The Erasure of Androgynous Style by Fashion Media

The Erasure of Androgynous Style by Fashion Media


Pictured on the cover of Vogue’s December 2020 issue is rising pop star Harry Styles. It is not the first time he has graced the cover of a fashion magazine in his decade-long career, nor is he the first male celebrity to be pictured on the cover of what has historically been a women’s fashion magazine. What made this cover particularly shocking, in a time where print magazines are increasingly obsolete and Vogue covers are even less noteworthy in the realm of fashion photography, was what Styles was wearing. The cover image pictured Harry Styles blowing up a balloon, wearing a satin blazer with dagger-like lapels and soft blue lace Gucci dress. The star made headlines for being the first male in over 125 years of US Vogue publications to wear a dress on its cover. Although this silhouette is not particularly out of the ordinary for Harry Styles, who has been known to use dress to challenge gender performance, the publication of such an image on the cover of Vogue reveals a broadening normalization and redefinition of androgynous and gender-fluid style within the fashion system and mainstream culture. This is because Vogue, since its inception, has stood as an authoritative voice on what is considered fashionable and correct to wear at the present moment. To dress Styles in such a silhouette simultaneously reveals a broader acceptance of androgynous and gender-fluid fashion by the mainstream media as well as a greater breakdown of gender and performance in the 2020s. Though it would be nearly impossible to trace an entire history of androgynous fashion, the history of how androgynous fashion has been appropriated by the fashion cycle reveals that these subversive and gender-defying styles are often redefined by fashion media in order to reinforce the gender binary with celebrities often acting as a catalyst for this by bringing andorgynous fashion into mainstream culture by giving it a platform.

Fashion in the Western world has been used as a visual medium through which individuals can express something about themselves through the clothing they wear. In Adorned in Dreams, Elizabeth Wilson argues that there is no clothing outside of fashion and “clothing marks an unclear boundary ambiguously,” therefore, “symbolic systems and rituals have been created in many different cultures in order to strengthen and reinforce boundaries.”1 After the industrial revolution, clothing in the West became a visual indicator of personality and selfhood. As Richard Sennett writes in “Public Roles/Personality in Public,” the 1840s saw an increase in “people’s personalities being seen in their appearances,” which resulted in “facts of class and sex becoming a matter of real anxiety.”2 The anxiety surrounding “what appearance symbolize,”3 resulted in the development of a code for what different styles of dress and details symbolize about the wearer. As clothing became a way to express one’s individual identity and personality, it also became a primary mode through which gender could be read and defined, as gender is directly linked to “the culturally constructed idea of a person.”4 As Judith Butler writes “persons only become intelligible through becoming gendered in conformity with recognizable standards of gender,” and fashion is one medium through which gender can be defined and reinforced as certain clothing styles have been historically associated with either the masculine or the feminine.5

Women and men have been expected to dress in a way that conforms with their gender because when one steps outside in their clothing, they are under the constant anonymous gaze of onlookers. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler deconstructs this performance of gender, stating that the “heterosexualization of desire”6 is what creates the binary of “feminine” and “masculine.”7 Within the binary, what men are, women are not. Since we are taught to read and decode individuals based on their dress, when one goes outside they are under the scrutiny of a constant, anonymous gaze. In this sense, the fashion system can be likened to Michel Foucault’s understanding of the Panopticon. In her essay “Michel Foucault: Fashioning the Body Politic,” Jane Tynan writes that like the Panopticon, the fashion system is a disciplinary power that forces us to “maintain a critical view of our bodies.”8 She observes that the fashion panopticon is reinforced by patriarchal discourses that “shape women’s bodies.”9 Therefore, fashion becomes a medium through which one conforms to societal expectations based on their gender. Vogue, which debuted in 1892, has acted as an authoritative voice relaying to women what is fashionable and acceptable to wear to correctly perform gender. While celebrities have at times influenced fashion, they generally stand outside of the fashion world and do not have the same authoritative voice as a publication like Vogue.

The celebrity, being under a constant, universal gaze, often appears as a model for the general public, an ideal of manhood or womanhood. However, many celebrities, by nature of their celebrity status, have questioned the performance of gender and pushed the boundaries of gendered dress. This is not to say that the celebrity created androgynous or gender-defying fashions, in fact, in most cases it was appropriated and promoted by them, giving it a greater platform and cultural impact. Rebecca Arnold notes that androgyny in fashion is usually linked to anxieties of the times that blur the boundaries between the genders resulting in a greater push for social change. Similarly, Anne Hollander notes that “changes in dress are social changes [and] political and social changes are mirrored in dress.”10 The androgynous celebrity has always been a shocking figure because they perform their gender in a manner that goes against what is expected of them based on their gender identity. For most of the twentieth century, celebrities existed outside of the fashion system and while celebrity style often inspired fashion trends, it was not until the 1990s that celebrities began to grace the cover of fashion magazines. This allowed for celebrities to promote alternative modes of dress and bring them into the cultural collective, however, this did not necesarilly make androgynous or gender-defying fashion necessarily acceptable for everyday people to wear.
The androgynous celebrity in American culture can be traced back to Marlene Dietrich, who in the 1930 film Morocco, was seen wearing “a man’s black tailcoat and matching trousers, a white shirt, white tie, and a black tophat.”11 In the film, Dietrich can be read as an androgynous figure as her presentation “blends masculinity and femininity to create a gender-ambiguous aesthetic.”12 Dietrich was one of the first celebrities to defy gender norms. In her time, wearing a suit at the time was seen as shocking and not “correctly” feminine. Although at the time suits were common in underground queer spaces, it was only a popular sartorial style among those who rejected the heterosexualized gender binary. Dietrich wearing a suit was unsettling among audiences and brought up questions about her gender and sexuality as the suit was seen as a strict marker of the masculine. Dietrich did inspire designer Elsa Schiaparelli and the brand Zuckerman and Kraus to design suits for women in the 1930s. However, the style was not easily accepted by the public as it was still seen as a subversive and incorrect style for women to wear. Although the suit had been donned on a notable Hollywood star, it did not grace the pages of the fashion publications that dictated fashion at the time. In other words, it was not “in vogue,” to wear a suit.

It would not be until the 1960s that suits for women would become a fashion trend. In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent debuted the “le smoking” suit on his runway. The tuxedo suit was fitted to the model’s figure and had notably smaller lapels and a shorter cut than a typical men’s tuxedo suit. Unlike Marlene Dietrich, who “had used the tuxedo as a tool of masculine distortion,”13 Yves Saint Laurent turned the suit “into a seductive piece of clothing that celebrated the female form.”14 The “le smoking” suit immediately gained recognition and a stamp of approval from the fashion industry. It was written about in various fashion magazines and slowly became a popular clothing item for women to wear. The broader acceptance of the suit reveals how androgynous fashion is often only accepted in the mainstream fashion discourse when it is redefined within the gender binary. The ‘le smoking’ suit exemplifies this as the design highlighted the female form and emphasized the idea of feminine sensuality. Fashion photographer Helmut Newton famously photographed the ‘le smoking’ suit by capturing a tall slender model with slicked back hair in the suit, sharing a cigarette with another woman in the dress. The image appropriated the queer androgyne and the butch-femme dynamic and made it ‘appealing’ to the male gaze that dominates the fashion panopoticon. The suit became an acceptable clothing item for women to wear, not only because the silhouette was noticeably different, but also because it was something men would find desirable.

The “le smoking” suit can be seen as a push for androgyny in dress but only on the behalf of women. One reason for this is that changes in the fashion cycle has historically affected women’s fashion more than men’s fashion. Though men are also expected to dress in accordance with their gender, women are expected to keep up with the ever changing trends, especially in the 1960s, when fashion shows and magazines were exclusively geared toward a female consumer. Furthermore, for a woman to adopt an androgynous dress, one that meshes the feminine with the masculine, is for her to gain power under the “dominant patriarchal discourses”15 that shape the fashion panopticon. As women appropriated masculine styles, it coincided with a greater equality between the sexes. For example, the trend of women’s power dressing in the 1980s coincided with women gaining a more prominent role in the workplace. Rather than women in suits blurring the gender binary, it was embraced by the fashion system, which made the style more ‘feminine,’ in order to keep the gender binary clearly defined, once again illustrating Elizabeth Wilson’s point that “clothing marks an unclear boundary ambiguously.”16 Suits for women, by the 1980s, merely became another trend that women were expected to keep up with and not a subversive rejection of the gender binary.

Although the fashion industry has adopted adrogynous styles and altered them to fit within the gender binary, androgynous fashion has its own rich and subversive history. Androgynous fashion has often been a way for queer people to challenge and reject the gender binary. While the entrance of androgynous fashion into mainstream culture can be seen with Marlene Dietrich, queer women in the 1920s notably challenged the facade of femininity by wearing suits. The adoption of suits as a trend for women normalized more leniency in gendered dressing for women but it was not until the 1980s that mainstream celebrities and fashion designers attempted to challenge what was considered correct masculine dress. The 1980s revealed “the notion of masculinity [to be] as much a masquerade as femininity.”17 The 1980s saw the same cycle repeat itself as different subcultural groups like the Club Kids and the Punks saw men experiment with what was considered appropriate gendered dressing. This eventually resulted in celebrities beginning to experiment with these sartorial styles as well bringing them into the mainstream public consciousness. Musicians like David Bowie and Prince experimented with both gendered dress and gender performance. Both artists experimented with fashion by wearing more feminine colors, silhouettes, and even wearing makeup, creating a male androgyne image for themselves. Although both greatly influenced fashion, they mainly influenced female fashion and their distinct styles were not necessarily seen as something acceptable for men to wear. That is not to say that queer men weren’t wearing gender non-comformist fashions before this. In the 1970s, the gay men of the Gay Liberation Front “embraced a style known as ‘gender-fuck’ in which they combined hypermasculine and hyper-feminine appearance,” in an attempt to “expose fixed notions of sex and gender as artificial.”18 However, much like the suit-wearing butch lesbians of the 1940s and 1950s, these men stood outside of what was considered correct to wear. Though these men used fashion to convey their personal identities, the style was notably queer and subversive, sitting outside of the gender binary enforced by the fashion panopticon. Though designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Jean-Paul Gaultier did put men in skirts on their runways in the 1980s,19 the trend did not take off as fashion magazines, still mainly geared towards women at this time, did not promote the trend.

The men in skirts trend likely didn’t take off for two reasons; for one, men in skirts will perhaps always be a more shocking sartorial style than women in pants and because the trend did not gain the approval of Vogue a publication that has acted as an authoritative voice on what is considered fashionable and appropriate gendered dressing. Hilary Radner argues that men in skirts will always be seen as more shocking because “males are seen as being more fragile in their presentation of gender,”20 than women. This is likely because fashion and the very nature of dressing to perform gender has historically been more important for women who have been expected to keep up with ever-changing fashion trends as a way to perform correct femininity. To perform correct masculinity is to dress in a manner that is sober and static. That is to dress in a way that is relatively unadorned, in a style that has remained more or less the same over the past 100 years. Furthemore, men in skirts created a greater cultural anxiety because, within a patriarchal society, for a woman to dress in a masculine style is for her to gain more and for a man to dress in a feminine style is for him to lose it, to reject his role as the definitive norm in which the woman is defined in contrast to. What is particularly shocking about a man in a dress in the twenty-first century is that he is pictured on the cover of Vogue.

Androgynous dress and even androgynous celebrities have always at first existed outside of the fashion panopticon. Different queer and subcultural communities often challenge the gender binary and the performance of gender by experimenting with dress. Eventually the fashion system appropriates these styles as a way to sustain itself, always redefining the styles within the gender binary. This is because we are “living in the age of consumer, fashion allows us to embody our desire, buy our identity — in the most intimate sense, and is the consumer product most linked to the performance of everyday life.”21 Fashion is inextricably linked to consumerism and capitalism and therefore requires frequent changes in trends in order to sustain itself and continue the cycle of consumerism. Fashion needs to sustain itself as it has primarily been used as a tool of social control and this can be seen through Tynan’s understanding of fashion as a panopticon. Vogue, as an authoritative voice in American society on what is fashionable and acceptable to wear, has in recent years “utilized the celebrity factor to ensure that [it] remain[s] in print.”22 Therefore, for a celebrity to be pictured in Vogue in gender-defying fashion is for that fashion to be cemented as acceptable. This is perhaps why Harry Styles wearing a dress on the cover of Vogue is so shocking. It is not the first time a male celebrity has worn a dress in public, it isn’t even the first time a male celebrity has worn a dress on the cover of a magazine, but it is the first time Vogue, a publication that dictates mainstream fashion trends, has published such an image. Vogue publishing such an image relays to their audience that this style is now acceptable, not subversive. That is not to say that men will immediately start wearing dresses but that Vogue is attempting to re-define what has historically been viewed as androgynous fashion within the gender binary. Ultimately, the presence of a man in the dress on the cover of Vogue reveals a cultural anxiety over the performance of gender as well as a weakening of the fashion system.

  1. Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams (I.B. Tauris: New York, 2003).
  2. Richard Sennett, “Public Roles/Personality in Public,” in Fashion Theory (Routledge, 2007), 408-421
  3. Richard Sennett, “Public Roles/Personality in Public,” 408.
  4. Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas, “Crossing Genders, Crossing Cultures,” in Queer Style (Bloomsbury: London, 2013) 123-140.
  5. Judith Butler, “Identity, Sex, and the Metaphysics of Substance,” in Gender Trouble (Routledge: New York, 1999) 22-33.
  6. Judith Butler, “Identity, Sex, and the Metaphysics of Substance,” 23.
  7. Judith Butler, “Identity, Sex, and the Metaphysics of Substance,” 23.
  8. Jane Tynan, “Michel Foucault: Fashioning the Body Politic,” in Thinking through Fashion (I B Taurus, 2015) 1-15.
  9. Jane Tynan, “Michel Foucault: Fashioning the Body Politic,” 8.
  10. Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas, “Crossing Genders, Crossing Cultures,” in Queer Style (Bloomsbury: London, 2013) 123-140.
  11. Hayley-Jane Dujardin Mazières, “Le Smoking,” in Fashion Photography Archive (Bloomsbury: London, 2015)
  12. Ben Barry and Andrew Reilly, “Gender More: An Intersectional Perspective on Men’s Transgression of the Gender Dress Binary,” in Crossing Gender Boundaries (Intellect, The Chicago University Press: Chicago, 2020) 122-136.
  13. Hayley-Jane Dujardin Mazières, “Le Smoking,” in Fashion Photography Archive (Bloomsbury: London, 2015)
  14. Hayley-Jane Dujardin Mazières, “Le Smoking,” in Fashion Photography Archive (Bloomsbury: London, 2015)
  15. Jane Tynan, “Michel Foucault: Fashioning the Body Politic,” 8.
  16. Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams, 2.
  17. Rebecca Arnold, “Four: Gender and Subversion,” in Fashion, Desire, and Anxiety (I.B. Tauris: New York, 2001) 99-124.
  18. Ben Barry and Andrew Reilly, “Gender More: An Intersectional Perspective on Men’s Transgression of the Gender Dress Binary,” in Crossing Gender Boundaries (Intellect, The Chicago University Press: Chicago, 2020) 122-136.
  19. Fruzsina Bekefi, “Men in Skirts,” in Fashion Photography Archive. (Bloomsbury: London, 2015).
  20. Hilary Radner, “Cinema,” in The End of Fashion: Clothing and Dress in the Age of Globalization, edited by Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas, (Bloomsbury Visual Arts: London, 2019) 83-98.
  21. Annette Lynch and Michell D. Strauss, “Fashion as Performance,” in Changing Fashion: A Critical Introduction to Trend Analysis and Meaning, (Berg: Oxford, 2007) 103-126.
  22. Pamela Gibson Church, “The Changing Face(s) of the Fashion Magazine and the New Media Landscape.” in Fashion and Celebrity Culture, (Berg: London, 2012) 125-138.
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