It was inevitable that the trend towards greater androgyne in menswear would meet with a backlash as shown on the Fall/Winter 09 runway months ago (remember that?). Since then, the fever for the sort of silhouette much favoured by designers like Thom Browne and Hedi Slimane, erstwhile designer at Dior Homme, has gradually receded. The passage of such a trend has, nevertheless, revealed that androgyny in fashion is not a unilateral transfer of sartorial DNA from menswear to womenswear.
Androgyny in modern fashion, or the blurring of differences between genders through manipulation of dress codes, has for the most part been the preserve of women. The garconnes in between both World Wars borrowed extensively from the wardrobes of their male counterparts to create the sort of louche ensembles that would stand in marked contrast to the corsetted looks of the Belle Epoque. Chanel herself adopted and adapted the sort of gentlemen-at-leisure look that was characteristic of the class to which her lovers belonged. Pants was only the beginning of what she took from Boy Capel. The tweed suit would become an enduring classic and would be the foundation upon which Yves St. Laurent could accomplish the ultimate sartorial emancipation of women from the tyranny of corsets and form-altering devices. In the 90s, the Japanese designers, Helmut Lang and Jil Sander would build on the conceptual germ of the smoking suit – examining unspoken assumptions on feminine glamour and sexuality.
A key end by which androgyny in modern fashion served as the means was the assertion of gender equality. That men automatically wore the pants in households came to be questioned in the passage of the 20th century as more women were educated, earned incomes, got divorces, were elected, controlled when they entered motherhood and claimed more of the social territory that was traditionally reserved for men. Indeed, androgyny in fashion can be seen as a sort of sexual camouflage and no where was this more acute than in the power dressing 70s and 80s where women stormed the gates of the corporate world.
Androgyny could also be very alluring in terms of raising unanswered questions on sexual deviances, gratification and power. The woman in a pant suit is an utter rejection of her previously expected role of painted flower. By tearing up identity markers of femininity, she emphasises her individuality while acknowledging her sexuality that is by no means an effacement of her womanhood. It is both a gauntlet thrown at the feet of male domination as it is a provocation.
Ahead of their times, visionaries like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood were often the first to challenge unquestioned truisms of which the idea that androgyny in modern fashion was available only to women had become one. While cross-dressing was an extreme, the (often doomed) introduction of skirts in menswear by these people was probably the first shot in a dialetic on the sartorial relevance of gender markings in fashion.
Such ideas have been distilled and refined in the preceding years where menswear began to feel the effects of androgyny. If androgyny could be alluring in womenswear, then it follows that the same could also be true in menswear. Certainly, successive statements by key houses like Dior, Prada, Yohji Yamamoto, Thome Browne, etc, would suggest that androgyny was possible in menswear especially in the areas of dress silhouette and tailoring. The unilateral transfer had become a sort of sartorial osmosis between sexes.
There is an inherent recognition that underpins this phenomenon. It is the recognition that as much as women were bound by what was deemed acceptable in womenswear, men were also prisoners of an entrenched sartorial code by which their masculinity was established. Issues of power between men and the constitution of masculinity are as pertinent and equally unresolved as their counterparts in womenswear. I quote a facile example but the extended period of time it took for pink to be acceptable as a colour in menswear underlines that there is a similarly oppressive dress code in menswear as there was in womenswear.
Fashion, while informed by considerations of social and political issues, concerns itself chiefly with aesthetics and the trend of male androgyny was bound to turn. That some sort of liberation has been achieved in fixed definitions of masculinity is a very real development and it remains to be seen what develops of it in the coming decades.