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Bridging the Gap: An Investigation of the Gender Divide in Fashion and One Approach to Fixing It

 

In my own community and my personal life, clothing has represented many aspects of one’s identity, especially concerning gender identity. Even within a singular culture, the clothes you wear are expected to reflect your gender and possibly even your sexuality. As my peers and I become older, many of us have discovered that certain clothing does not have to correspond to a certain gender and that clothes are not inherently gendered. However, because these ideas about clothes and its relationship with gender identity and gender binarism have been taught to us from a young age, this realization often occurs later in life and is caused by specific events or exposure to certain ideas that change our minds. Thus, many people my age in my community still associate one’s personal fashion sense with their gender identity. Nevertheless, in the fashion industry, androgyny has made a re-emergence, in both high fashion and commercial fashion. As the line between “girl clothes” and “boy clothes” has blurred, I wanted to investigate how clothing can be utilized to dismantle gender essentialism and gender binarism in my local community and to what extent it is already being used to do so.

 

Are clothes a reflection of gender identity?

While clothes are often a vehicle for one’s gender expression, clothing and personal fashion are not inherently indicators of gender. Instead, clothing is one of many tools used to express parts of your identity, which include race, religion, culture, and gender. P.J., a boy who doesn’t fit within gender norms and was featured in the New York Times, said, “No, I don’t want to be a girl, I just want to wear girl stuff.” He then explained that a boy in his class who is soccer fan “comes to school every day in a soccer jersey and sweat pants, but that doesn’t make him a professional soccer player” (Padawer).

However, despite clothing not having a gender, there is still a stigma around children wearing clothing that does not match what other children of their gender traditionally wear, especially boys that wear girls’ clothing. This is due to the fact that clothing is a physical and visual cue to the outside world and “create[s] ‘social contacts’ involved in the unstable interaction between the body and the outside world” (Arvanitidou and Gasouka 3). While there is less stigma around girls dressing in traditionally masculine ways, partially because masculinity has historically been socially privileged and therefore there would be less to lose by acting more masculine, boys who dress in traditionally feminine ways are often subject to bullying and misunderstanding. Statistics show that boys are seven times more likely to be referred to a gender clinic than girls and often are referred for milder reasons, such as liking pink and wanting to play with dolls, whereas girls are usually referred to a clinic when they want major changes to their identity, name, and pronouns (Padawer).

This social apprehension of breaking gender fashion norms stems from the gender essentialism that is so pervasive in society. Jamie Skerski argues that “dominant culture continues to conflate sex/gender/desire in ways that presume a ‘real’ woman is biologically female, feminine in behavior, and attracted to men” (Skerski 467). Similarly, a man that does not follow society’s view of men as biologically male, masculine in behavior, and attracted to women is often seen as “less of a man.” As fashion is a major part of gender expression, which is in itself is a part of one’s behavior, when one does not dress according to gender norms, it is seen as a commentary on their gender identity and sexuality. In a culture where so much depends on your gender and sexuality, and possibly fitting into the dominant culture regarding identity, breaking fashion norms is a pivotal act that often involves much more than simply wearing or not wearing a dress.

However, I have observed that fashion, especially couture fashion, often becomes less essentialist and more androgynous when it’s catering to adults. With the lines between women’s clothing and men’s clothing becoming more blurred, the difference between gender identity and gender expression becomes more evident.

 

What’s the difference between gender identity and gender expression?

Gender expression is defined by Gender Spectrum  as “the way we show our gender to the world around us” while gender identity is the “internal experience and naming of our gender” (“Understanding Gender”). Gender expression is often confused with gender identity, and both are often thought to be essentialist and based in biology. However, gender identity and expression are the results of cultural environments, as what is considered “manly” or “girly” and what is considered a man or a woman is differs from place to place and culture to culture. Both gender identity and gender expression stem from the individual psychology of a person and how they interact with their own culture. When it comes to fashion, gender expression may or may not match with one’s gender identity. How to determine if these two aspects match according to society’s standard is hard because the standard varies from place to place and time period to time period.

 

What is the local standard today?

Even within Atlanta, the standard for boys and for girls depends on the demographics of the neighborhood that you’re in. For example, the fashion at my old school, which was predominantly black and middle-class, differs greatly from the fashion at my current school, which is predominantly white and in a very wealthy area. At my school, which is where I am focusing on, there is generally still a major division between male clothing and female clothing, with the male clothing often being aligning strictly to the region’s idea of masculinity and the girl clothing being hyper feminine. For boys, the standard is usually khaki or pastel shorts with Sperrys or New Balances for shoes and a polo or button down shirt. For girls, the standard is usually a flowy blouse, skinny jeans, and brown riding boots or Birkenstock type shoes.


A candid photo of my school showcasing the regular fashion there

 

How does this compare to pop culture today?

One trend that I have noticed is that high fashion has been mixing and matching its women’s brands and men’s brands recently. At New York Fashion Week this year, “women and men to wear virtually interchangeable clothes, in restrained, minimalist androgyny” (Chira). Many of the brands had men and women in the same runway show, making it impractical to try to decipher which clothing was from the men’s collection and which was from the women’s collection if the two were separate at all.

Women’s and Men’s outfits in the Jeremy Scott fall 2017 runway show

 

Another trend is that many brands that originally catered mostly to women are now shifting some of their focus towards men. For example, in 2013, Michael Kors “vowed to turn menswear into a $1 billion business by 2017,” opened up men’s stores and increased the number of products they had for men. A major part of this shift is marketing, according to GQ’s editor in chief Jim Nelson. Nelson comments that he is “not so sure that guys are going to go deep into a women’s store to find something for themselves” (Bazilian). Through this, we see that a part of the gender division in fashion is the idea of men buying women’s clothing and vice verse and its social implication as opposed to the actual clothing itself.

 

Can high fashion be used to change how we view gender in my school?

The relationship between fashion designer and fashion consumer is complex and depends on the type of designer. For high couture fashion, the designer often has a lot of influence on the consumer. For this reason, I believe that continuing to blur the line between women’s fashion and men’s fashion will help dismantle gender essentialism in gender expression at my school to a certain extent. There are both pros and challenges to this plan. One pro to this plan is that a significant portion of my school is wealthy, meaning that high fashion brands are more accessible to them than they may be to the average person. Another pro is that, as changes are being made to my school’s dress code, there is more experimentation with fashion in general now than there has been in the past at my school. A challenge to this plan is that, as of right now, most of the people at my school wear high-end brands mainly at formal events in which the dress code is more traditional. So, while they may wear Gucci, they would most likely wear the more traditional clothing that Gucci offers. Another challenge is that, while both the girls and boys feel a pressure to conform to gender norms with their clothing, this pressure is higher for the boys. However, the girls are generally more open to experimentation. Some of the ways that we can overcome these challenges include continuing to speak about these issues at schoolwide assemblies and school clubs such as the Gender-Sexuality Alliance and the Gender Equality and Relations club. Recently, my school had the wonderful opportunity for Dr. Jackson Katz to speak at one of our assemblies about gender.  Continuing to educate the student body about gender and how it works in general will make it easier to break gender fashion norms. Another way to overcome these challenges is to change the school dress code to make it more conducive to breaking gender norms. Through my conversation with the girls’ dean at my school, I was able to voice some of my concerns about the gender essentialism in the language and policies of the dress code. Unless we address the systems that promote and cause gender essentialism in fashion, we can never change the result.

In order to further investigate the relationship between androgyny in fashion and dismantling of the gender binary, I explored the issue through three different modes.

 

My first mode is a poem. I entitled it Rain Dove after a genderqueer model who is very influential to me named Rain Dove that defies fashion gender norms on a daily basis.

Rain Dove 

Mother once told me, beneath her silk scarf and rose colored lips,

To buy the pink dress. You’re a girl. Buy the shiny ballet flats. You’re a girl.

So I took the dress and shoes. Stored them in my closet and in the crevices of my mind

Where girls only wore high heels and flowing skirts.

 

And Father told Brother that he was not allowed to wear pink. He’s a boy.

He must instead wear a suit jacket in a subdued gray color

Above a tight collared button down. So he took the charcoal jacket and hid it in

In his closet and the crevices of his mind, where men wore creased pants and black oxfords

 

But we were playing in our minds, perfectly content, when we saw Rain Dove

They wore pink creased pants and they wore shiny red oxford shoes

They wore a red dress and they wore a red button down shirt.

They were neither boy nor girl and they did not care to be either.

 

Rain Dove dressed like both and neither and everything in between

Rain Dove spoke about #GenderCapitalism and #JustCloth

And that day we learned that we mustn’t feel the need to follow the line

That follows our chest and accentuates our hips

 

So we returned to our minds, restless and feverish, and saw a soirée.

The men wore pink and ballet flats. The women wore charcoal smoking jackets.

And they all wore regal silk scarves to match their silk neckties.

So we joined the carouse. Man and Woman dancing away in silk dresses and leather dancing shoes.

An example of Rain Dove’s experimentation of gender expression through clothing

 

For my second mode, I reviewed Mosaert, the androgynous clothing brand of one of my favorite musicians, the Belgian artist Stromae. 

Pretty petals and M.C. Escher 


Belgian pop star Stromae, née Paul Van Haver,  has never strayed from playing with cultural gender norms. In the video for his 2013 single “Tous les Mêmes,” Stromae plays both sides of an opposite-sex couple simultaneously, one half of his face adorned with makeup, jewelry, and long hair and the other half often contorted into grotesque expressions that represent the stereotypes we often promote about the lack of daintiness in masculinity.

Although Stromae’s musical career is currently on hiatus, he continues to blur the line between masculinity and femininity through Mosaert, the clothing brand he created with his wife and stylist Coralie Barbier. All the clothing in the brand, which releases its products in limited-amount collections they call “capsules” and includes shirts, pants, socks, and shoes, is androgynous and inspired by the couple’s desire for a more inclusive and comprehensive fashion world. “For boys it’s all about grey, navy, white and black. There were so many times where I wanted to buy women’s clothes because I couldn’t find something fun” exclaimed Van Haver in an interview with Business of Fashion. The website features men and women modeling similar and sometimes even the same clothing.

 

The clothing is meant to fit and be comfortable for everyone who wears it and avoids labeling their cuts as men’s or women’s cuts. Similarly, the androgyny of the clothing leads to unorthodox styles for collars and sleeves that defy the binarism that often accompanies how fashion designers choose how clothing fits. The patterns are often geometric or floral and some incorporate bird patterns inspired by the work of the Dutch artist M.C. Escher. Mosaert’s willingness to go towards bright colors and fit both traditionally male and female designs into single pieces of clothing reflects the broader trend of rejecting gender norms in fashion. People are multifaceted and complex and often don’t fit neatly into a single box. Why shouldn’t the clothes they wear be the same?

 

To learn more information about Mosaert and view more of their work, you can visit their website: store.mosaert.com

 

For my final mode, I interviewed the girls’ dean of my school, Tiffany Boozer, about her thoughts regarding gender and fashion. Aside from being an English teacher, she has also taught classes about the process, ethics, and psychology of fashion for the last three years and plays a major part in the editing and enforcement of my school’s dress code, which is separated by gender. It was interesting to see how her personal experience with fashion gender norms, her knowledge of the history of fashion gender norms, and her role as an enforcer of fashion gender norms all interacted with each other.

Interview with Tiffany Boozer 

Alisia: How has fashion/clothing been a way to express identity in both your personal experience and in a general context?

 

Boozer: Actually, before I became a teacher, I was a lawyer, and fashion played a major role in identity. There’s a big difference between the dress code for women and for men. Women used to have to wear neutral colored skirt suits but now you can well pantsuits as well. It’s weird because there is so much gender division between men and women lawyers, yet both sides have the goal of projecting as a man and, therefore, seeming more powerful. This division was in both the written and the unwritten dress code

 

A: When you taught your JanTerm class [a short class taken during January that covers interdisciplinary topics not traditionally covered in school] two years ago, was there any focus on how gender expectations and norms in fashion was different in the past/changing (i.e. “skirts are making a comeback for men”)? If so, was that met by any surprise or confusion from the students?

 

B: It was interesting actually. There was some surprise that many high end couture brands were creating skirts and heels for men. There was also some surprise that having men on the runway is fairly new

 

A: Do you personally believe that the fashion industry is influenced by consumers more or that consumers are influenced by fashion companies?\

 

B: Well, I’d say both/and. It’s interesting when you say fashion industry because the fashion industry is divided into segments. The mass market, so brands such as GAP and Forever 21, is very much influenced by what young people like, so they kinda take the consumers’ lead with that. On the other hand, high fashion is an art form. So they are taking less cues from who is buying their clothes and are basing their designs more in the vision of the designer. So that’s why I say it’s a mix and meld. Mass market fashion is going off of what young people like while high fashion has actually been influenced by street fashion recently, which has become a lot more popular.

 

A: Do you believe that the differences in the dress code between girls and boys (i.e.: until recently, girls could not wear shorts but boys could) are warranted? Is there a limit on how different the dress code should be between boys girls and, if so, how would you describe that limit?

 

B: I do believe that to a certain extent that the dress code has to be separated by gender for practical matters simply because of the clothing that is available to girls. I’m not sure if that makes it right but for right now it seems like that most practical option. However, I have been trying to make the dress code more gender neutral. Each year I look through the handbook and see what changes need to be made. [shows me a printout of the dress code section of the handbook with annotations and arrows in blue pen] I’ve been moving some stuff around because, quite frankly some of the current rules are gendered when they don’t need to be. For example, “don’t show your underwear” is applicable for everyone. So some of these rules can be moved to the general section. There is also a difference in enforcing the dress code too. Mr. Souza [the boys’ dean] usually only has to make sure that the boys have their shirts tucked in and are wearing a belt. I usually have to check for a lot more. This is partly becuase of how the dress code is set up and partially because of the fact that, quite honestly the boys have been wearing the same thing since when i was here in the 80s. It’s probably in large part because of our environment, being in the conservative south.

 

A: Yeah, my mom has said that they boys still dress the exact same as when she went here. Do you believe that dress code should change according to the comfort and expression of the students (while maintaining a professional environment of course) or that it should remain relatively traditional?

 

B: Well the thing about tradition is that I don’t believe it’s about specific clothing. I think Westminster tradition regarding the dress code is about looking nice. But I do believe we have to change because keeping things the same for tradition’s sake isn’t healthy, especially as new styles and technology comes out. For example, right now leggings are not allowed. When we first made that rule in the 90s, leggings were truly only athleticwear. Leggings were made with material that wasn’t as comfortable to wear outside of the gym and didn’t look as nice. However, with new technology, there are many leggings that look very nice, and the people who are see them may not be able to differentiate them from nice pants. So we can’t really live in the past because there are so many new innovations in technology and what students would reasonably wear.

 

A: How often do you get direct complaints about inequity between how boys and girls can express themselves through the dress code?

 

B: You know, it doesn’t happen a lot since we don’t have a uniform. The girls seem to have it easier because of the social aspect. So less based in the actual policies of the dress code, but there is more diversity in what is considered socially acceptable for girls to wear compared to the boys. Like I’ve said earlier the boys tend to wear similar things. As a matter of fact, there is a boy in the 8th grade here who wears clothing that is way different from his peers. It’s still appropriate for school, but I love that he dresses so unique

 

A: Yeah. I didn’t have any problem coming up with this costume [I was dressed as a stereotypical boy from the area my school is from for alter ego day at my school, which happened to be on the day that I interviewed Ms. Boozer]. Thank you so much for letting me interview you!

 

B: No problem! I would also speak with Ms. Martinez [an art teacher at my school] if you get the chance. She has worked with major shoe designers and major fashion companies. She can tell you so much of the details of creating fashion designs and how it differs for men and women. For example, the shape of women’s clothing on the runway follow a line that’s meant to accentuate women’s shape.

 

Please share your thoughts through the survey below and add to the conversation on social media with #BridgeTheFashionGap

Works Cited

Arvanitidou, Zoi, and Maria Gasouka. Fashion, Gender and Social Identity.

Bazilian, Emma. “Girl Brands Gone Guy.” Adweek. EBSCOhost.

Chira, Susan. “Gender Fluidity on the Runways.” The New York Times.

Padawer, Ruth. “What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?” The New York Times Magazine.

Skerski, Jamie. “Tomboy Chic: Re-Fashioning Gender Rebellion.” Journal of Lesbian Studies. EBSCOhost.

“Understanding Gender.” Gender Spectrum.

 

 

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