A trend or a revolution?
Over the course of Ecce Homo’s blog, we have dedicated quite many articles to revisiting the history of fashion: from the history of swimwear to the history of underwear, from the history of the gender-coding of particular colors to the history of specific pieces of clothing, like the jockstrap. In our latest article, we took a step further by asking how the fashion history has been predominantly written, namely which is the mainstream narrative regarding the history of fashion especially in reference to gender and sexuality. Starting from the premise that the social body is constructed and represented in such a way that mirrors the individual generic body, namely the male body, we proceed with the following insights: firstly, the history of fashion seems to be inextricably linked on the one hand to the history of gender and sexuality and on the other to wider socio-political developments, secondly, fashion history like any other history is exactly this, a his-tory, that is a history written by and for men, and thirdly, fashion itself is considered to be a 'feminine' -frivolous and superficial- preoccupation, something that concerns almost exclusive women or those who are identified with femininity, that is gay men, especially effeminate ones.
To put it in a nutshell, the dominant and popular paradigm of narrating the history of fashion is too heteronormative! This paradigm takes a self-evident a series of implicit assumptions about gender and sexuality, it projects them to the past, and consequently contributes to naturalizing the contemporary status quo as inevitable as long as it is easily detectable across time and space. Unavoidably, this heteronormative narrative tends to leave out of the framework of the ‘official’ history all those queer moments that do not fit well into its asphyxiating rationale that is based on a biological notion of gender, a strict gender binary and a taken-for-granted desire of the ‘opposite’ gender.
To be honest, the heteronormativity that permeates fashion history is far from being a history! Rather, it continues to structure our understanding of styling and fashion in a deep and unconscious manner even though we should be able to diagnose a gradual change under way in recent years regarding the gendered representations in fashion. These quite a few yet increasingly influential queer moments are usually representations of gay cis celebrities who has already a certain status as being ‘rich and famous’ singers or actors, like Billy Porter and Lil Nas X. Showing up on major fashion events, such as the annual Met Gala, or attending major fashion shows in Europe and the USA, these mostly gay men are dressed in pieces of clothing associated in our cultural heteronormative imaginary with ‘women’s fashion’ and in this way one could argue that they use fashion strategically as a way of dismantling the fashion common sense via this gender-bending.
Either wearing a dress, a specially attire combining ‘male’ and ‘female’ stylistic elements, queering a traditionally ‘male’ piece of clothing or adding some ‘feminine’ accessories, these men push the boundaries of what it means to perform one’s gender as a man, without usually identifying as non-binary or gender-queer. Even though they are the target of scathing homophobic comments for their ‘effeminate’ looks based on the lingering stereotype of gay men being 'naturally' feminine, they are also praised by the press for ‘embracing their sexuality’ and ‘expressing their identity’ unapologetically, for being ‘brave enough to come out of the closet’ despite the potential ‘career costs’ that such a gesture might entail for Hollywood stars of this caliber.
One can talk of a slow change in fashion’s gender rules also in both qualitative and quantitative terms. Not only is this visibility increased in comparison to the amount of past queer representations in fashion, but they are also quite different in kind. To be sure, gender-bending and gender cross-identifications have always been a part of the image of some famous singers and actors since many decades now, (just bring to mind the Glam Rock musicians and especially David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust), but these representations were in the most cases part of the image-making of mostly heterosexual celebrities, an artistic persona if you like.
Even within fashion industry, gender-bending has always been both a source of inspiration and a marketing gimmick for brands and fashion designers, either a media provocation or a purely aesthetic extravaganza on the catwalk. Nowadays, it is openly gay men who dare to slay such fabulous loutfits as part of their sexuality and gender expression, and in some cases as a political or social statement capitalizing on the semiology of clothes, a call for inclusivity and acceptance. Moreover, in the age of social media frenzy, such looks are going viral even on mainstream media platforms reaching millions of people throughout the world, rather than being a footnote on a fashion magazine or blog.
One the other hand, this new visibility via fashion inevitably reproduces its own invisibilities the same way every gesture towards inclusion rests on a series of exclusions that constitutively define the former by deciding who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of fashion. Lesbian, bisexual, intersex, and trans celebrities receive much less media attention, while we should keep in mind that all these ‘famous and rich’ has an immense class privilege that cuts across gender and sexual identities and expressions making them able to afford such fashion statements with relative low risk. On top of that, these looks tend to be what one might call ‘high fashion’, a bit over the top, and this risks them becoming also highly aestheticized. By this I mean that the social difference that they come to signify symbolically and semiotically via the use of clothing is a social difference devoid of its historical past and social context, a superficial shiny image on a red carpet that does not draw any attention to the interlocking axes of violence that have rendered such looks unintelligible even in stylistic terms to begin with.
The powerful messages that these celebrities sometimes try to pass across with their stylistic choices are getting swept away by an over-emphasis on the outifits in a clickbait logic that trades in impressions without scratching beneath the surface. Perhaps, in our current neoliberal order that capitalizes on images and clicks, gender has become another fashionable accessory for us to choose at our whim from a closet of identities ready to dress a fluid and marketable self. Perhaps, gender has lost its traction as a marker of social difference at least for those who can afford to turn the blind eye to the overwhelming systemic violence of heteronormativity. I can't help but wonder: is this observable openness to different gender expressions and identities in fashion another attempt at market expansion already coopted by heteronormativity or is it a first step towards a more inclusive fashion industry that aims at changing the very parameters of the game of style? I guess only time will tell! The fact remains that such looks at least open a discussion within and outside the fashion world, raise a limited yet substantial awareness to those willing to look beneath the surface, and put under question the very implicit gender assumptions that we started this article with.