Fashion in terms of fashion houses and the magazines that promote them have always thrived on their ability to push the boundary. They create the trends that trickle down into the masses. Those that have seen “The Devil Wears Prada” may recall Meryl Streep’s epic monologue about how ultimately fashion houses that cater to the fashion literate and wealthy permeate all areas of clothing. The current trend in fashion is the blurring of gender lines with the new buzzword “androgynous.” Designers of both womenswear and menswear have been dipping into the clothes of each other. Few subcultures have taken to the gender defiance more than men in hip-hop who instead of corrupting their masculinity in feminine clothing only further cement their masculine identity. The rise of women’s wear as men’s wear in hip-hop/rap culture has enhanced masculine identities of biological males.
Fundamentally fashion’s purpose has been to visually separate man from woman. This is best manifested in the signs that label men’s and women’s restrooms where the male is essentially nude and the female is wearing a dress. The dress therefore becomes an icon of femininity in a society where gender and sex are aligned. “Clothing…functioned as an ‘identity kit,’ reinforcing society’s distinctions between men and women…” (Nelson 22) The over simplification creates a conformity that either informs fashion or is informed by fashion. “Fashion only produces conformity…fashion cements social solidarity and imposes group norms” (Wilson 5-6) Few people throughout history have challenged these gender conformities on a fundamental basis as “…deviations in dress are usually experienced as shocking and disturbing” (Wilson 6) As much as fashion is an identifier of gender it is also a way in which a person identifies themselves. A biological male who identifies as male-gendered expresses his male identity through the clothes that he wears working within a combination of clothing types, structure, pattern and color. There is no specific hand-guide that dictates what is men’s and what is women’s, but there is a hegemonic ideology that is nurtured within children from an early age who through time are told whats “okay” and whats “not okay.” “Identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberator contestation of that very oppression.” (butler 308) These rules and “regulatory regimes” have often been subverted by societies queer subcultures, but in very recent years gender non-conformity has manifested in societies “hyper masculine heterosexuals.”
While saying who is a hyper masculine heterosexual is inherently biased, I look to our culture to pinpoint figures that represent hyper masculinity. Traits of a hyper masculine male can include strength, aggression, violence, objectification of women, overt sexualization of women and objection of queer subcultures. Again these traits are purely subjective and can in part be traits of a subculture that subverts gender, however for the purpose of the argument I am focusing solely on a group that has historically not subverted gender. The first culture that comes to mind in a glaringly obvious way is hip-hop/rap culture that has historically stood in apparent contrast to queer culture and continue the objectification of women. So it is surprising that recently hip-hop/raps biggest icons have begun testing the waters of gender non-conformity.
Kanye West, pictured above, shocked audience members when he performed on stage in a leather skirt designed for men by Givenchy. As mentioned early skirts and dresses have long been the symbol of femininity. There of course was discourse within the hiphop community and the media-at-large, but there was no effect on Kanye’s iconic-status and over time the story faded. That is until others in the hip-hop community began appearing on stage in skirts as well, including A$AP Rocky, P. Diddy and Vin Diesel—all of whom represent a level of hyper masculinity whether it be in their songs, lifestyle, or acting career. Even R. Kelly, pictured below, who is infamous for his sexual fetishes with women and recently appears on a Lady Gaga song about how he’ll “Do what [he] wants with [her] body.What happens when these men wear an article of clothing that has for centuries been exclusively for women is surprisingly not a dilution of their masculinity, but instead a cementation of it. The idea that only these hyper masculine men could get a way with wearing a skirt arises because they aren’t afraid of the repercussions. They know that because they are viewed as hyper masculine there image won’t be tarnished and in some circles they will be lauded for their daringness where those less masculine will be condemned, questioned and ridiculed for defying gender norms. It’s a strange double-standard that arises, but not a wholly unprecedented one.
The Peacock Revolution of the 1960’s marked the beginning of gender nonconformity in men as the popularity in bright colors and fantastic patterns rose. Traditionally reserved to the mute color palette of black, brown, blue, green and grey men’s clothing did not typically foray into the pastels of women’s wear. Most likely a result of the zeitgeist of the 60’s, began to rebel against the oppressiveness of society including the regulatory regime of gender conformity in fashion. “The most critical factor, of course, was that many American consumers, anxious to distinguish themselves from the crowd, were ready for just the sort of ‘different’ garments that Rubin Brothers was offering.”(201) Rubin Brothers offered the style, cut and color of the suit modeled by the man in the image above. Not only did men dabble in different prints but they also experimented in cross gender apparel albeit more specifically accessories. “Men’s Wear ran a feature on ‘Trans-Sexual Fashion’ in which writer Jack McClsokey noted the rising popularity among the young ‘flowing scares and look/alike vests, psychedelic prints, and perhaps even he/she caftans”(192). “Trans-Sexual Fashion” might be better labeled “Androgynous” today didn’t end in the 60’s.
“Hair Bands” of the 80’s most obviously marked by their flowing locks, tight pants, clashing patterns, and drag make-up were the icons of sex appeal. Sex appeal of course defined by a certain demographic of people typically white, young adult females. (A fact corroborated by my mother’s intense collection of band shirts from her hay-day) Regardless of the demographic it is true that “hair bands” dominated the popular charts the same way hip-hop dominates today. The tales of rampant sex and orgies that accompany these bands has long boosted the hyper masculine characters whose dress and makeup stand in stark contrast. The same way the skirt enhances masculinity for the heterosexually masculine today make up, tight jeans and long hair enhanced masculinity in the 80’s.
I’d argue though that the Peacock Revolution of the 60’s and hair bands on the 80’s were merely caricatures of gender who in the context of their times stood in such contrast to gender identity that their actions weren’t regarded as gender subversion, but instead entertainment, shock value or attention grabbing. Kanye West’s skirt was a muted black leather layered with a sweatshirt featuring a pitbull which makes his skirt less about shock value and more about subtlety. Had he emerged on stage in a pink paisley skirt I’m not sure my argument would be as effective.
What we’ve come to in today’s society is a growth in the way hyper masculine heterosexual men choose to identify themselves within their gender. What may seem like an advancement in gender equality and queer acceptance is really just an enhancement of the existing gender norms. The likely future of skirts in men’s fashion may fade like the paisley of the 60’s and hair of the 80’s.