My introduction to androgyny in men’s fashion was literally magical. I had been reading stories about Aladdin and watching sitcoms like I Dream Of Jeannie and, aged around five or six, decided I wanted to look like someone who could grant wishes. I found some silk scarves in my mother’s bedroom and draped them in a way I thought was stylish.
The public reaction to this in the late 1970s was not exactly supportive. I was called a fairy. I was called another f-word.
Nobody seemed to know what a genie was, or that I was trying to look like one. They just assumed I was gay. And in the small town in which I grew up, you’d get more respect if you were a drug addict or a criminal.
Every year during Pride I look at the celebrations happening in the streets (or online, as needs dictate) and feel a strange sense of kinship. I may not be gay, but I have a sense of what it’s like to be persecuted for expressing yourself in a way that’s perceived as abnormal, and to persevere in despite of it.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve seen a huge change in which homosexuality was not only tolerated and accepted but (performatively or not) celebrated.
At the same time, I’ve noticed androgyny in men’s fashion has evolved from a stunt a designer might pull to get attention for a particular collection to a set of motifs incorporated in mainstream apparel.
It’s only after the past year and a half, where there has been almost no occasion for formally dressing up, that I’ve been reflecting on what “androgynous dressing” really means anymore, and why it might have appealed to me or any other straight men.
How androgyny in menswear evolved
Part of this might be simply what psychologists call reactance: the urge to act in opposition to the established rules or norms that are shoved so far down your throat that you feel your freedom is being curtailed.
When I was growing up, for example, it wasn’t just that boys didn’t wear pink. Wearing bright colours of almost any kind attracted unwanted attention, and most men’s clothes were designed in a loose-fitting or baggy style that seemed intended to mask any hint of the body underneath. I found most men’s clothing boring or drab.
Androgyny — though I didn’t know the term at the time — was a way to transcend or even subvert that sense of uniformity. It’s what made me look forward to Hallowe’en.
You couldn’t necessarily play with gender stereotypes, but you could dress in a sleek sportsjacket, trousers and even a cape as Dracula. I could wear tights if I went out as Spider-Man. Escaping into characters was the only way to experiment with style and fashion without being ridiculed or bullied.
There was also a sense, which I only gradually came to understand, that androgyny represented a certain kind of aspirational status. When I first started seeing people like Prince achieve superstardom playing rock music while wearing bits of lace and form-fitting variations on traditional suiting, it felt like watching someone flaunt their wealth.
This has continued up until the present day. When you look at what men like Jayden Smith, Jared Leto or Harry Styles wear, the androgyny is as much a declaration of triumph as anything else. Why be one of those rich guys that dresses like a bum when you can be a man who can wear any shade, shape or pattern you want?
Speaking to the National Post in 2015, experts suggested that androgyny can also be a cultural side-effect of periods of great social upheaval as well as a rise in youth culture. A good example would be the long hair and bell bottoms men began wearing in the 1960s and 1970s. And, of course, the moment we’re living in now.
Why androgyny resists mass commercialism
For me, androgynous dressing was not something I thought of consciously in the sense of making a sort of sociopolitical choice. When I went through a phase of wearing almost nothing other than paisley dress shirts, though, or blazers and waistcoats that always had florals, I was making a statement to myself as well as the outside world.
It’s difficult to explain exactly what that statement was, though.
I have never wanted to look like a woman. There has always been a desire, in fact, to attract the opposite sex.
Androgyny, at least to me, was never intended as a sort of joke. It wasn’t an attempt at “camp,” the way Susan Sontag once explained it.
Don’t call this dandyism, either. A dandy tends to focus on formality in clothing and fastidiousness in details that comes across as an affectation.
Dressing androgynously, at least to me, is not an attempt to look androgynous at all. By which I mean I’ve never wanted to look like a blend of what is considered traditionally male or female. Instead, dressing androgynously is a way of testing the limits of what’s considered male or female in fashion.
For a straight man to wear clothes that seem in some way feminine is to reimagine masculinity, or maybe to enhance or heighten the concept of male elegance. When I’ve put together a look that could be considered androgynous, I can feel confident, creative and comfortable all at once.
The creative aspect is worth dwelling on, because it might help explain why androgyny has been difficult to offer off the rack.
“A large part of it is it’s simply too gender bending. More androgynous menswear, while wildly popular among fashionistas and niche, high-end designers, simply does not translate into sales,” an article on the Huffington Post pointed out more than five years ago. “Even though androgyny has appeared year after year as a major stylistic influence, it has been slow to trickle down to mass production.”
I think that may be because this is all about making some specific choices — the cut of a piece of clothing, embellishments and colours — rather than adopting a specific brand’s take on a gender-bending uniform. It’s more idiosyncratic than that.
That said, it helps when there are pieces of apparel that offer greater choice and are more subtle in how they interpret what we call menswear. The skinny suits of the late 1990s and early Aughts, for example, as well as tight-fitting T-shirts that are now all over Instagram would certainly have been considered androgynous when I was young.
The rise of direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands that sell purely through e-commerce, meanwhile, make it easier than ever to buy a short-sleeve button up with roses all over it, or to buy men’s linen pants that would not have looked out of place when I was trying to emulate a genie way back when.
As always, the question is how far all of this will go, and if there is such a thing as going too far.
Androgyny vs. Genderless clothing
In a recent article on _Shift, which is produced by students at the London School of Fashion, the publication shared results of a survey in which 80% of men aged 18-25 said they believed menswear is becoming more acceptive of traditionally feminine designs.
“Countless Gen-Zers are loving the fem look for men, and the phenomenon has seen an array of enthusiastic girls who agree that an androgynous style is sexy and shows confidence,” the article said.
As a straight man, I don’t think in terms of a “fem” look, and it’s crossed my mind that androgyny tends to be the province of the young — people who are still figuring out who they are. People like David Bowie looked a lot more traditionally masculine by the time they reached their 40s and 50s, and that’s probably true of me as well.
I am grateful, though, for the privilege of having greater license to wear whatever I want without criticism, especially when you live in big urban centres. Things I might have been afraid to wear as a teenager now seem perfectly acceptable, even mainstream. Often I’ve reflected that I never thought I’d see the day.
This is also true of gender-free or genderless clothing. I certainly understand the need for it and support it, but I also believe that I can choose clothing that suggests or expresses femininity and wear it while continuing to be anything but non-binary.
Even if I’m often in T-shirts, jeans and sweatpants today, I value androgyny because it represents that chem lab where fashion meets flux. It’s where you settle in those in-between areas that a personal style is ultimately created, and developed.