to the tux because it allowed them to wear comfortable, practical and powerful clothing, while embracing their femininity.
As women began to embrace clothing traditionally associated with men, glam metal bands rocked out in the mid-1970s, further distorting the line between men’s and women’s style.
Kiss performed shows dressed in leather, with faces full of makeup and blown out hair. Given their popularity, no one thought anything of their austere form of expression.
Their androgyny was mirrored by mainstream fashion in the 1970s. Men and women both wore bellbottoms and grew long hair. It seems that this was one of the first times men and women felt free to express themselves regardless of societal expectations based on gender.
The progress for gender expression made in the 1970s was destroyed by the backlash from the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. The emergence of homosexuality as a lifestyle, and a fear of it, caused men to revert to a hyper-masculine style to assert their heterosexuality.
As a result of hyper-masculinity, drag became a mainstream art form in the 1990s with performances from Divine in John Water’s “Hairspray” and in Ru Paul’s music and movies. While drag was popular before the 1990s in metropolitan areas, it was mainly performed in bars and clubs that catered to the GLBT community. In the late 1980s and early 1990s drag worked its way into the media.
Acceptance of drag opened the door for contemporary gender expression. Today, there isn’t a clear divide between male and female fashion. During the past five years, designers have created slim-fitted outfits for both men and women, while designing lines of clothes known as “boyfriend-fit.” It’s supposed to simulate borrowing clothing from a male friend, yet it’s designed specifically for women. While girls rock their boyfriend’s jeans, “The New York Times” recently published an article about men wearing women’s heels around the Los Angeles club scene.
While I personally could never rock a pair of Louboutin stilettos at a club, I can admire the beauty of a dramatic black leather double platform and fiery red sole.
In a society that prides itself on working toward equality, it seems counterproductive to limit people’s style based on gender norms especially, considering gender norms haven’t remained constant through time. What used to be considered masculine in the time of King Henry VIII is now considered feminine.
I’m not advocating for people to disregard gender as a whole, but we should feel comfortable to wear whatever we want out of admiration of a piece’s beauty. If a pair of Jimmy Choo’s call your name, no one has the right to stop you from buying it, regardless of which side of Nordstrom you belong on.
Mark Longacre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.