Androgyny has been a steady part of pop culture for years: Remember David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust in the '70s, Grace Jones's flattop hair in the '80s, Kurt Cobain's queer grungy looks in the '90s, and Prince's endless array of glittery numbers throughout his career?
Subtler versions of these looks end up trickling into fashion: Yves Saint Laurent created boxy menswear-inspired suits for women, Calvin Klein had a series of black-and-white ads featuring women with shaved heads and men with luscious long hair side by side, and Marc Jacobs featured Andrej Pejic, a trans woman, as the face of his brand.
But in 2016, is fashion androgyny more than just a passing fad? Some startups are making the case that wearing gender-bending clothing is not particularly transgressive anymore. This is partly due to broader cultural changes that have made society more accepting of differences in people's gender and sexuality, thanks, in part, to the Supreme Court's decision to legalize gay marriage and the current fight for transgender rights. While older generations might perceive these moments as big cultural turning points (which they are), many millennials and gen Z'ers see them as givens. Brands say these changes are tied to an increased demand for clothes that don't conform to traditional gender norms and reflect a person's sexuality, gender identity, or simply their taste.
Take Older Brother, a brand founded in 2013 by Bobby Bonaparte and Max Kingery. Their collection consists of unisex garments that are designed to hang loosely on one's frame, disguising male and female body parts. Lookbooks show models of both sexes wearing the same outfits: baggy trousers, oversized button-down shirts, shapeless T-shirts. But none of this is meant to be particularly transgressive. In fact, it is meant to conjure up the warm, fuzzy feelings of wearing your older brother's hand-me-down jeans and sweatshirts when you were small.
The founders believe that in the digital era, fashion trends don't come around in cycles anymore. People who are attracted to particular styles (such as androgyny) can seek out a brand (like Older Brother) and stick with it, which creates enough of a steady demand to sustain the company. "The internet has totally disrupted trends," Kingery says. "Now it's really about finding your niche. You can buy clothes that suit you whenever you want."
Bonaparte and Kingery launched their brand in Portland, Oregon, where they grew up, and they believe they are filling a particular need for genderless clothing in their community. "Coming from a place like Portland that celebrates weirdness, many people don't feel like they need to wear one type of clothing because society dictates it," Bonaparte says.
They've found that their brand also tends to do well in particular pockets around the world where people are not so focused on the social conventions of dressing. Older Brother has taken off in London, Korea, and Japan, which all have a long history of unisex fashion. "Take the kimono," he says. "It literally just means, 'a thing to wear.' It was not tailored, so it could really fit anybody of any shape, size, or gender. Gender-neutrality is organic in the way that they use garments."
In the U.S., the brand does well in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Austin—cities that for decades have been the country's most progressive, particularly when it comes to gender and LGBTQ activism. There is a higher demand for gender-defying clothing from men and women who describe themselves as queer or gender non-conforming.
Brooklyn-based couple Kelly and Laura Moffat saw a need among women for masculine shirts. They themselves had struggled to find staple oxfords that looked boxy but still fit the female form. Women's button-downs tend to be designed with darts and pin-tucks to be fitted, while men's shirts are often too rectangular and gape around the bust area. Last year, the Moffats launched Kirrin Finch, a company that makes dapper menswear-inspired shirts that don't leave women looking like they're wearing tents. "Our customers are women who might identify as tomboys, androgynous, or queer," Laura says. "People who don't fit the mold of what traditional retailers are creating for women."
But they've also found that gender-neutral fashion is appealing to a broader spectrum of women, even those who do not think of themselves as queer. Many women simply want to have more options in their closets. They might wear a frilly frock one day and shirt with a bowtie the next. "There are beautiful things about traditional men's and women's clothing," Laura says. "Think feminine floral patterns and masculine geometric shapes. When you start to experiment with not being just one or the other, you get to a place that is more interesting."
The founders of Older Brother point out that women are much more willing to adopt masculine fashion than the other way around. Although their collection tends to veer toward more masculine silhouettes, nearly 70% of their customers are women.
Women have a long history of adopting men's clothing. In the early 1800s, they started wearing trousers, which were, until then, an exclusively masculine garment. But we've yet to reach the point in mainstream culture where men are embracing dresses and skirts en masse. Bonaparte recalls the time when he was a 6-year-old and wore his friend's dress for a day, only to be shamed by the girl's father. "There's still a lot of stigma attached to a man wearing a skirt," he says.
There are places where this is beginning to change. In high fashion, designers like Rick Owens and Jil Sanders have created gender-defying pieces for men. And male celebrities tend to be more comfortable wearing feminine pieces. Rapper Big Sean was featured on the cover of XXL magazine wearing a Dior floral print bomber jacket, for instance.
Bonaparte and Kingery are trying to push the boundaries in their own way. In a recent collection, they introduced a cropped T-shirt and a shirtdress that were inspired by more traditional womenswear, but chose not to be too heavy-handed about it. "This is just playful experimentation," Bonaparte says. "We're being supportive of the concept without stuffing it down people's throats. But if we can make it easier for men to wear women's clothes, I think that would be an amazing position for us to be in."
In more subtle ways, androgyny is already cropping up in some of the everyday items that men are wearing. Bucketfeet, for instance, is a footwear company that collaborates with artists who create designs to decorate sneakers. The art is varied, from graffiti to screen-printing to photography, and could be classified as masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral, but the vast majority of the designs are sold to both men and women. "There's this idea in fashion that women will shop in men's stores, but not the other way around," says Raaja Nemani, who founded Bucketfeet in 2011 with Aaron Firestein. "But our products already stand out because of the art on them, and we've found that our customers are already willing to take risks with how they dress to break down some of those gender norms."
Nemani says he's found that it is impossible to predict which designs will appeal more to each gender. Some designs that might seem more feminine, including those with pastels or graphics of birds and flowers, have been a huge hit with men. "I'd rather not guess whether men or women will prefer a pattern," he says. "Art affects people in such unique and varied ways that transcend gender."
The underwear brand MeUndies has also found that its heavily millennial client base has grown tired of buying undrrwear that is overtly gendered. For a woman, shopping for underwear usually involves digging through piles of frilly lace in soft hues, girly patterns, and va-va-va-voom red; for men, everything tends to be gray and black with no patterns at all, regardless of whether you're into boxers or briefs. Much like Bucketfeet, MeUndies develops a wide array of fun, bold patterns which it then makes in both men and women's styles. This means there are occasionally bright pink men's boxers and camo-print women's bikinis. The brand has also tried to make the cut and shape of the underwear itself less gender-specific, although there are obviously physical considerations to ensure that the products fits comfortably. "Our women’s boy short is essentially the men's boxer brief without the pouch, while our men’s brief is essentially the women's bikini cut with a pouch," says Jonathan Shokrian, the brand's founder. "The design elements for each remain consistent across the board."
When Calvin Klein launched his unisex scent in 1994, it was meant to make a bold statement. Print ads for the fragrance showcased skinny, tattooed men and women, each in various stages of undress and dripping with ambiguous sexuality. At the time, these images stood out in perfume aisles adorned with photos of women in white dresses and frolicking in fields of flowers, or muscular men with smoldering expressions. But these days, this kind of marketing feels almost quaint.
Four months ago, a perfume company called Phlur entered the market with a suite of six unisex scents. Although gender-neutral fragrances are still not that common, the brand has does not emphasize its androgynous approach as a selling point. Instead, Phlur highlights how each combination of smells represents a particular state of mind or mood. "We were trying to depart from the tired messaging of the fragrance category for the past 70 years, which was entirely laced in sex, the objectification of both genders, and an almost carnal misogyny," says founder Eric Korman. "Traditional sexist messaging just does not resonate with younger consumers the way it has previously."
The company's ads feature images of men and women in a wide range of contexts. Female models wear masculine blazers and leather jackets, often with no makeup; those same women are also featured wearing sequined dresses. Male models wear tank tops and necklaces in some images and suits in others. Gender is treated with a light touch, as if the brand's not trying too hard to get the politics of gender right. "Androgyny is not a trend anymore," says founder Eric Korman. "It's a shift in behavior and expectation."