If there is any doubt that genderless fashion is huge now, just take a look at the images on social media: Pop music star Harry Styles wearing a “Wizard of Oz” Dorothy dress complete with red sequined pumps and a big bow in his hair for a Halloween concert; the rapper Lil Nas X in a pannier skirt at the 2021 BET Awards; Tony and Emmy award winner Billy Porter at the 91st Oscar Awards in a bouffant gown; and all those models on the fashion runways wearing clothes not traditionally assigned to their gender, from sharply tailored long dresses for men at Thom Browne to boxy suits and cowboy hats for women at Gucci.
Miley Cyrus, who describes herself as “pansexual,” shifts from sexy and feminine to edgy and masculine.
Filipino comedian Vice Ganda identifies as non-binary and is at home both in a soldier’s uniform with army boots and a miniskirt with spiky stilettos.
This isn’t anything new, of course. The ancient Greeks, Roman, and Egyptians all wore togas and tunics regardless of gender. Spanish conquistadors in 16th-century Philippines encountered men in women’s apparel who were respected babaylans, or shamans.
A 1514 painting of “The Money Changer and His Wife” by Quentin Matsys shows the couple wearing almost identical clothes and headgear.
Men actually wore skirts in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, as did little boys and girls — Louis XV wears an ornate gown in the painting by Pierre Gobert and Charles II wears a voluminous one in a portrait by Justus van Egmont.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, with women banned from singing in church and for a time, on the opera stage, castrati (males who achieved a soprano or contralto voice as a result of castration before puberty) were employed to sing female parts and were dressed in women’s costumes.
Female performers were also forbidden in 17th-century Japan’s kabuki theater, prompting the men to take on their roles. Wakashu, adolescent males in the Edo era, would don the furisode kimono worn by unmarried women.
By the 19th century onwards boys in Europe weren’t dressed in skirts anymore. It was in this century when a patriarchal society considered men to be more active and women passive, so men wore the sober and simple clothing while women wore the more fashionable ensembles with crinoline skirts that restricted movement.
This didn’t stop the gender-fluid, though. Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, celebrated cross-dressers who brazenly went around town in women’s clothes, were arrested in 1870 and charged with sodomy.
Acquitted for lack of evidence, Ernest, a.k.a Stella, left London for New York where he became a stage actress. Vita Sackville West, a gender-fluid Victorian author, inspired her lover Virginia Woolf to write the novel Orlando featuring a protagonist who changes sex and outfits through the centuries.
Women would often cross-dress so that they could gain privileges that were only entitled to men.
Their crossing gender lines was more acceptable than that of men, with movie stars like Marlene Dietrich donning a man’s tuxedo in the 1930 film Morocco and Katharine Hepburn in men’s clothes in Sylvia Scarlett in 1935.
Yves Saint Laurent did his controversial version of the tux called Le Smoking in 1966, a style Nan Kempner wore to New York’s La Basque Restaurant, where she was denied entry for “inappropriate attire.” She created a sensation by taking off her trousers and wearing only the blazer.
The modern notion of gender-neutral clothing came about in 1968, dubbed “unisex” with Pierre Cardin, Courreges, and Paco Rabanne creating “Space Age” sleek silhouettes with graphic patterns and no historical gender associations. This would jumpstart performers like David Bowie, Grace Jones, and Prince to defy gender norms with their clothing choices.
In the last few years, discussions around gender identity have evolved and this is reflected in the evolution of fashion, which challenges gender stereotypes. Many brands have melded their menswear and womenswear into one show. Fifty-six percent of Gen Z consumers actually shop outside “their assigned gender area,” as reported in a WWD culture conference.
For spring-summer 2022, traditionally feminine pearl jewelry was seen on men with teardrop earrings at Givenchy and chokers at Valentino, while chunky orbed necklaces adorned men’s necks at Vivienne Westwood.
Louboutin has a capsule collection that’s available in men’s sizes. Women’s suits and jackets have a decidedly masculine cut at Paul Smith and Miu Miu.
Raf Simons’ minimal skirts and dresses are in his signature androgynous style that chooses no gender or body type. Valentino also has gender-inclusive cuts and ensembles done in a vibrant color palette. John Galliano’s sense of drama is still evident in the Martin Margiela Co-Ed collection with thigh-high boots paired with delicate dresses and structured coats.
But perhaps the most spectacular comment on gender came out of Balenciaga’s “The Simpsons” collaboration when designer Demna Gvasalia let Smithers choose his runway outfit. His choice: A stunning one-sided long gown in red.