The trouble with androgyny

By Anushka Tay

Marlene Dietrich

{ Marlene Dietrich – image source }

Understanding fashion as a social process suggests that if a fashion trend is to spread, it must capture and reflect the cultural zeitgeist; this includes our attitudes towards gender. 21st Century culture is moving towards the idea of gender as a wider spectrum, not a binary. In fashion, styles for men and women have grown closer together throughout the 20th Century as the cut of clothing and use of surface decoration bear more similarities between genders. The common acceptability of women in trousers, and the increasingly homogenised colours, has led to a widening of gender styles in fashion. This, alongside the increasing de-stigmatisation of men’s interest in fashion, may allow fashion to provide a basis for expressing the complexities of gender and sexuality. Using fashion to communicate our innermost personalities and broadest identities, unbound by societal binaries, seems to be the ideal manner of dressing in a society defined by equality (and tolerance). In this sense, adopting an androgynous look, through wearing either a mixture of gender-specific clothing or else unisex clothes, could be liberating. Arnold (2001, p.118) writes, ‘Unisex dress that disguises gender distinctions and presents a masquerade of equality for all, has been a recurring utopian dream.’ Avoiding assumptions and stereotypes associated with gender, androgyny could be used to offer choice: to dress in multiple ways, or one, or both.

However, in many ways, feminism’s struggle for gender equality has stressed the importance of adopting stereotypically masculine features, rather than championing both; this bias extends to works of queer theorists such as Halberstam’s Female Masculinity (1998). Oates-Indruchová (2003, p.48) criticises this common practice in gender studies: ‘These approaches work with the prevailing social and cultural assumption of the lesser value of the female/feminine in relation to the male/masculine, or show how the assumption operates.’ Even the concept of androgyny is not as neutral as it may at first seem. Williams (2003) studies the etymology of the words ‘hermaphrodite’ and ‘androgyne’, revealing that the Greek and Roman roots of both of these words open with the male reference (Hermes – the male god of virility; ‘aner’ meaning man), and are grammatically male. ‘Both words make strongly masculine first impressions, then, just where one would expect the second halves to redress the balance, revert to the masculine’ (Williams, 2003, p.127).

Fashion cannot reflect all the complexities of social life, and it would take concerted effort to break from convention. Even when fashion designers operate as artists, the system of change which defines fashion takes precedent; and styles cannot change if they are not accepted by people in society. Fashion is one tool amongst many which we may use as communication; however, we are far from living in a utopia where diversity is championed. We must return to Judith Butler’s concern for this heteronormative world (Butler, 1990 and 1993), where even diversity is coloured by the dominant ideology of whiteness and heterosexuality, and gender-neutral concepts such as androgyny still contain masculine undertones.





Butler, J. (1990) Gender trouble. 2nd Edition. Reprint, New York and Oxford: Routledge, 2007.

Butler, J. (1993) Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex”. New York and London: Routledge.

Arnold, R. (2001) Fashion, desire and anxiety: image and morality in the 20th century. London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

Halberstam, J. (1998) Female masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Oates-Indruchová, L. (2003) ‘The ideology of the genderless sporting body: reflections on the Czech State-Socialist concept of physical culture’ in Segal, N., Taylor, L. and Cook, R. Indeterminate bodies. Hampshire: Palgrage Macmillan. pp.48-66.

Williams, C. D. (2003) ‘ “Sweet Hee-She-Coupled-One”: unspeakable hermaphrodites’ in in Segal, N., Taylor, L. and Cook, R. Indeterminate bodies. Hampshire: Palgrage Macmillan. pp.127-138


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