Androgyny Vs Travesty: Gender in Postmodern Fashion

Image: Robert Gober, Untitled (1991) Photo by the author.

By Jana Melkumova-Reynolds

In early 2013, following a decade of silence, David Bowie released a new single, The Stars (Are Out Tonight). The accompanying video features Bowie himself, Tilda Swinton, and two models: female, Saskia De Brauw (who came to wide public attention when she was featured in Saint Laurent Paris menswear campaign a few months earlier) and male, Andrej Pejic (who has been appearing on catwalks for a few seasons wearing exclusively womenswear collections). The video is widely referred to as androgyny-themed: Bowie is the symbol of glam and gender-bending; Swinton, after her title role in Orlando and years of wearing men’s suits to red carpets, has an aura of gender ambivalence; Pejic and De Brauw are known primarily for cross-dressing for the camera.

Yet, even though the bodies of the characters in the video are not gendered, their styles are. Swinton sports a pink Jackie O-style coat, curly blonde hair à la Marilyn and ultra-feminine turquoise eyeliner; Bowie wears manlike plaid shirts with cardigans, duffle coats and a mac. The couple next door, played by Pejic and De Brauw, wears high heels with a bodycon minidress and a sharp suit, respectively. Although in their case, gender identities are reversed (the woman is dressed as a man and plays one, and vice versa), they are nevertheless present and legible, which makes the term ‘androgyny’ slightly inappropriate in relationship to the video. The song’s lyrics refer to the stars as “sexless,” but the visuals do not deliver this message: all the characters are highly sexed, albeit two of them through cross-dressing. Genders, just like social roles (stars versus ordinary people), are shown to be easily interchangeable but never dismissible.


Saskia De Brauw, Tilda Swinton, David Bowie and Andrej Pejic in The Stars (Are Out Tonight).

The aesthetics of The Stars are in line with the latest catwalk fashions. The last few seasons have been marked with designers’ growing interest in what is often described as androgyny, although in most cases ‘travesty’ and ‘cross-dressing’ would be more appropriate terms. Two designers whose identities are associated primarily with menswear, Hedi Slimane and Raf Simons, have recently been appointed heads of two of the most influential womenswear lines, Saint Laurent Paris and Dior. These appointments resulted in an increased offering of (already popular) tuxedos, sharp shirts and trousers for ladies. J.W. Anderson’s AW13 menswear collection predominantly featured skirts, dresses and other non-bifurcated garments and looked like a womenswear line. Walter van Beirendonck has been showing dresses in his men’s lines for a good few seasons.  However, these fashions suggest not androgyny but rather genders that playfully exchange places. To put it in the words of fashion theorist Fred Davis, “The symbolic aim of these fashions is to dramatise cross-gender tensions, not to resolve them” (Davis 1992).

As for “true androgyny,” according to Davis, it:

…would involve a melding or muting of gender-specific items of apparel and appearance so thorough as to obliterate anything beyond a biological “reading” of a person’s sex… The clothing and other costuming borne by the person would have “nothing to say” on the matter of gender or sexual role. (Ibid.)

It would be fair to say that Bowie’s earlier self-representations, reflected in the recent wave of exhibitions (V&A’s David Bowie Is, Tate Liverpool’s Glam, etc.), adhere to these principles much more than his latest video.

The general academic consensus is that the sartorial division between the sexes became a priority during the modern period (Davis 1992, Entwistle 2000). According to Barbara Vinken, after the French Revolution “the sharpest line of demarcation is no longer horizontal – noble or non-noble – but vertical – man or woman” (Vinken 2005).  She argues that the woman’s sexuality in industrial society was visibly marked with her clothing, while the bourgeois man is sexually unmarked (Vinken 1999 and 2005). This dichotomy has persisted throughout modernity; most attempts to overthrow it have resulted in role reversion, rather than abolition of the male/female binary per se.


Marlene Dietrich’s tuxedo made popular by her role in Morocco.

Thus the history of “true androgyny” in the twentieth century has been that of cross-dressing, i.e. marked gendered clothing worn by a person of the opposite sex. Ossi Oswalda’s crisp white shirt and trousers in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1918 film I Don’t Want To Be A Man, Renate Muller’s top hat in the 1933 production of Viktor und Viktoria, Marlene Dietrich’s tuxedo made popular by her role in Morocco and later incorporated into Yves Saint Laurent’s womenswear collection – all these cross-dressing experiments stress the manliness of menswear items by making women wear them. According to Vinken, Saint Laurent’s women’s tuxedo and similar menswear items appropriated by women’s fashion reference “not the sexually unmarked, bourgeois man, but the dandy,” who, in Vinken’s terminology, is closer to women and aristocrats in his pursuit of elegance (1999). Likewise, men’s skirts by Gaultier and, more recently, Anderson exaggerate gender codes instead of eliminating them.

It is astonishing to see that catwalks today, just like Bowie’s latest video, are still ‘doing’ androgyny in that modern, cross-dressing (rather than post-modern, gender-blurring) way. In 1985, Elisabeth Wilson wrote that “fashion is obsessed with gender, endlessly defines and redefines gender boundaries” (Wilson 1985). Almost thirty years later catwalk fashion still appears unchanged in this respect, which is rather out-of-date. A few fashion designers, mainly adepts of the Rick Owens and Damir Doma school of thought, produce truly genderless collections incorporating unisex models with draped, blurred silhouettes in men’s and women’s sizes (the latest generation of them includes Rad Hourani and Aleksandr Manamis), but they do not cross over into mainstream fashion. They are not alone in this. Most artists who attempted to challenge the very concept of gender, rather than merely reverse gender roles, from Claude Cahun to Genesis P-Orridge (who refers to his selfing practice as ‘pandrogyny’), have remained underground and not familiar to the wide population.

Rad by Rad Hourani – Unisex Collection #6

Rad by Rad Hourani – Unisex Collection #6

However, while catwalk fashion and mainstream culture are failing to produce a new genderless, un-sexed identity, “real” androgyny can be seen in the streets, even if not every fashion connoisseur will appreciate it. The rise of sweatpants, running shoes, zip-up hoodies and blatantly genderless and sexless Crocs as every day wear manifests the advent of unmarked gender as part of mainstream self-representation practices. This may be a far cry from Bowie’s earlier highly fashion conscious style experiments, but it is a more contemporary way of transcending gender than that which designers are proposing; it is a look that is more gender neutral than any of the current catwalk fashions.

In the post-modern world where people are expected to take ownership of their identities, bodies and gender, intersexuality and gender neutrality phenomena are becoming hard to ignore, yet the fashion industry appears curiously oblivious to them. Queer and feminist theories view gender as a performance, not an essence (Butler 1990). Postgenderism goes further and suggests this performance may soon become unnecessary (Hughes and Dvorsky 2008), as biotechnology and advanced assistive reproductive options will render the notion of biological sex obsolete.

The 100,000 Years of Beauty compilation of essays (Azoulay, 2009) comprises an ironic projection into the future that lists the imaginary major events relating to beauty, fashion and self-representation over the next two centuries. One of these “predictions” suggests that in 2051 EU identity cards will “scrap the requirement to identify holders by gender”. The author of this essay suspects such an event is likely to happen much earlier, and demands for truly androgynous style that transcends gender boundaries, rather than reinforces them through playful subversion, will grow very rapidly: it is time the fashion industry took notice of this.

Azoulay, E. (ed.) (2009) 100000 years of beauty: Vol. 5. Paris: Gallimard, Editions Babylone
Butler, J. (1990) Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge
Davis, F. (1992) Fashion, culture and identity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
Dvorsky, G. and Hughes, J. (2008) Postgenderism: Beyond the gender binary. IEET Monograph Series
Entwistle, J. (2000) The fashioned body: fashion, dress and modern social theory. Cambridge: Polity
Quart, A. (2008) “When Girls Will Be BoysNew York Times, March 16.
Vinken, B. (2005) Fashion zeitgeist. London: Berg
Vinken, B. (1999) “Transvesty-travesty: fashion and gender”In Fashion Theory, Issue 3, Vol. 1, pp. 33-50. Oxford: Berg
Wilson, E. (1985) Adorned in dreams: fashion and modernity. London: Virago


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