Gender-Neutral – Not a New Word
2015 was the year that even the most conservative heard the term Gender Neutral. Non-binary terminology was surging through the fashion industry at an unanticipated velocity, sweeping important discourse into the online arena. Non-binary influencers were taking to the spotlight and companies were trying to capitalize on this forward momentum. For those of us who are non-binary and therefore a part of this community, 2015 was an important year.
Androgyny is a term that has perhaps more familiarity to the average person than terms like gender-fluid, gender-neutral, or any other label for the diverse facets of the Trans community. Throughout history, non-binary persons were not a spectacle or perceived as being out of the ordinary. In Ancient Greece, the Greek god Aphroditus had all the physical appearances of a female while still possessing his penis. During the regular celebration of Aphroditus in Athens, attendees would swap both their clothing and traditional gender roles during the festivities. Like many indigenous tribes, Native Americans held non-binary people in high-esteem and referred to them as Two-Spirited. These Two-Spirited people often held positions of power in their communities, most commonly as witch doctors or spiritual guides. Through the years: Men wore heels first, everyone (regardless of their assigned birth sex) wore frilly dresses in infancy, and the colors pink and purple were worn by anyone and everyone who could afford these expensively dyed garments.
It wasn’t until more recent times that the black-and-white structure of gender characterised in shades of blue and pink was adopted. This limited view of personal expression and being doesn’t fit with individual identification which can range on a very wide and personal scale. Labels in general are a social construct that doesn’t seem to quite fit. And for those who further along on the non-binary gender line, things are a lot more difficult.
Discrimination and violence are tragically high issues that non-binary people struggle with every day. Statistically, trans people have very high rates of suicide and transgendered women of color are the most at risk of violence. Due to rampant discrimination in the workplace, many non-binary folks end up finding alternate (read: unsafe and sometimes illegal) ways of earning a living. With the evolution and change of conversation surrounding these issues in 2015, I hope that the shift towards equality will move forward.
The fashion industry has served a peek into this socially aware movement with trans models taking to the catwalk and gender-neutral fashion reigning the top collections. But the fashion industry has not always been so kind. Ironically, despite many outsiders perhaps thinking to the contrary, the conclaves of the fashion world were a rather homophobic and prudish place for quite some time. Critics were easily shocked, designers hid in their fabulously outfitted closets, gay or lesbian models were not permitted to allow people to know their sexuality (after all, it would ruin the market value of their image), and gender was usually clearly delineated in the garments. Many iconic moments throughout the 1900s have set us up to the point we have reached today…
- 1913 Paul Poiret's harem pants appeared on the cover of Vogue decades before trousers were acceptable attire for women
- 1913 Coco Chanel opened her first store in Paris featuring her sporty, casual fashion crafted using fabrics like jersey and tricot which were primarily used for men’s underwear at the time. She is credited with liberating women from the constraints of the “corseted silhouette.” On a beach vacation, she chose to wear sailor’s pants instead of a swimming costume and her legions of followers quickly adopted the style.
- 1930 Marlene Dietrich portrays a bi-sexual cabaret singer in top hat, tux, and white bow tie with smoke from her cigarette creating a halo around her head. Audiences were shocked when her character Mademoiselle Amy Jolly kissed a female audience member during a musical number after downing a glass of champagne.
- In her personal life, Marlene Dietrich defied conventional gender roles. She was a part of the thriving gay scene in Berlin through the 1920s and boxed at Turkish trainer and prizefighter Sabri Mahir’s boxing studio.
- 1939 In World War II, women went to work in munitions factories while their husbands fought over seas. And what did they wear? Why, oose trousers of course.
- 1950s Liberace was the belle of the ball with his gaudy ruffled, glittery, and over-the-top costumers worn for his theatrical performances. Pink became a very popular color for men.
- 1966 Le Smoking jacket was created by Yves Saint Laurent in 1966 and received lukewarm reviews from critics. Very few respectable hotels or restaurants will serve female guests wearing such masculine attire. The classic jacket has been a reworked staple in the house's collections in recent years.
- Late 1960s The hippie movement and broadening social awareness create a melting pot of exploration. Men grow their hair long, experiment with more feminine clothing (textures, colors, and patterns), and wear platform shoes.
- 1970 David Bowie releases his album Man Who Sold The World. The burgeoning superstar drapes himself languidly across a sofa wearing a long floral dress on the album cover. He also began performing in dresses which shocked and reviled many at his shows.
- 1970 Diane Keaton wore men's shirts, ties, and galligaskins in Woody Allen's iconic film Annie Hall.
- 1972 Oh look....David Bowie again! In 1972, Bowie releases Ziggy Stardust on the world. Nothing will be the same again.
- His androgynous alien alter-ego defies gender roles and announces his bi-sexuality to the world. Glam rock and fashion is born!
- Early '70s Glam rock takes off in the UK with force spearheaded by Marc Bolan's supergroup T-Rex. Bands like Roxy Music, Slade and Sweet begin swarming to the growing subculture. Men embrace their femininity and challenge society's definitions of masculinity.
- Grace Jones moved to New York in the '70s and quickly became the androgynous muse of the top fashion houses. The supermodel/singer/actress' warrior-like stance and fierce style were instantly captivating. Like Bowie, there was something almost other-worldly about her.
- The 1980s The '80s subculture in London gave birth to the New Romantics with pop sensations like Boy George leading the charge.
- Annie Lennox, then singer in The Eurythmics, sheared off all her hair making the crew cut a popular style for women.
- Rocky Horror Picture Show began the journey to cult status in 1975. The sexually charged musical artfully played with the English language to clever effect. Tim Curry's role as Dr. Frank-N-Furter was bold and brash.
Obviously this is only a small selection of the historically important moments leading to our present day, but they are the most well-known and have also touched upon this writer in meaningful ways in my own journey.
Join us for Part 2 of our three part series on Friday January 22nd. We will be discussing the big moments and impact of gender neutral/non-binary fashion in 2015.
This article is written by Anna Crooke, our non-binary Director of Marketing & PR.