For the past several weeks, the public consciousness seems to be fixated on one issue: gender. The subject has been percolating for what feels like forever, before finally exploding with the entrée of transgender men and women into the mainstream media. Late last year, Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox signaled the start of a new era when she graced the cover of TIME. Then, just two weeks ago, Caitlyn Jenner got people talking with her Vanity Fair cover story, and the chatter simply hasn’t stopped since.
A lot of the controversy surrounding the subject of gender is surrounding the idea of what “makes” a woman. Moreover, is the female a purely biological identity, or is it mental? Emotional, even? Nobody seems to agree, and I myself am not exactly sure what my opinion is.
That said, all this debate certainly got me thinking. More specifically, I was fascinated by where the roots of this conversation were sown. And, given the fashionphile that I am, it should be no surprise to you that my research led me to one place: the fashion industry.
Now, you might be staring at your computer screen thinking “What is this girl talking about?” But look at it this way: The fashion industry has been toying with idea of gender since before the likes of Caitlyn Jenner or Laverne Cox were even born. From the female perspective, designers and muses alike spent decades challenging what it means to dress “like a woman.” The mid-20th century saw the likes of Marlene Dietrich, who favored suits to sinewy gowns. Years later, in 1966, Yves Saint Laurent debuted the Le Smoking tuxedo suit for women. This gender-neutral look was so radical for the time, that many a socialite wearing the Le Smoking was forbidden to enter select restaurants and hotels.
But, in the nearly fifty years since the ‘Le Smoking’ hit stores, attitudes towards androgynous dressing have done a one-eighty. Today, the lines between men’s and women’s clothing becoming increasingly blurred, thanks in part to the emergence of design houses like Public School and Hood By Air. But androgyny isn’t just for the up -and-comers: recent seasons have seen gender-bending pieces become a major trend across the board. The New York Times’ Ruth La Ferla even went so far as to describe the latest New York Fashion Week as “the Great Gender Blur.”
Even some of today’s foremost fashion icons are women who embrace the menswear look. On the subject of gender neutral dressing, there is perhaps no better example than Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. In the movie, Keaton’s character forgoes skirts in favor of shapeless slacks, vests, and menswear ties. And it was this decidedly unfeminine look that cemented Keaton’s status as a female fashion icon.
The same can be said for Tilda Swinton, who, with her cropped hair, sinewy frame, and makeup-less features is no doubt the most androgynous actress in Hollywood. Not unlike the fictional Annie Hall, Swinton favors loose-fitted trousers and suit jackets to typical red carpet ball gowns. And, just like Keaton, her penchant for menswear has made her one of the most most-watched trendsetters of her generation.
By now I fear that I’ve gone on too long with the examples. But I think you get my point: In recent years, the concept of what qualifies someone as a woman (or a man!) has been forced to change. But the idea of dressing like a woman has been evolving for decades. In short, the fashion industry set the stage for today’s headlines. The rest of the world (sorry, Graydon Carter) has just learned their lines.
And they call it a petty industry…