His or hers: gender neutral is fashion's latest thing – and everyone's pretty chilled about it
Ahead of Ashish Gupta's River Island col-lab, here's everything you need to know about the fashion's love affair with unisex get-up
So said Marlene Dietrich, the original It Girl – in the truest sense of the term – whose glamour, celestial beauty, and electrifying subversion set 1930s Berlin alight. She paired tuxedos with beaded eyelashes, demolished sexual norms, blew cigar smoke in Hitler's face.
"Le Smoking': Marlene Dietrich at her androgynous best
Of course, Dietrich was not the first to fiddle with the tangle of gender norms. Rules are made to be broken, after all. Shakespeare's heroines cross-dressed and were played by effete young actors.
'Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish removing all these faces.' said Claude Cahun in 1920, the French Surrealist artist and photographer, the subject of a recent National Portrait Gallery exhibition, who slipped from one gender to another long before Simone de Beauvoir or Judith Butler put pens to paper. Her identity was a performance, a series of masks. 'Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation.'
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The titular protagonist of Virginia Woolf's Orlando saunters gaily between male and female bodies. Coco Chanel liberated women from heavy Victorian fabrics, as the suffrage movement raged on the streets of London. This iconic couturier championed a masculine silhouette: trousers, suit jackets. In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent gave the world 'Le Smoking' – a minimalist three-piece suit for women that came to be the figurehead for female 'power dressing'. Patti Smith is often mistaken for a man. Grayson Perry adores a frock. David Bowie had mothers in whirl ('she's not sure if you're a boy of a girl'). The female buzzcut is so hot right now. Ru Paul's Drag Race – a reality TV competition for drag queens – is adored the world over.
Patti Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe
So sure, androgyny is as old as time itself. But our attitude towards it is evolving. We used to think of 'crossdressing' as a clash of opposites, a deviation from gender norms, intended to shock. It was performance – the clothes were costumes.
And yet, once the province of high-fashion, counterculture and the LGBT community, gender-fluidity has flowed into the mainstream.
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Genderbending has given way to genderblending; we're seeing unisex designs – straight men in skirts, women in culottes. It was all about 'boyfriend jeans' two years ago, and the 'norm-core' movement championed baggy clothes, white t-shirts, and reebok classics over Manolo Blahniks. Fashion has moved beyond stereotypes, it has surpassed sexuality. Masc and femme are out - neutrality is in. There are no longer boundaries to transgress.
Supermodel Adwoa Aboah
And we're not just talking High-Fashun. Genderfluidity has hit the high street. Fashion heavyweight Ashish Gupta – beloved by 'slebs such as M.I.A, Madonna, Jerry Hall and Victoria Beckham – has teamed up with River Island to create a typically playful, utterly unisex collection. There'll be dresses, trousers, outerwear, pyjamas – for men, for women and for everyone in between. 'I think the industry has evolved a lot in many ways', he said, 'and I think social media has made a huge difference. It is much more conscious of diversity and inclusivity issues now'.
Jaden Smith for Louis Vuitton
Ten years ago, such a venture would have been laughed out of the boardroom, either dismissed as high-minded or unmarketable. But times are a-changing. Jaden Smith – of Fresh Prince lineage – is Louis Vuitton's latest womenswear muse. Justin Bieber's been known to rock a skirt, as has Kanye. Hip-hop isn't best known for its acceptance of gender-fluidity, but Young Thug, one of the hottest rappers on the scene, was recently snapped wearing a tutu, a lace florai top and a leopard-print dress.
Cara rocks a buzzcut
Kristin Stewart has shaved her head, as has Cara Delevigne. Selfridges launched Agender, a pop-up shop that provides 'genderless shopping experience.' The goal, they said, was to create “an environment in which you are given the freedom to transcend notions of ‘his’ and ‘hers,’ as you simply find your most desired item by color, fit and style.'
Gucci have been sending men down the runway in frills, florals and floppy bows. Vetements, Tom Ford, Paul Smith, Margiela, Burberry and Vivienne Westwood have done away with separate 'menswear' and 'womenswear' collections. Shops like Cos, Off-White and Comme de Garçons have long been tailoring masculine lines for the modern woman.
Vetements' unisex range
And it's not just clothing, either. The rise of unisex perfumes has been stratospheric. Acqua di Parma's Colonia has been sending hearts a-flutter since 1916, and everyone loves a but there're many new kids on the block. Think spice, leather and sandalwood. We're obsessed with Wonderwood by CdG, and Prada's Amber. Aesop's Marrakech Intense is a firm favourite, and Chanel's SYCOMORE has us hot under the collar, so to speak. From its launch in 2006, Escentric Molecules has quickly become a phenomenon, priding itself on disregarding gender boundaries and treating scent as a more personal matter.
So what's next?
Well, we think genderfluid fashion is so much more than a passing trend. It is living, breathing proof of the shift in our attitude to gender. In a recent poll, fifty-six percent of thirteen-to-twenty-year-olds said that they knew someone who went by gender neutral pronouns such as 'they', 'them', or 'ze', compared to forty-three percent of people aged twenty-eight to thirty-four years old. It is unlikely that young people will leave their fluid attitudes on gender and sexuality behind as they get older.
Genderfluidity is no longer taboo. There's no 'his', anymore, no 'hers': just 'ours'. What was once radical transgression – a performance – is now an accepted norm. No more masks, no more costumes. Amen to that.