Some fashion trends sneak up on you. Others ring out loud and clear. Last week, as the Spring ’14 menswear shows kicked off in London, one trend sounded with all the subtlety of an air horn: androgyny is the new black.
The most forceful expression of this theme came from up-and-coming brand JW Anderson. The five-year-old label comprises collections for men and women, and designer Jonathan Anderson likes to overlap the look of the two. Last season, for instance, Anderson showed pairs of ruffled shorts for men much like the ones in his Spring ’13 womenswear collection. And this time, Anderson’s dominant silhouette was a lean tunic paired with fluid, elongated trousers, another shape he’d begun to articulate in his previous womenswear show. But the look that got eyebrows arching and tongues wagging was Anderson’s male halter top: backless, semi-sheer and floral patterned, the look was unavoidably effeminate. “Atrocious,” sneered The Daily Mail.
Anderson is upfront about the fact that he likes testing the boundaries between men’s and women’s clothes. But he insists that he’s not setting out to create controversy; for him, the gender-bending emerges organically, out of formal risk-taking.
“In a way, it’s funny that people had such a strong reaction to that look,” Anderson tells me. “I mean, that top started as a long raglan mac. And then we cut the sleeves off, and then we made it short. When you’re in the studio,” he goes on, “that kind of experimentation feels normal. In fact, it’s the point. You’re playing with a piece of fabric, trying to create a new line, a new proportion. But then you present that to the world, on a runway, and it becomes this ‘thing.’”
A pattern forming
If Jonathan Anderson were an outlier, one mad designer whipping up androgynous looks out of a surfeit of aesthetic zeal, that would be interesting. But what’s more interesting is the fact that Anderson is not alone. Another London up-and-comer, Shaun Sampson, showed pale pink organza board shorts and ‘skirts’ made to look like beach towels. At Alexander McQueen, creative director Sarah Burton opened the show with a fitted suit of white lace. The Topman show featured fanciful cowboys, and embroidered florals. At a certain point, it started to feel unfair, or arbitrary, to think of those looks as ‘feminine’. I found myself wondering: who decided that men couldn’t wear lace? Or skirts, for that matter? Back in ancient Greece, guys were wearing togas, right? So when did all this vigilance around masculinity happen, exactly?
“I feel like we’ve been in a really conservative moment,” notes Martine Rose, another London-based menswear designer who tests gender conventions with her clothes. “It’s so lazy, this way of thinking – that ‘real’ men wear this, but not that. I was really influenced by [funk musician] Rick James, for this collection,” she continues, “and he was so sexy, so gangster, and wearing ruffled shirts and thigh-high red boots. He wasn’t letting his clothes define his sexuality. Or his masculinity.”
Rose’s new collection featured all manner of ‘feminine’ detail. What made it intriguing, though, was the fact that the attitude of the clothes was so incontrovertibly masculine. Rose draws a great deal of inspiration from sport, and beyond that, from the way even non-sporty guys wind up integrating athletic kit into their wardrobes. This season, she expanded that concept into lace-frilled running shorts and blouson trousers with the indolent slouch of tracksuit bottoms.
‘Crisis of confidence’?
“Footballers back in the seventies, they used to wear those little shorts,” Rose muses. “No one was questioning their manliness; other guys wanted to look like them, in fact. And they were sexy, those footballers. They had the confidence to show their bodies, and to be playful.”
Confidence. If there’s one thing these new androgynous looks demand of men, it’s that. Which raises the question: have the über-masculine looks dominating menswear up to now been signaling a crisis of male confidence?
When The Atlantic magazine publishes cover stories that trumpet ‘The End of Men’, it’s tempting to read the advent of Don Draper, style icon, as channeling nostalgia for an era when men were the breadwinners. Likewise, the rise of earthy looks – lumberjack hipsters, and all that – could be symptomatic of revanchist idolatry of the ‘manly’ man, who would never, ever change a diaper.
But you could just as easily argue that Mad Men fetishists in the US are really just sentimental for the days when America was coming up in the world. And all those guys in their Woolrich parkas and plaid flannel, well, maybe their dreams are of working with the hard, physical matter of the world, rather than the e-stuff and iThings of our virtual age.
Fine and dandy
The point is, clothes can be complicated. They can tell a few stories, all at once. And so it’s entirely probable that there’s more to this gender-blurring fashion moment than gender.
Dandyism, wrote the 19th Century poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire, emerges in times of transition. And at such moments, he asserted, “a certain number of men, disenchanted and leisured ‘outsiders’…may conceive the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy.”
What Baudelaire is talking about, of course, is taste. And when Jonathan Anderson explains that his controversial halter tops were the product of his desire to create “a new line,” he’s talking about taste, too. So is Charlie Casely-Hayford, co-founder of the luxury menswear brand Casely-Hayford, when he says that feminine elements give his brand’s natty suits a sense of “refinement.” You could argue that what we’re seeing on menswear runways right now is the establishment of Baudelaire’s aristocracy of taste. The folks in the front row were perfectly blasé about the halter tops at JW Anderson’s show. Their focus was on the way Anderson finessed the look, and his conviction in selling it
There’s a kind of ivory tower thinking at work in this, no doubt about it. But I’m willing to bet that, given some time, the public will come around to some version of this new unisex aesthetic. It’s happened before: as Martine Rose pointed out, there was a fey moment back in the seventies. And the feminine influence is already apparent in a handful of brands, like Casely-Hayford, that traffic in relatively conventional men’s clothes.
And Charlie Casely-Hayford agrees that, in time, his customer will fully come round. “We want to challenge our customer, but we don’t want to freak him out,” he says. “So every season, I’m asking myself – can we do a skirt? Will he understand? We’re almost there,” he adds. “But, you know, not quite yet.”