Duality, Ambiguity, Fluidity: Fashion and the Gender Spectrum

Fashion is an extraordinary thinking tool. Contrary to assumptions that it is trivial, cultural critics have long found that fashion can open up vexing questions in accessible, creative ways. It is particularly useful for thinking about time, as fashion has a unique tempo: it is resolutely of the moment, yet constantly refers to the past, suggesting there is more of the past in our present than we realize.

Modern fashion is also a rich site for thinking about the meanings of gender. It often acts to enforce strict and limiting definitions 
of gender identity – hyper-femininity, in particular, has been a stock-in-trade of the industry for decades. In this sense, fashion has tended to reinforce the rigid categories that we have inherited as a byproduct of the modern will to differentiate. From about the year 1700, dominant understandings of reality have stressed difference rather than similarity, and fashion has provided an excellent stage for the reproduction of racial and gendered differences.

But fashion’s creativity and sensitivity to time means that it doesn’t have to be this way; fashion might actually enable us to imagine alternative gendered futures. Remember, fashion responds to the moment. This moment, in the Global North, is witnessing an unprecedented openness to trans and multi-gender realities. How might these influence fashion’s future?

Thinking About The Past

Despite its familiar tendency to adhere to gendered norms, fashion has long been 
a site for experimentation with gender, and its history is rife with scenarios in which clothing trends emphasized gendered difference. The 1830s, for instance, has been called the era of the Great Masculine Renunciation. It featured a movement away from opulence and color in men’s garments and a narrowing of the acceptable range for masculinity – here we saw the rise of the sober, dark, unfussy suit. At the same time, fashionable silhouettes in women’s clothing accentuated women’s bodies through the ballooning of skirts and tight corseting of waists, which marked them out as ornamental and relatively immobile.

But there have been historical moments in which fashion offered a glimpse of something else. In the 1920s, the lifting of skirts, the introduction of what resembled
 an uncorseted silhouette, and a diffusion of sportswear, emphasized a vision of femininity that was less differentiated than it had been for decades: an active, strong, and publically engaged “modern woman” visibly materialized through clothing. In the same decade, newly coalescing communities of Sapphist women – whom we would now call lesbians – communicated to each other through the adoption of masculine styles, styles which were of a piece with the general trend toward masculinization in women’s dress and so were not necessarily legible to those not “in the know.” The historian Mary Louise Roberts has suggested that in the 1920s, fashion produced change rather than simply reflecting it, stressing the close connection of sartorial styles with qualitative transformations in the experience of gender.

Looking to The Future

Consider three distinct futures: One in which the dominant mode of expression is hyper-gendered, the second, an androgynous future, and finally, a world in which gender has become a fluid concept rather than a strict binary classification. We have already seen examples of each of these worlds play out in recent times. Kim Kardashian, the mother of selfies, has turned her hyper-feminized persona into a multi-million dollar empire, while Ukrainian model Valeria Lukyanova gained notoriety for modifying herself into a human embodiment of a Barbie doll.

At the other end of the spectrum, musician, actor, and model Grace Jones emblematized an iconic androgyny, simultaneously expressing both male and female characteristics through her imagery and work. The late David Bowie also flamboyantly expressed his masculine and feminine qualities, but morphed with such ease between them, he was nearly impossible to categorize. This defiance of the gender binary appears to live on in people like Hari Nef, the first transgender model signed to IMG, who chose to openly transition from her assigned gender under the gaze (and undoubted scrutiny) of the public eye. These individuals are certainly exceptional, but they may also speak to the possible futures that lay before us.

_Future One

Hyper Gendered: Are You Adam or Are You Eve?

In this not-so-unfamiliar future, perceived differences between genders continue to be magnified, with the development of advanced body modification technologies upping the ante in the pursuit of idealized forms of beauty. Where heels once raised us a few inches from the ground, fashionable new prosthetics might permanently extend our limbs or shape our silhouettes, and could themselves become new avenues for self-expression.

Though debates about the merits of natural versus “technical” beauty may be waged, as body modification technologies advance and become more democratized, they may also indenture us to the planned obsolescence and devotion to newness that now heavily impacts the speed of both fashion and consumer technologies. This future might therefore be characterized
 by a veritable arms race that not only amplifies competition between genders, but also within them.

Can the magnification of gender differences ever empower women? Current pop culture icons like Beyoncé may give hope that femininity – not to mention diversity – might eventually be imbued with associations of power, but as author
 Jill Filipovic has pointed out, feelings of empowerment and actual power are two different things. Hyper-femininity is often closely associated with sexualization – which, in turn, tends to reinforce strict gender stereotypes that limit rather than support self-expression, especially for those who fall outside the binary. Perhaps for femininity to become a source of power, it must be a choice, not an imperative.

_Future Two

Androgyny: Categorize Me If You Can

 

What if, instead of seeking difference, we strove toward sameness? Unlike a hyper-gendered future where otherness is heightened, androgyny implies an element of unknowability, of mystery. An androgynous future would thus most likely be characterized by an unwillingness to be characterized or sorted.

Today’s gender-neutral fashion often defaults to the defeminization of women and girls’ clothing, but there are emerging examples of the reverse as well. The mostly-male icons of the Genderless Kei fashion trend in Japan, for example,
 have embraced feminine and childlike sartorial choices and rejected traditional gender rules by blending both male
 and female beauty techniques to achieve their androgynous looks. Given society’s tendency to discount the feminine, the overt choices of these men to adopt female fashion and beauty is a more subversive statement than it might first appear to be.

Some people are already speculating how we might do more than just mimic another gender, so that we may empathize with it as well. Designer, artist, and MIT Media Lab faculty member Sputniko! (Hiromi Ozaki) explored this concept through the speculative design of a “menstruation machine,” a wearable device equipped with a blood-dispensing system and electrodes to stimulate cramping in the lower abdomen to allow anyone to experience the sensations of the average five-day period.

Similarly, advanced assistive reproductive technologies have the potential to externalize a traditionally feminine experience: pregnancy. While proponents of post-genderism and these forms of technological advancement believe they could free women from the biological responsibility to bear children (or pass it along to others), the emancipatory nature of such an advancement is more likely determined by who leads its development – and why.

Just as a hyper-gendered future might ostracize those who fall outside the traditional gender binary, an androgynous one might equally penalize those who desire to (or can’t help but) express their femininity or masculinity.

_Future Three

Gender Fluid: The New Mods

 

Whereas either pole of the gender spectrum – between hyper-gender and androgyny – suggest permanence, a future dominated by gender fluidity would be personified by ephemerality, but also the ability to fall somewhere in between (and indeed, beyond) the binary. This future might see us move from a view of gender as fact to one in which it is seen as a form of self-expression, or as actor and transgender activist Jen Richards has described, as something that can be played and experimented with, as we do with fashion today.

The planned obsolescence that currently typifies both fashion and technology
 might actually have the unintended benefit of allowing us to experiment and even play with gender. In this future, those who wish to might move along the spectrum and stop wherever feels most representative of who they are. Facilitated by expressive wearable devices and fashion tech, this fluidity might be slow and determined, or quick and modular – especially for those who prefer latitude over immutability. In the same way we have come to understand and respect the importance of biodiversity, we might also begin to accept and value human diversity.

Though not directly connected, gender fluidity and the desire to augment our bodies via technological means (often referred 
to as transhumanism), have interesting commonalities. Both strive to transcend what we begin our lives with – the physical
 “god given” traits we are born into. And yet, the idea of changing ourselves is not new. We have always shape-shifted, be it through clothing, makeup, tattoos, or begrudgingly, the passage of time. Perhaps the acceptance of trans- and multi-gender realities will grow in parallel with our acceptance of technological enhancements to our bodies.

 

As problematic as fashion can be, it’s 
a playing field for change; a place where boundaries are tested.

It is a language through which to express ourselves, and to transcend our bodies, even if only for a moment. It is also a powerful tool for thinking about the past and what may lie ahead.

The modifications facilitated by clothing allow us to accentuate, hide, or play with our appearance, but they tend to be ephemeral and restricted to the surface of our bodies. Though we can already alter ourselves via 
a plethora of cosmetic procedures, as new wearable and implantable technologies emerge, the boundaries between fashion and the body may begin to blur even further.
 As fashion becomes ever more intertwined with technology, we will become increasingly able to augment our bodies in ways that both transgress and transcend traditional notions of gender. We might then come 
to understand that there are more than two ways to be human.

the author

Ilya Parkins

Ilya is an associate professor of gender & women’s studies at the University of British Columbia.

the author

Laura Dempsey