In a period where gender is questioned, where borders are blurring, isn’t this the ideal timing to break the codes of masculinity? Wrapped up in his two-piece suit or relaxed in his sportswear, couldn’t the man shake up his traditional wardrobe? The creations in the parades multiply the proposals, but this is not yet really verified in the street. Societal preconceptions die hard.
If in Western clothing today the wearing of trousers is the absolute norm, historically, this is not the case. In ancient times, men wore the toga. The garment did not really close until the 15thand century, becoming more and more similar to today’s trousers, losing over time its puffiness and frills. In the world, many populations still very naturally wear the “dress” in the masculine, whether it is the boubou, the djellaba or the “skirt” in the form of a kilt, a pareo or a hakama.
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Conversely, in the West, wearing trousers was a feminist struggle for women. In France authorizations were required (except in the company of a horse or a bicycle) to wear the trousers. And if the use ended up prevailing from the 1960s, it’s only in 2013 that the law has been officially changed.
In mentalities, this achievement, in a certain way, values the woman: she symbolically takes power with masculine attributes. Conversely, a man wearing a skirt can be perceived as dressing in a less manly way, or even cross-dressing. There remains a sort of unconscious, but still extremely vivid, archetypal hierarchy of the sexes. The current evolution where the question of gender is no longer seen in the same way by the younger generations will perhaps have an influence on the evolution of fashion.
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Clothing is most often gendered and when it is unisex, like jeans or t-shirts, it is always on the “masculine” side, as fashion consultant Donald Potard observes. We can cite as an example the very gendered fashion of the early 1960s (gingham dresses, balconies…), then from May 68 the adoption of jeans and T-shirts by girls.
In Great Britain, between the two wars, the movement Men’s Dress Reform Party tried, with the notion of well-being as a starting point, to develop men’s clothing, in particular by wearing skirts. One of the members, the psychoanalyst John Carl Fluegel (author of The Psychology of the Clothes in 1930) wanted the movement to react in response to his observation of the historical male renunciation: “The men renounced their right to employ the various forms of bright, gay and refined adornment, disposing of them entirely for the benefit of the women, and thereby making the craft of tailoring one of the most austere and neutral crafts that exist.” Some black and white shots testify to the attempts of wearing the skirt by the members of the group in the 1930s.
Jacques Esterel, whose name is forgotten today, was often avant-garde. After a first unisex approach with his “Négligé Snob” collection in 1967, he offered true unisex fashion in 1970 with, in particular, Sumerian dresses which were exhibited at the MAD, with a model worn by both men and women.
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Rudi Gernreichto whom we owe the monokini, opted in the 1970s for unisex and said of fashion: “I see current conditions like this: anonymity, universality, unisex, nudity and above all, reality… By that I mean the use of real things, like blue jeans, polo shirts, t-shirts; statutory fashion no longer exists.” Thoughtful and interesting attempts, but they remained epiphenomena probably too early in view of the evolution of mentalities.
On the unisex side, Naco debuted in 2001 and from the start its clothing was unisex: “I have never dressed according to a gender, for me a garment is neither masculine nor feminine, it is just a garment; to me, it’s natural. Today the era gives me reason and maybe in the future we will be able to change sex like an accessory. The entry of his brand Naco Paris in the official calendar of parades in Paris, split into women’s and men’s fashion, was refused to him for this reason of unisex, not being able to appear on either side.
Since then, the federation has evolved, endorsing the choice of several houses, sometimes opting for mixed parades such as Balenciaga, C. Lemaire, etc. In Italy, several houses including Gucci, Versace, Bottega Veneta have offered this choice since 2016. But these are more hybrid fashion shows with male and female models than truly unisex. Sometimes referred to as “coed” [abréviation de «co-educational», ndlr], these parades do not really blur the borders, they remain globally still very binary. The evolution nevertheless interferes with stylistic kinships that approach a “no gender”, with as an example the essays of Raf Simons for Calvin Klein.
The Jean-Paul Gaultier case
In the 1980s, it was Jean-Paul Gaultier who succeeded in moving the lines. Donald Potard, who is now a fashion consultant, was the company’s president at the time. He remembers a trip to Great Britain where he had trained Jean-Paul on his Scottish lands and where he discovered the wearing of the kilt. The idea germinated and the creator endorsed it many times and kept it with his friend Antoine de Caunes. in the program “Eurotrash”.
In his parades, the test was regularly attempted but never confirmed in the street, except by a few sharp fashionistas. A first kilt in a parade around 1985 and the concept, very original for the time, of a wardrobe for two joyfully and intelligently initiated the idea of a unisex garment. With the success of his perfume Le Male, Jean-Paul Gaultier had also tried very nicely the adventure of make-up for men, but success was not the key.
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The designer tried to make men wear corsets, he wanted to show femininity in virile men. For Donal Potard, the game is murky and you have to be a little exhibitionist to wear the skirt or the dress; fashion currently does not follow the evolution of society.
Celebrities get into it
Today, more and more in fashion shows, there is a confusion of genders with male models daring to be different with so-called feminine codes: pleated skirts, dresses, lace, floral patterns… Many big names in the fashion want to move the lines. We can cite Riccardo Tisci for Burberry, Rick Owens, JW Anderson and of course Gucci.
The choice of models also plays a role in the (con)fusion of genres. A very long time ago, Yohji Yamamoto had orchestrated his men’s show with only women in an androgynous spirit. Haider Ackerman at Berluti, a few years later, invited tomboys: Jamie Bochert and Saskia de Brauw. With her androgynous physique, the latter paraded in the men’s collections at Givenchy and was also the Yves Saint Laurent muse for a men’s campaign, at the time of Hedi Slimane. But it is simpler and “acceptable” in society to see a woman as a man than the reverse.
Could the tide turn today? The fact that prominent personalities wear the skirt can change the perception of it. Let us cite the examples of Kanye West and above all Harry Style, absolute reference in sartorial audacity. The Met Gala in 2018 also lives men in feminized version. Pete Davidson wore a skirt suit by Thom Browne. Very daring, Troye Sivan had slipped into a black sheath dress, a Luar creation (Raul Lopez of Hood by Air) whose spring-summer show in New York mixed genres, whether in style or with models from the two sexes; girls with pants, ties; men with handbags, skirts.
For Serge Girardi, fashion stylist, “Things have been happening for a very long time, the feminine side is inviting itself into the collections, the mix of genres is there, but that only speaks to a minority. With the younger generations, fluidity interferes.” For him, this way of playing on codes had already been seen in the 1970s, notably with the Cockettes, a mixed community in San Francisco who were free in their clothing: “But it was a spontaneous movement. We have to pay attention to recovery today.”
Freedom and creation
Serge Girardi mentions the unique example embodied by Walter van Beirendonck, who owns “a real freedom in his speech from the start”. The latter, a member of the group of stylists “Antwerp Six” and considered a major menswear designer, made a clear choice early in his career: “Men’s fashion has changed a lot in recent decades, much more than women’s fashion. That’s why I became more interested in designing for men. I grew up in a glam rock era, with David Bowie changing menswear forever. From my first collections I tested the boundaries established by society. But I also wanted to avoid crossing the line into cross-dressing, I didn’t want the men to be ridiculous and dressed in women’s clothes.”
This is the great achievement of Walter van Beirendonck: designing a resolutely masculine fashion, but audacious, colorful and always with finds and research work on shapes. For him, the most important remains freedom and creation, although he still often comes up against the norms of society. He also worked on body differences: “With the experiments on gender, I also wanted to highlight the different bodies and I chose to show in several parades ‘bear-models’ with sizes that fashion does not usually use.” Original, creative and colorful fashion. A real wind of freedom.
For John Karl Flügel, the observation was already clear almost a century ago: “There seems to be no essential reason in the nature, customs, or functions of the two sexes which necessitates a striking difference in costume, except a desire to accentuate the sexual differences themselves.” The whole evolution of costume has suffered from the weight of conventions generated by society. Since the end of the XVIIIand century for Flügel, but probably even later in the 19thand century, male clothing became codified, even ossified. The bourgeois showed his wealth only in the clothes of the wives and dressed in a classic two or three-piece suit with the wearing of a tie. If the XXand century has added relaxation for leisure, with the wearing of jeans and jogging, the range remains limited.
Finally, if dressing is a matter of individual freedom, in the context of work, companies can also impose codes and standards. An additional obstacle for the emancipation of men’s fashion.