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“My wardrobe is not the most cohesive”: Exploring non-binary fashion

Naomi Man explores the blurred lines and performative norms of self-expression in non-binary fashion.

With the ever-increasing accessibility of new trends and decreasing pressure to adhere to conventions, fashion is becoming less gendered. Even runway shows such as Gucci and Thom Browne are no longer divided by gender, demonstrating how the growing understanding of gender as a construct is changing the industry. Although the lines between masculine and feminine clothing are slowly but surely blurring, the idea of non-binary or androgynous fashion feels more confusing. Although the two are actually quite different concepts, non-binary fashion and the idea of masculinity and femininity cannot be disconnected, even though the term non-binary seems relatively self-explanatory.

Personally, I find that combining feminine and masculine fashion is different from non-binary fashion and it is important to make that distinction. There is a disconnect between the two binaries and what lies outside them. Simply looking at red carpets (the epitome of couture, of course) would imply there is not a broad spectrum of the expression of masculinity: suit, after suit, after suit. Creative expression of femininity appears easier with a wider range of pieces, but is this primarily because of the rigidity of the idea of masculinity and the relative variety of feminine concepts. For me, I feel androgyny is an existence without the performance of masculinity or femininity rather than a combination of both.

As someone whose gender feels more like a question mark, my wardrobe is not the most cohesive. Sometimes I enjoy the concept of hyper-femininity, but my attempts feel uncomfortable and stilted. Expressing an existence through a combination of masculine and feminine ideas runs parallel to my experience with non-gendered fashion; I can use big silhouettes, interesting patterns, prints, and colour combinations to draw perception away from who I am and instead to what I’m wearing. It’s more comfortable but it’s not about me. If gender is a performance and I don’t perform, then surely the binary doesn’t apply? At this current point in time, I feel it is near impossible to separate gender from fashion – I don’t think society or the audience could allow it, even if fashion is influenced by changing contemporary ideas of gender. But designers such as Juun J and Thom Browne are making progress in pushing this field within the industry, consistently creating collections that look and feel genderless.

Juun J’s Fall 2016 collection was shown at the Pitti Uomo, during the highlight of menswear fashion week. Nevertheless, he stated in an interview that the intention behind the collection was to be unrestricted by “regular notions such as gender, boundary, era”. He considered both men and women whilst designing, but somehow created clothing that wasn’t representative of one gender or another: the turtlenecks emblazoned with “GENDERLESS” are a not-so-subtle example. Unfortunately, the entire collection was worn by male models, which I suppose is unsurprising, and the location, too, was disappointing: maybe the collection could have been more easily perceived as genderless had it not been shown at Pitti Uomo, with images of the clothes on invisible models instead. The clothes themselves were stunning, with the concepts and styles repeated enough that the forty looks were cohesive but still distinct and varied. The leather jacket of the tenth look was cut above the chest, creating an ultra-cropped silhouette, which was beautiful and felt like an incredible example of what could be considered genderless or non-binary fashion. 

Thom Browne is another interesting designer for exploring non-binary fashion, especially considering his brand’s focus on tailoring. His garments, although corporate, feel distant from strict gender conformity; his suiting feels divorced from the masculine-presenting suits of aspirational, alpha-male finance workers, DJs, and red carpets, and the pleated skirts are a far cry from the MiuMiu micro-mini. The collection feels slightly surreal, as he manages to separate extremely feminine pieces such as a pannier (sidehoops worn by women in the 17thand 18th centuries that created a wider silhouette for the hips) from the intended gender of the wearer. Returning to the changes in gendered fashion, it makes sense: the period of the pannier also saw men wearing heels, something now seen as feminine. His skirts do not feel feminine as skirts so often do, but seem like a powerful option for anyone to wear to the office. And yet despite the apparent absence of gender in his clothing, he produces gendered performances in his shows. Robin Givhan wrote about Browne’s Spring 2020 collection that it was “profoundly sad to see his models made powerless” through his unfortunate “habit of feeding that whimsy by transforming women into props”. It is interesting to consider that despite the absence of gender  in his garments, the presentation was still gender-performative. Comparing the Spring 2020 collection with the same year’s Fall/Winter one seems to demonstrate a rapid development, however, as this was the first co-ed show the house put on: the models walked down the runway in twos, side by side in identical looks, with no visual differences between the menswear and womenswear.

If only I could afford these clothes. I find it so difficult to do formal wear, making Oxford – with its absurd amount of traditions and fancy, formal events – a difficult place to be sometimes. I attended my first ball this year and was unsurprisingly underprepared for it. Saved only by my friend’s black velvet dress and one-day delivery, I still had to scramble for shoes. I own two pairs of heels: a pair of Mary Janes and a pair of low slingbacks. The combination of the dress and shoes was not something I had considered; I settled on the slingback heels but there was still something unsettling about it. The instability was expected, with all my weight balanced on two tiny points, but what I didn’t expect was to feel like I was acting, performing the role of a pretty lady without having  read the script. That’s not to say I don’t like wearing feminine outfits: one of my favourite pieces is a red mesh dress with a  frilly collar and puffy sleeves – not exactly void of gender. But I’ve never worn anything but dresses to formals, as though I have a subconscious belief that androgyny and formality don’t align. I’m not really sure of my other options. I don’t like wearing suits: school blazers, skirts, and trousers made sure of that. But formality and evening wear seem to end there,  and maybe that’s the reason why I still don’t own any proper evening dresses. I don’t know what I want or what I feel comfortable in. Though I still own and enjoy skirts, the days on which I look at myself and feel comfortable in them are dwindling. My own discomfort  probably stems from the idea of performing, but I want to believe that clothes don’t have a gender. Feminine and masculine qualities, yes, but can we dress outside of these ideas?

It’s a near-universal experience of having those off-days where nothing I put on feels right, and it’s so frustrating, given that I use clothing as a form of expression, of control over my identity, to feel as though the slipper doesn’t fit. It is an  abstract concept whose self-imposed rubric I still don’t understand, and yet I write about it, I make it a hobby, and I hope that it shapes people’s perception of me as I intended. People’s stereotypes and associations with certain items of clothing are prone to be personal, moulded from their own ideas of gender and fashion. Clothing is one of the most intimate yet visual aspects of ourselves, and I can only selfishly hope that gender in fashion becomes less polarised until my wardrobe can exist within a grey area where I finally feel comfortable.

Image Credit: John Gurinsky / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via flickr

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