Imagine a world in which gender plays no part and men and women are indistinguishable from one another.

BERND FISCHER

Imagine a world in which gender plays no part and men and women are indistinguishable from one another. Not only do mommy and daddy dress the same but they also have no specific gender roles to fulfil. In fact, in this world, they could even be the same person and you would simply consider yourself lucky enough to have two parents.

It doesn’t take a fashion worshipper to see that the line between masculine and feminine clothing is no longer blurred, but is actually becoming non-existent. Perdeby takes a look at this trend in the fashion industry, as well as how this movement itself impacts society at large.

The term “androgyny” refers to a blending of male and female characteristics. An androgynous person, often called an androgyne, therefore looks neither strongly male nor strongly female.

Sandra Bem, an American psychologist and one of the earliest proponents of androgyny, developed what she called The Bem Sex Role Inventory in 1971. This inventory is used to measure gender and consequently organise individuals into four gender-role orientations: masculine, feminine, androgynous or undifferentiated. The last category refers to a person who has a low level of masculine and feminine qualities as opposed to an androgynous individual who has a high level of both.

Since androgynes believe that labels are for clothes and not for people, sexual identification terms such as heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality are irrelevant to them. As genderless beings, an attraction to a person of either sex is possible.

Popular culture has adopted the concept of androgyny throughout history. According to New World Coming: the 1920s and the making of modern America, a book by Nathan Miller, the 1920s flappers are believed to be the first group of women to embrace the androgynous look.

Singer Annie Lennox exemplified the androgynous look in the 1980s with her short hair and men’s suits, but according to the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore, it was met with great criticism by society and labelled as cross-dressing at the time. However, novelist Anne Rice commended the look as it “coolly jumbled all our safe ideas about gender”, which is accurate when considering that androgyny is not about cross-dressing, but instead it focuses on finding a perfect balance between the two genders.

In spite of this, society has changed its views on the matter, as was evident in 2011 when celebrity twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen wore masculine suits to the Council of Fashion Designers of America Fashion Awards and were subsequently voted best dressed of the night by Teen Vogue.

Due to its visual nature, the fashion industry has played a crucial role in changing the social response to androgyny. For example, Impact Magazine reports that designer Raf Simons, creative director at the French fashion house Christian Dior, is one of the most contemporary proponents of androgyny, and the spearheading of this campaign is evident at most, if not all, of Dior’s fashion shows since Simons’s appointment as creative director in April 2012.

Andrej Pejic, an androgynous male model, has reached supermodel status for his unique appearance. Pejic has been labelled (no pun intended) by the media as the “king of androgyny” and belongs to what The Nation calls “a new generation of male models, one that is unbiased and open to a more refined, frail, even feminine concept of maleness.” Pejic is in high demand by top international modelling agencies and fashion houses due to his ability to be versatile. He has walked the runways of Paris, Milan and New York for men’s and women’s clothing, which of course would be impossible did he not meet the physical criteria expected of both male and female models.

Since gender and gender roles are largely said to be imposed upon us from a very young age, many argue that the power of the media and the fashion industry should not be undermined with regard to androgyny and its influence on mass society, as constant exposure eventually leads to acceptance of this ideal.

According to an article by Allan Carlson titled The Androgyny Hoax, published by the Population Research Institute, androgynes are regarded as the “super people” due to their free and open nature. As a result of this, Bem argues that androgynes are also shown to be more mentally healthy compared to strictly feminine or masculine people, as the pressure of specific gender performance is lifted.

Similarly, a study done by the University of Cincinnati shows that androgynous university students are better equipped in dealing with social relationships compared to those students who possess masculine or feminine qualities only.

On the other hand, not everyone agrees that androgynes are “a perfect representation of cosmic unity”, as Cosmopolitan reports. Psychologist Ellen Cook argues that proponents of androgyny only focus on the positive aspects. Cook argues that clinical studies, though limited, prove that androgynous individuals are dysfunctional. Other opponents simply argue that androgyny goes against the natural order of biology.

Rory du Plessis, a Visual Culture Studies lecturer at UP, argues that despite the influx of androgynous fashion, it still does not offer a critique of gender. “In sum, the androgynous fashion items assert dominant ideals of the sexed and desirable body,” du Plessis says. Therefore, not much is being done to change the sexualisation of individuals in the media. Vibha Keswani, a fashion designer and stylist, tells the Hindustan Times, “A good piece of clothing is a good piece of clothing. Does it matter who was supposed to wear it in the first place?”

It cannot be denied that apart from the intrigue and excitement that androgyny offers the world of fashion, it also challenges our preconceived ideas about gender. Whether you embrace this trend or not is up to you. When it comes to fashion’s unpredictable nature, it’s important to keep in mind that the one day you’re in and the next day you’re out.

Photo: Jez Smith

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