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Gender-fluid dressing moves beyond the red carpet

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Gabriel Kulti’s “prized possession” is a vintage, long-sleeved Jean Paul Gaultier top that clings to the body and is woven from a semi-translucent mesh finer than spider’s silk. The 20-year-old London-based student and model found it — along with many other of his slinky tops — on resale site Depop, in the women’s section.

“There are more options in women’s; masculine clothing can be quite limiting,” says Kulti, who carries his laptop to university in a monogrammed Goyard handbag and has a fondness for crop tops, patterned headscarves and rosary beads. “Traversing that boundary into feminine clothing is cool,” he says. “I’m comfortable in my masculinity. I have no problem wearing feminine clothing and being a man.”

Such views are shared by a growing pool of teenaged and twenty-something men who are leaning into gender-bending accessories, make-up and clothing. These Gen Zers and millennials tend to frequent trendier neighbourhoods of major cities — east London, Brooklyn, Berlin’s Kreuzberg, Seoul’s Gangnam — and work in creative industries.

In recent weeks around the east London borough of Hackney, where I live, I’ve spotted hipsters with glinting hoop earrings, dustings of eye shadow, and long locks held back by scrunchies; skateboarders and baristas with pastel or burgundy nail polish; streetwear bros flaunting strings of pearls; guys at the pub in crop-tops and dainty blouses; and men heading to the club in platform boots and dinky Dior saddle-bags.

. . . a trend that was already resonating with some fashion-forward shoppers and celebrities

“[Wearing typically feminine pieces] is just the same as if I liked a cool top’s print or pattern,” says Alexander Thomas, a 29-year-old London DJ and model who in the past two years has started wearing crop tops, sports bras and bikinis with baggy jeans and Nike trainers when he livestreams his DJ sets or goes out clubbing. “It’s not about shock value.”

While gender-fluid style is hardly new, it has tended to apply overwhelmingly to women wearing so-called “mannish” clothes — from boyfriend jeans to Annie Hall-style tailoring — rather than the other way around. Yet in the past five years, it has become common for fashion brands to dress male models in skirts and frocks, and launch unisex and men’s cosmetics lines. This chimes with an increasing rejection of gender binaries, by young people especially, as rigid and outdated. “Gen Zers are not paying so much attention to the distinctions in clothing compared to older generations,” says Kulti.

Nonetheless, it has taken time for even the most fashion-forward men to wear items that would traditionally be considered feminine. Now, it’s finally feeling like a bona fide movement rather than something confined to the fantasy world of runways and red carpets.

Men wearing crop tops, sporty bras, blouses and make-up are an increasingly common sight in the trendier neighbourhoods of major cities
Men wearing crop tops, sporty bras, blouses and make-up are an increasingly common sight in the trendier neighbourhoods of major cities © Jonathan Daniel Pryce

Men wearing typically feminine items is “for sure happening on a mainstream level in real life,” says Emily Gordon-Smith, the director of consumer product at trend-forecasting agency Stylus. She says it has gained momentum in the past year, “where inclusivity and diversity have become such a focus for so many more people”, and emphasises that it’s being played out in online spaces such as TikTok and Instagram — where men who don’t live in metropolises feel freer to express themselves — as much as on the streets.

Retail data supports this. At online shopping engine Lyst, Telfar’s lime-green leather handbag and Thom Browne’s pleated grey skirt were among the most-searched-for items by men earlier this year, while at Selfridges, pearls and beaded jewellery have become “just as popular” in the past year as silver pieces, according to Bosse Myhr, director of menswear and womenswear. Palomo Spain, a menswear label known for its floral kaftans and ruffled shirts, has more than doubled annual revenues this year to about £1.5m, according to founder Alejandro Gómez Palomo. And at Browns East, the Shoreditch luxury boutique that eschews gendered sections, manager Adrian Gordon estimates that “between 15-20 per cent” of men who come into the store don’t ask whether they’re trying on men’s or women’s designs. Bottega Veneta’s padded cassette clutch, Marine Serre’s skin-tight tops and Eytys’ platform boots are current hits among men, he adds.

The movement is spearheaded by a new breed of genderless brands such as Telfar and Nicopanda, and by luxury labels with flamboyant or androgynous codes such as Gucci, Palomo Spain, Rick Owens and Charles Jeffrey Loverboy. Their impact is amplified by the A-listers who wear their wares, whether it’s Harry Styles in a Gucci gown on the cover of Vogue; basketball player Russell Westbrook floating along a Manhattan sidewalk in a shin-grazing Thom Browne skirt; or the many rappers who have donned dresses, blouses and babushka scarves, including ASAP Rocky, Lil Nas X, Kid Cudi, Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert.

Gender-fluid dressing has been popular at recent fashion weeks, such as Milan in September . . . 

. . . and has been particularly embraced by young Gen Zers, who reject gender binaries

“Traditionally most of those [stars] are straight and in ‘masculine’ industries, so young straight guys are seeing it [and thinking] ‘Oh, I can do it,’” says Browns East’s Gordon. He believes youthfulness is a more defining characteristic of gender-fluid dressing than sexuality. As well as gay men who are “breaking the boundaries”, says the DJ Thomas, “it’s definitely moving in that [gender-fluid] direction for the extroverts, the rock stars and other heterosexuals in creative sectors.”

Men’s embrace of gender-fluid style sits along a spectrum. At the conservative end, you have gents wearing traditionally feminine colours (pinks, pastels) and patterns (florals, animal prints). In the middle you have men adding nail polish, pearls, handbags and other delicate accessories. And at the most liberal you have guys like Jonny Semble, a 28-year-old recruiter at a music tech firm in Berlin who recently wore a black & Other Stories gown with dangly earrings and Chanel sunglasses to a cocktail party.

It takes chutzpah for men to challenge gender stereotypes with their clothing. Although Semble has only had one nasty real-life encounter (when someone spat on him because he was wearing make-up and hotpants), when he posts photos of his outfits on Instagram, some friends reply with a laughing emoji. “Although it’s fun for me [to dress like this] it’s also not a joke,” he says. “[Replies] like that make me want to challenge people to find out what it is that’s a problem for them.”

London-based artist Adebayo Bolaji wears a printed maxi skirt and leather jacket
London-based artist Adebayo Bolaji wears a printed maxi skirt and leather jacket

Thomas, meanwhile, has a miniskirt hanging in his room but is still mustering up the confidence to “throw it on and walk down the street”. What will it take to overcome his hang-ups? “Representation, representation, representation,” he says. “The more I see, the more confident I get.”

In the next two years, Stylus’s Gordon-Smith expects gender-fluid style to become a “big agenda item” for even the most mainstream menswear brands, while the designer Palomo says there’s a precedent for how this trend could play out: skinny jeans. He remembers more than a decade ago when clingfilm-tight denim was donned by boundary-pushing folks but mocked by macho men as overly camp. Now? “Skinny jeans have become a basic garment for the straightest possible man,” he says. “That’s a clear example of a trend being created by a niche of people and then being followed by masses.”

While it won’t happen overnight, those pink button-down shirts will eventually soften into blouses, shrink into crop tops, or perhaps even blossom into gowns.

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