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The Adoption Of The Feminine Into Men's Fashion And Culture

Jul 11, 2008
The continually changing vogue is now such a large part of all urban cultures that it is easy to assume it has always been a part of society. In fact, the habit of constantly changing styles of dress began in Europe in the middle of the 14th century. During this time the cut of men's over-garments changed rapidly, the length shortened from mid-calf to mid-buttock and they became tighter. This cutting edge new style became the distinctive tailored jacket over trousers outline of the western man, an outline which endures to this day.

Historically, the fashion of men and women has differed massively. Men's fashions often had roots in the military and women's focussed on the dress. Although colour, cut and style fluctuated, the basic template remained the same. Women wore dresses and men wore some form of the modern suit.

One of the best known early attacks on the sex based fashion status quo was carried out in the Victorian period by Amelia Bloomer. Heavily involved in women's suffrage in 19th century America Bloomer campaigned for women's rights with the kind of genteel dignity of the Victorians. Surprisingly it is not her political work Mrs. Bloomer is remembered for, it is for her affiliation with controversial and politically charged fashion for which she is best known. The invention of the "Bloomer suit" by Elizabeth Miller in 1851( a pair of loose trousers gathered at the ankle similar to those worn in by women in Middle Eastern countries with a short dress on top) was heavily promoted by Bloomer in her women's newspaper, The Lily.

Mrs. Bloomer's advocated new clothing style was a fashion revolution, the new costume reflected her political views and those of her readership. The inclusion of trousers in western women's dress was largely unheard of and by publicly wearing the controversial costume, Bloomer made her desire for equal rights impossible to ignore. Unfortunately Bloomer's gender-boundary smashing fashion statement was short lived. It was met with ridicule from the press and public opinion was hardly sympathetic to her cause. Eventually even Bloomer herself gave up and returned to conventional fashions.

Trousers did not return to women's fashion for almost a century and when they did begin to appear in the 1930s it was mainly for practicality rather than any kind of political statement. Women were becoming increasingly active, taking part in sport and leisure activities which previously were the reserve of men. By taking part in these activities and wearing clothes which, at the time, were still considered to be men's items, women were blurring accepted gender boundaries and by doing so they began the slow evolution of the androgynous fashions we see today.

Fast forward to the 1970's and a shocking new fashion trend was sweeping the nation. The punk look was deliberately designed to be as shocking and rebellious as possible. Offensive t-shirts featuring symbols and slogans selected deliberately for their shock value were commonplace, as were military style boots and very tight jeans or leather trousers. This non-conformist uniform was very similar for both male and female punks. The early designs of punk godmother - Vivienne Westwood clearly show the early androgyny of punk. Make-up was mainly still a feminine item, however, in punk culture it was used to match the groups aggressive, shocking aesthetic. This further separated punk women from conventional images of femininity.

The appearance of fashions that created a androgynous "third sex" continued into the 1980s. New romantic and goth looks allowed the male use of make-up and feminine fabrics such as velvet and lace. It is arguable that these fashions were a direct response to the appearance of "power dressing." A fashion which extolled the virtues of expressing wealth through dress, men wore expensive, well cut suits with exaggerated shoulder-pads and women followed suit, adapting the style in a distinctly feminine way. By creating one unisex style that incorporated masculine and feminine elements, new romantic and goth created an easily identifiable sub-culture. The movements relied on their non gendered, unconventional style to be noticed.

In modern times youth subculture has taken the manipulation of gender convention in fashion to a new level. Previously niche unisex fashions could be viewed as a reaction to the divide between masculinity and femininity in mainstream culture and fashion. In current popular fashion no such divide seems to exist, unisex fashion is on the catwalk, the street and niche cultures.

The rise of the so-called "metrosexual" - a man with the grooming inclinations and fashion awareness of a woman is a good example of modern androgyny. Even men who dress in traditionally masculine fashions often have grooming habits that would have been considered distinctly feminine as recently as the 1990s. Men now often straighten their hair to conform to the current aesthetic, men's moisturisers and haircare products are appearing with increasing regularity on supermarket shelves and some companies are now offering men's makeup. This makeup is not intended for obvious use like in goth and electro fashions but instead for subtle enhancement of the features, just like female makeup. With a rising awareness of grooming even traditionally masculine men are taking on a unprecedented level of femininity. Footballers, previously muddy cheeked embodiments of masculinity, seem to be on the forefront of this revolution. The likes of David Beckham advertise men's grooming products and publicly display a keen (if not slightly misguided) interest in fashion.

The modern penchant for androgyny seems to be here to stay, with men becoming increasingly aware of fashion, grooming and even emotion this could well be the first fashion trend that positively impacts society. Perhaps the typically feminine qualities of nurture and compassion will pass into mainstream men's culture, if so we have fashion to thank.
About the Author
Samantha is a London theatre fanatic and regular West End theatregoer. She writes and researches some of the biggest London shows you can view examples of her work here Oliver
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