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How androgynous fashion is shifting designers to push creative boundaries

Transgender and non-binary people make up about 0.6% of the US population. Trans people’s activism for public acceptance, rights, and legal protection has gained steam and public attention in recent years.

Androgynous fashion is a prime example of the impact this has had on culture. Fashion is also a nexus for issues in how gender non-conforming people are often viewed.

Because gender is often expressed through fashion, the fashion industry expresses popular gender norms. Some fashion designers feel constrained by expectations to create either “men’s wear” or “women’s wear.”

For instance, Shao Yang, founder of The Tailory, expressed her frustrations at the 2016 New York Fashion Week’s gender-experimental show iD – “The industry still expects me to identify as a men’s or women’s wear designer, whereas I just see myself as a designer that creates self-identity and expression.”

More than a trend

Some mainstream media attention goes to androgyny and gender-experimental fashion. There’s a market for this, with entire brands marketing themselves as androgynous.

However, something is missing. There are still limits.

Because brands like VEEA market androgyny as a particular set of “tomboy” styles, the public perception of androgyny is specific. To the industry, androgyny is a fashion trend – not a part of people’s identities.

While the past half-decade has seen an increase in press attention for androgynous fashion, there are still rules. Androgyny can end up meaning thin, tall, white, and lacking curves.

Brands that market themselves as “androgynous” tend to have a specific look to their designs, which sums up the problem with mainstream androgynous fashion.

Tall, skinny people whose body shape is easily obscured by a long, flowy button-up shirt do not represent the full range of people in the androgynous community.

Despite that, the attitude remains that androgyny means one thing, and even news outlets covering androgynous style have rejected input which runs counter to that limited idea.

This leaves others, like the NYC fashion magazine DapperQ, to “set the record straight” after more popular news orgs like Buzzfeed get it wrong.

Mainstream ideas of “androgyny” do have consequences. Those who don’t meet the standard are likely not to be viewed as androgynous by others.

The double standard

Exploring showcases of androgynous fashion, one finds that the models are mainly female-presenting people who can pass easily as male. There are plenty of exceptions, but this is the norm.

Much of this comes down to a fear of gender-defying fashion in some situations but not others.

Moral outrage in response to traditionally “masculine” clothes on “feminine” bodies is far more muted than moral outrage in response to traditionally “feminine” clothes on “masculine” bodies.

For example, in 2019 a gender-neutral fashion show was restricted by its host university due to complaints the previous year over a poster of a male model wearing a stylish black dress and knee-high boots. This type of restrictive acceptance limits what androgynous fashion can be.

At the same time, androgynous fashion also remains inaccessible to those who are not “thin, waiflike, ethereal and [who] will never look like what genderqueer tumblrs reblog as our personal ideals.” That is, people with curvy bodies aren’t going to fit into the type of clothes marketed most strongly as androgynous.

Yet, there are fashion outlets out there, like DapperQ, working to fix that. They seek to change the narrative with their style guides. Plus, they host a show at the New York Fashion Week – iD, as it’s called.

Changing the story

Started in 2014, iD showcases experimental designers like The Phluid Project and WE ARE MORTALS. The show – seen here in a stream by the Huffington Post — includes plenty of flowy shirts and pants. This tracks with assumptions about marketable androgyny.

However, there are also voluminous coats, scarfs, and even a dress with wings. The main theme of the show seems to be lots of hanging fabric.

There’s a difference between the mainstream fashion industry’s approach to androgyny as a specific fad and the variety of design seen at shows like iD. New designs experiment with androgyny, contrasting the specific type of androgyny that’s often marketed to young people.

As Nik Kacy told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, “The last few years have seen a dramatic change and improvement as more people from these… under-represented groups continue to innovatively come up with solutions.”  

As well it should be. An expansion of what is acceptable and explorable in fashion should open new avenues for creativity. And it should help more people feel comfortable in the clothes they wear.