Of all the world-chang-ing, heart-breaking and rage-inducing moments of 2020, it was a dress that sent the internet into meltdown. Pop icon Harry Styles appeared on the cover of a magazine wearing a Gucci gown – a ruffled periwinkle number paired with a cropped tuxedo jacket – and sparked headlines, hero worship and hatred alike. Many applauded his bold statement and flouting of gender norms; others declared that a cisgender, straight white man didn’t deserve to spearhead this cultural conversation; and conservative commentators wept for the patriarchy (“Bring back manly men,” tweeted far-right American pundit Candace Owens). Styles responded by draping himself in feminine frills, feather boas and strings of pearls at every photo opportunity thenceforth. “I think what’s exciting about right now is you can wear what you like,” he later told a reporter. “It doesn’t have to be X or Y. Those lines are becoming more and more blurred.”
Gender-fluid dressing – breaking the boundaries between clothing traditionally worn by women and men – is nothing new. In Ancient Greece and Rome, everybody wore togas and tunics. In the 1970s and ’80s, performers such as David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Annie Lennox and Grace Jones experimented with gender-bending style; and minority communities – Black, queer, trans and Latinx – have long dressed outside the box, laying the groundwork for today’s movement.
But while Styles’ femme foray wasn’t the first, it was – as he himself once sang – a sign of the times. In 2020, London Fashion Week went gender-neutral, merging womenswear and menswear into one single showcase. Recent Louis Vuitton collections have seen countless men on the catwalk wearing kilts, dresses and skirts. The house’s late artistic director of menswear, Virgil Abloh, simply described it as a “human approach” to dressing.
Meanwhile, Marc Jacobs’ Heaven collection was designed for “girls who are boys and boys who are girls [and] those who are neither”. Stella McCartney launched a genderless line called Shared, and Gucci created MX, a gender-free section on its website featuring non-binary models. It was an inspired move by creative director Alessandro Michele; according to the global shopping platform Lyst, searches for gender-neutral and agender-related keywords increased by 33 per cent in the first half of 2021.
Often, the runway reflects real life, and this rapid rise of non-binary fashion into the mainstream coincides with a wider discussion about identity and expression. Namely, what does gender even mean? “While sex is biologically determined at birth, gender is something that’s socially and culturally constructed,” explains Dr Alexandra Sherlock, lecturer in fashion theory at RMIT University. “It’s something that we learn. There’s nothing natural or essential about gender.”
Instead, the term refers to how an individual feels and identifies. That might be as a man, as a woman or as non-binary: somewhere on the spectrum in between. It may be fixed or fluid, and it’s separate from sexuality.
Deni TodorovicÌc, activist, creative director and co-host of the What Are You Wearing podcast, knew they were gay from the age of four. “I was attracted to people with penises,” says the 33-year-old. “I came out when I was 19. I always knew I wasn’t a boy; I never knew what that really meant though. I have an innate feminine energy and there was definitely a moment in my adolescence when I thought, ‘Ohhhh, do you want to be a girl?’ But that never felt right to me either because I’m happy in my body.”
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