From The Issue: Menswhere? By Alexander Fury
There’s a scene in Paris Is Burning, the documentary unpicking the drag balls of late-1980s New York (of all places), where an argument erupts over the side a fur coat buttons up on – and hence whether the garment is masculine or feminine.
The intention, in this case, was to pass for a straight male, admittedly in gaudy guise – the buttoning being the only way to differentiate between whether a floor-length fur is for him or her. The goal, with the drag balls, was “realness”. That is, to pass for whatever facet of society you were meant to be imitating – male or female. Which chimes, to a degree, with everyone’s intentions in life: to dress the part, to let the clothes make the man (or woman).
Perhaps that’s why, for so long, so many have been tied up in what precisely a man or a woman may wear. The bible lays it out plain and simple in Deuteronomy 22:5: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.” In the 18th century, Louis XIV not only decreed what men and women had to wear and when, but who was allowed to make their clothes. He incorporated Parisian guilds that specified that women had to make clothes for other women, bar riding habits and corsets, which had to be made by men. Likewise in London, tradition dictated that men would tailor for other gentlemen; women were diminished, either working as or dressed by mere dressmakers. These gender lines allowed no room for blurring.
Today, that all seems old hat. I’ve never really had an issue with these supposed divides between menswear and womenswear. Buttoning left to right doesn’t make something right or wrong, right? Increasingly, that’s an accepted notion in fashion, where firmly upheld principles of mens- and womenswear are being wilfully eroded not only by directional, experimental designers, but by customers, too. Which is all-important.
The focus for this gender blending and boundary traversing tends to be in menswear – simply because menswear has more rules and riles up more people. Womenswear had its limits tested in the 1920s and 1930s, when trousers began to be proposed as a fashionable alternative bottom bit for women, sported by Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich. The latter was allegedly asked by the prefect of Paris police to leave the city in 1933 after wearing trousers – according to a law passed in 1800 by Napoleon, a woman had to apply for a special permit to “dress like a man”. Sounds ludicrous, but as recently as the 1960s, women could be refused entry to fashionable restaurants if wearing them. That happened to the late socialite Nan Kempner in 1968: New York’s La Côte Basque didn’t care if her trousers were haute couture from Yves Saint Laurent, the man widely credited with injecting trousers with a soupçon of sex and turning them into a must-have fashion item rather than a mere practical proposition. Kempner was forced to check them at the door and walk in wearing just the tunic they sat under, as a (very) minidress.
But since the 1960s, few garments have been out of bounds to women. Men, on the other hand, have lived by stringent rules. Although those rules were also questioned in the 1960s, when David Bowie began to flaunt not only sexuality but gender, and when Mr Fish, the fashionable London menswear designer, put Mick Jagger in a dress he had specially designed for men. That was an extreme: Fish also invented the appropriately dubbed “kipper” tie, a gaudy touch of the unconventional that quickly trickled down into the clothes of the everyman. Yet when Jean-Paul Gaultier proposed a skirt for men in his SS85 collection, it caused a furore – although Gaultier’s skirt was only, really, a double-wrapped panel distorting an otherwise plain and simple pair of trousers. It was certainly nothing next to the sexual melting pot of the London new romantic club scene that had so inspired Gaultier. Then again, that was niche and Gaultier was fashion.
Do similar rules remain in menswear? Is the status quo still challenged by a man in a skirt or a dress or anything approaching either? I’d argue yes: when Jonathan Anderson showed bandeau tops and ruffled shorts for his AW13 collection, he evoked the burning disdain of the Daily Mail and its ilk, Middle England’s chattering classes who were dismayed, disgusted and, most of all, confused. Their immediate response: you call this menswear? What kind of man would wear that?
Anderson’s example is extreme: he’s a provocateur who knows precisely what he’s doing. Prior to that show, he aggressively asserted that his clothes weren’t to be called “tunics” or “kilts”. They were dresses and skirts, but for men. Rick Owens offers the same thing, with draped, elongated jersey shapes and brief, squared-off, almost gladiatorial skirts. And then there’s Hood by Air, whose hard-edged, threatening brand of urban sportswear feels a million miles from either of those predecessors. They also all seem to be aimed at different customers – different men, despite what many might think. These progressive, inventive notions of new menswear are gaining traction and increasingly being worn.
But why now? What is it about current society that is inviting men to make bold choices? I hasten to add that it isn’t all men – there are still plenty who are mired in accepted modes of blokeish masculinity, the Geordie or Jersey Shore buffed-up hetero- normative “juiceheads”. Yet an increasing number seem to be challenging his-and-hers labelling – look at the number of small-town suburban men in skinny jeans originally devised for girls, the ubiquitous look of the past decade at every level. And then there are figures such as Pharrell Williams, who modelled in the Chanel Métiers d’Art show in December and was seated at Karl Lagerfeld’s February offering last year, actively scoping out womenswear, but for him to wear. Jaden Smith sported Louis Vuitton womenswear in the brand’s spring 2016 advertising, shot by Bruce Weber. “My kids and the next generations of kids will all think that certain things are normal that weren’t expected before my time,” stated Smith. He was talking about skirts, specifically, but of course, it reflects a more general shift in cultural sensibility.
The advent of trans visibility and gay marriage makes the idea of questions about the viability of a skirt for men seem obsolete. Apply that down, to sneering observations on the which-ways of buttoning, and it feels downright archaic – like something out of the 19th century. Incidentally, back then, the sexologist Havelock Ellis reasoned, in his 1894 thesis In Man and Woman: A Study of Secondary and Tertiary Sexual Characters, that the right-to-left buttoning of women’s clothing make a point that women “seem inferior to men” – mostly because everything else is done left to right, from handwriting to clockwork. It’s a spurious argument, but it’s still supported by a certain convention in women’s dress. Bar Jean-Paul Gaultier – his clothes all button left to right, regardless of sex.
Most women don’t care about things like that. A woman will buy and wear a man’s jacket if she wishes. Increasingly, the same is true of men. I’ll admit, I live in a bubble: the fashion world is a sphere largely insulated from the intrusion of mass opinion. Out of the British population, 95% state they would never wear fur: it is probably present in 95% of the international collections, for men and for women. Nevertheless, there has been a shift in perceptions of a man inside the women’s department. I’ve been shopping there since I was about 16 – in many cases, it’s been assumed I’ve been lost (hardly) or buying for a girlfriend (I don’t think so). Those attitudes in themselves feel like an odd throwback to the time of Quentin Crisp folding his feet into shoes several sizes too small and risking arrest on the street for wearing trousers that zip at the side, therefore patently female rather than male. But today, buying womenswear – conversely – doesn’t mean you want to look like a woman or even dress like one.
The designer Marc Jacobs habitually wears his own womenswear designs: generally, the more masculine pieces, such as a wool bomber jacket, although he has also worn (women’s) furs by Prada and a lace dress by Comme des Garçons (Homme Plus). He has recently begun sporting a chain-strapped and quilted Chanel classic bag. He’s in a minority, but a large one – at Chanel’s biannual ready-to-wear shows, you’ll see hundreds of women with those bags – but probably about a dozen men, too. It’s been reflected on the catwalk, specifically at shows such as Gucci, where menswear and womenswear mingle together in single shows on a cast of ambi- sexual models.
The litany of labels combining their men’s and women’s lines into a single presentation grows ever longer – Gucci is joined by Burberry, Bottega Veneta, Calvin Klein, Kenzo and Dsquared2. And while that doesn’t always mean a slipstreaming of clothes between the sexes (it’s hard to imagine anything more opposed than the hyper-sexualised Dsquared2 woman and her bare-chested, oiled-ab’d male label mate), it does reflect the fact that, these days, men and women are no longer from Venus and Mars. They may even share the same closet. It’s just that no one is in it any more.
Text Alexander Fury
Illustration Charles Jeffrey