Androgyny as an Abomination or Aphrodisiac?

...maybe he doesn't want to wear the trousers

by Darren Fernandes
A few years ago, Scott Schuman featured a post depicting two masculine European men in skirts on his famed fashion blog The Sartorialist. Fashion journalists throughout the Western world have since been in heavy discussion over the masculinisation of such an identifiably feminine piece and the potential for more gender-bending pieces in mainstream fashion. Following suit, no pun intended, the men’s skirt and other androgynous looks have been a major push down the catwalk by menswear designers such as John Galliano, Comme des Garçons, and Etro. Are your legs ready, sir?

Answering the question “what is androgyny?” is hardly a simple task. In an interview, author of Material and Visual Cultures beyond Male Bonding Dr. John Potvin defined androgyny as “fundamentally exhibiting ambiguous gender characteristics... and gender ambivalence, both simultaneously.” Androgyny, as such, may not necessarily relate to ‘gender-queerness’ but culturally-prescribed emic perceptions of an individual’s aesthetic expression. Despite a perceived neutered nature, androgynies possess a threatening disconnect to conservative gender roles. “If someone is really truly successful in being androgynous, then people get uncomfortable,” said women’s and gay rights activist Veronica Majewski.

So why exactly are people so uncomfortable with the gender bending nature of androgyny? And, more specifically, why have heterosexual males had such resistance to effeminate wear? Potvin suggested that the male often fears that emasculating himself could potentially lead to the questioning of his sexuality and reduce his social power. The male, in turn, develops a constant need to prove his heterosexuality and distances himself from sexual inversion and femininity. For instance, “metrosexuality,” Potvin said, “while influenced by homosexual subculture, draws from an underbelly of hatred for homosexuals.” Why, just think of David ‘Golden Balls’ Beckham sporting nothing but overdone highlights and a sarong with an ever-impregnated Posh Spice constantly at his side. Further, it is only reasonable to assume that the male wishes to hold on to his heterosexuality in order to protect his dominant social status in this power struggle. Without a doubt, there is most definitely more fluidity among females in terms of both gender and sexuality, which can be seen in women’s fashion, due to their lesser social power.

Firstly, to consider fluidity in gender, let’s broadly look back at women’s fashion through the twentieth century. Belle Époque gave way to the Garçonne look of the 1920s flapper with short hair, flattened breasts, and a de-emphasized waist. Inspired by WWI, the 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of Coco Chanel with the iconic Chanel suit. In 1931, Chanel was hired by American film producer Samuel Goldwyn to dress several of his stars, including Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn’s use of loose men’s trousers and non-conformist style has transferred over to the everyday woman’s closet of today. Women have a lot more freedom to cross gender barriers and to borrow from elements of menswear.

Secondly, to consider fluidity in sexuality, it must be understood that, when women play with incomplete androgynous fashion to still attain an overall feminine look, androgyny is released from being an abomination and may actually be considered an aphrodisiac. As seen in the early 1920s practice of ‘slumming’ by the middle-class in New York City and the rise of “girl-on-girl” scenarios in European and American erotica since the early 1930s, there is an underlying curiosity with the homoerotic in Western culture. Potvin suggested that the heterosexual male often seeks pleasure in voyeurism of the feminine lesbian. Further, it is egotistically satisfying to heterosexual male to conceive that he is able to remove the female body from her masculine clothing and convert her back to her original hetero-normative gender role with his fulfilling masculine persona. Whether it is a chick dressed in a fitted tuxedo suit or Kate Perry singing about how she kissed a girl and liked it, women have had the power to play with their sexuality for the sake of heterosexual male pleasure.

As seen prior to the late eighteenth century, men wearing skirts was hardly an unheard of phenomenon isolated to the brilliance of Marc Jacobs, who has been seen out and about in kilt-like garments. In fact, it was only men, and disgraced women such as prostitutes, who were allowed to wear togas in ancient Rome after second century BC. In ancient Greece, skirts were worn by men to present an image of virility and machismo. This image was furthered by the Scottish kilt as seen in the popularized film Braveheart. “Since ‘the great masculine renunciation’ of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, men have tended to follow a more restricted code for appearance,” said Andrew Bolton, associate curator of The Costume Institute for their 1994 ‘Men in Skirts’ exhibit. “From the 1960s, with the rise of countercultures and an increase in informality, men have enjoyed more sartorial freedom, but they still lack access to the full repertoire of clothing worn by women.” The men’s skirt has been used in more current terms on the catwalk as a symbol of raw and real masculinity in collections by Jean-Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, and Dries van Noten.

Whether there is greater acceptance of androgynous outfits shown on the catwalk, because they are protected and perceived as works of art that are disconnected from the ‘real’ world, there are definite socio-cultural limitations within which designers must work within to sell their pieces. For instance, when asked if he will introduce the skirt into his next men’s collection, even skirt-clad Marc Jacobs frankly answered “No.”

Potvin noted that there will always be limitations in the construction of androgynous items as the male and female bodies differ in shape and structure. Moreover, Potvin believes that with the urban landscape that the modern fashionable male lives within, “it is not only culturally inappropriate but impractical for men to wear skirts.”

For men, however, such like Marc Jacobs and those featured on The Sartorialist who dare to gender-bend by wearing skirts, Toronto-based gay rights activist Hannah Peck commented that “there is nothing in the fabric, in the design [of skirts] that is inherently feminine.” As such, any item of clothing, like any word in literature, should be recognized as nothing more than a signifier in which we must pour meaning into if it is to have significance. A skirt should then be viewed as neither an aphrodisiac nor an abomination but a symbol of gender power struggles in the Western world. Just think, relatively recently in human history, we were questioning if women should have access to pants.