Text: Aura Lehtonen 14 F
The topic of clothing in relation to gender has always been an interesting one to me, and I love seeing people express themselves through their clothing choices. I feel like there has recently been a clear increase in interest towards clothing choices and, at least among the younger generations, a change in attitude towards androgyny and so-called gender-bending. This revolution stems from people being more educated and connected through the internet, and I believe our modern culture reflects this change in stance as well as enables the further evolution of gender non-conforming fashion. Some colors and pieces of clothing are still associated with certain genders, but the popularity of mixing masculine and feminine features in modern culture has made it more acceptable to deviate from traditional forms of gender expression in everyday life.
The whole concept of this essay was born at the beginning of March, when I saw a contemporary dance performance called Masters of Movement at the Helsinki Opera House. It was a collage of four separate pieces, one of which was especially appealing to me: Episode 31, by Alexander Ekman. The dancers in Ekman’s piece were dressed only in black and white, and the whole group was very androgynous. Their hair was tightly pulled back, plastered or braided to their head, they had a moustache drawn or glued on, and everyone wore a vest or button-down shirt with either a skirt, shorts or pants. But the intriguing thing was, the divide was in no way gender-related, it was seemingly made completely at random.
Looking into his other works, Ekman has several pieces in which the costumes are designed in a way that does not reveal or directly draw attention to the sex or gender of each dancer. Combining this with the fact that his pieces often have mixed groups of male and female dancers doing the same choreography brings an overall feeling that in those pieces they are all part of a bigger picture. The dancers are merely a mass of people dancing their hearts out with no ties to anything in the world beyond this spectacle. This very same phenomenon gave Episode 31 its relaxing quality; it was not necessary to keep track of what “role” each dancer played as they danced, so you could just let yourself get lost in the performance.
This type of popularized androgyny is not exactly a new concept, as several artists since the 1960s and especially in the 80s have played around with gender expression and adopted androgynous looks. Some notable androgynous pop stars have been people like Boy George, Annie Lennox, Michael Jackson and David Bowie. They really began blending the strict divide between masculinity and femininity in a time when it was not always safe to do so. The gay rights movement was only just swinging into being, and portraying any characteristics of the opposite gender was frowned upon.
The glam rock era, which began in the United Kingdom in the early 1970’s, featured performers with strikingly extravagant styles. David Bowie rushed into popularity in 1972 when he began performing as his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust (figure 1), an extremely androgynous character bearing the typical glam features of showy makeup and grandiose hair. When Bowie became famous for his look and music in the peak of the glam rock era, he knocked down many barriers that were still in the way of the popularization of bending the rules of gender expression. His unabashed openness was shocking, as it was only just becoming acceptable for men to be fashion-forward and interested in their looks without being ridiculed.
The popularity of intentionally and openly toying with gender norms in pop culture quickly seeped into the rapidly growing and evolving men’s fashion industry in the UK. Soon men were donning skin-tight, high-waisted bell-bottom pants, deep v-necks, and button-down shirts with frankly huge lapels, all in vibrant colors and often sporting fantastic patterns. Though none of the clothing trends of the 70s carried into following eras, their popularity at the time was undeniable, partly thanks to the freedom granted by the growing amount of celebrities who were comfortable and popular enough to dress in whatever they liked.
But before you’re old enough to start making fashion statements like these yourself, it’s up to your parents to make those decisions for you. Scrolling on social media, I came across something on voice.fi that deepened my interest in this topic; a piece of writing that brought to light some opinions on the 2016 maternity package (figure 2), gathered from discussion forums. A surprising amount of people had complaints about the
colors and patterns used this year being too masculine, and some said they ordered the package immediately so they could get a leftover package from 2015 (figure 3). Some would even say they felt sorry for the baby girls born that year.
There were and are, of course, plenty of people standing up for the maternity package and even ridiculing those who feel the need to make a distinction between boys’ and girls’ clothes. However, most parents dress their kid according to the norms for their sex, so those assigned female at birth are typically clad in dresses and skirts in pink or red hues, while those assigned male will rarely be put in pink or other colors deemed feminine in our society, their parents opting for colors perceived as more masculine. Some parents do not like crossing this indistinct, individually defined line, and they might feel uncomfortable if their child does not adhere to gender norms.
As seen with the conversation around the maternity package, pink and red are still seen as more suitable for girls, and shades of blue and green are seen as boys’ colors. Apart from traditional christening gowns, skirts and dresses are also only seen as appropriate for girls. In history, however, these divides have not always been as clear or even the same. Skirts were normal clothing for all babies and young children up until the mid-19th century, when knickerbockers, or knee-length pants, were introduced to boys’ fashion. Around the same time, pastel colors, among them blue and pink, were proposed as suitable colors for babies’ and children’s clothing.
When first introduced as clothing colors, blue and pink were used indiscriminately for both baby boys and girls. The actual transition into separating boys’ and girls’ colors from each other was a slow one. Because there was not a divide to begin with, there was never a real “reversal” of the colors, as some sources may lead you to believe; merely some confusion around what was expected and several differing opinions on the matter. With both World Wars, the colors were promoted as gender signifiers, and around the time of World War Two, the divide began becoming permanent in Western culture.
There is, of course, a great contrast between how these colors are seen in different cultures, as for instance in Thailand pink is connected to the day of Tuesday as well as their king’s wellbeing. Their king, who was born on a Tuesday in Bangkok time, even wore pink during a public appearance after he’d been ill, which led to a tremendous rise in sales of pink shirts. In Asia in general, the color pink is seen as feminine, but also widely childlike. But as we see in Thailand, anyone can wear pink there without being ridiculed, because their king wears it, and the color is associated with his good health. (figure 4)
There are even plenty of Thai schools with pink school uniforms, which you most likely would not see in a school in the Western World. The uniforms here tend to be more neutral and, some could say, unexciting in color, with all students sporting for instance blue, green, red or gray, often combined with white. It can be argued that having a collective dress code or uniform creates a sense of community within the student body, and many are of the opinion that students are able to concentrate on school more fully if they are not distracted by thoughts of clothing.
Though it can be argued that choosing your own clothes and putting your style out there may cause stress and confrontations with other students, everyone has the inalienable right to express themselves. Having school uniforms can limit the students’ freedom in expression of both their personal style and their gender. Lots of people, especially in younger generations, have begun making increasingly abnormal and distinctive style and clothing choices, and the use of school uniforms might prevent students from showing who they are.
Because youngsters are widely free to make whatever style choices they wish, we are surrounded by people who hardly think twice about standing out. For instance, Jaden Smith has attracted the attention of people all around the world with his clothing: he is frequently seen wearing skirts and dresses or looking generally androgynous (figure 5). At the beginning of his fashion journey he often faced ridicule from peers as well as his father’s apprehension towards his clothing choices. But continuing to wear what he pleases, he has released his own clothing line as well as become the face of Louis Vuitton’s womenswear line. This shows just how far we’ve come in accepting androgyny and the fact that clothing is not tied to certain genders.
The aforementioned David Bowie’s death in early 2016 coincided with this most recent awakening of androgynous fashion as well as catapulted him and his appearance into fame once again. His eclectic style was referenced several times during New York Fashion Week’s Fall 2016 show and elements of his style and outfits have already been featured by famous brands and designers such as Gucci, Armani and Jean Paul Gaultier. The effects of androgynous looks becoming ever more popular in high fashion environments are bleeding into ordinary citizens’ lives, allowing them to break free of gender boundaries and express themselves in new ways.
The Rev. Jefferis Kent Peterson. “Androgyny in Pop Culture part 3” The Scholar’s Corner 1996. Web. Accessed 6 Apr. 2016 <http://22.214.171.124/AndrogynnPOPC>
Del Giudice, Marco. “The Twentieth Century Reversal of Pink-Blue Gender Coding: A Scientific Urban Legend?” Archives of Sexual Behavior 2012. vol. 41: 1321–1323. Letter. Accessed 12 Apr. 2016 <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229437155>
Picture: “File:Unit colours of the 1st Security Force Battalion, King’s Guard.jpg” by Xiengyod is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Link to text File:Unit colours of the 1st Security Force Battalion, King’s Guard.jpg: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Unit_colours_of_the_1st_Security_Force_Battalion,_King%27s_Guard.jpg
Link to text Xiengyod: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Xiengyod
Link to text CC BY-SA 3.0: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en