For millennia, clothing—pragmatically used to increase comfort in harsh climates and terrain—has served a secondary function as a signifier for countless social categories, including class, ethnicity, profession, religion, and gender. Though styles have changed drastically throughout history and still vary regionally, the contemporary fashion industry still serves to delineate people into cultural roles, sometimes to the point of being oppressive. However, since the 20th century, both in avante garde circles and increasingly in mainstream design studios, an emphasis on blurring the lines between masculinity and femininity has become increasingly popular. Androgyny in fashion, from the boyish figures of the flappers to Michael Fish’s dresses for men in the late sixties, challenges the definitions of “man” and “woman,” “masculine” and “feminine.” The changes in these previously hard and fast distinctions in recent decades have allowed gender variant people to be more present in mainstream culture and to gain awareness and acceptance from the cisgender majority; it has also allowed members of that cisgender majority with inclinations towards gender nonconformity, such as effeminacy or crossdressing, to embrace their individual gender identities. Somaesthetics explores, amongst other things, how gender and clothing impact people’s somatic experiences. Thus, taking into account somaesthetics when designing clothing can critically change the way people view their bodies, as change in external gender perception can influence changes in one’s perception of the body.
A Brief History of Clothing
Clothing’s primary purpose is to protect the body. Clothing can warm or cool the body; protect it from sunburn, wind damage, fire, and plants; and shield it from bug and animal stings and bites. Yet as long as clothing has existed, it has also been one of the primary tools that people use to categorize others both within their culture and outside of it.
Designers draft clothing not only to achieve a certain look, but to also make sure a garment feels and moves a certain way. Textile considerations are also important, not only from a structural perspective, but also a tactile one: how a garment feels greatly impacts its effects on wearers. The amount of mobility in various garments reflects the lifestyles (and thus class, gender, race, etc.) of the individuals wearing them: more restrictive clothing indicates a more sedentary or upper class lifestyle, whereas loose fitting or elastic clothing indicates a laborious or athletic way of life. Religious doctrines like the Book of Mormon and Quran have also greatly shaped fashion, dictating what is and is not acceptable to wear day to day and on special occasions.
Fashion and Gender
Gender is the the primary social category that fashion defines. Almost every culture has different styles of clothing for different genders. Some differences are practical, such as accommodations for proportional differences between sexes, and others are reflections of the gender roles of particular cultures. For instance, in much of contemporary Western fashion, men’s clothing is typically designed to be functional first, then fashionable, whereas women’s clothing is ornamental first, sometimes to the point of being outright impractical (tops and bottoms that lack pockets, shoes that hurt the feet and shorten the stride, shirts that are too sheer to wear without something underneath, etc.). While there has been a growth in so-called unisex or gender neutral clothing since the early 20th century (such as pantsuits becoming acceptable work and formal attire for women), most unisex clothing takes men’s clothing as a template.
Gender differentiation varies across cultures. For example, in the West trousers were until very recently considered men’s garments, while in Asia (where they originated) they were a unisex garment. Trends in men’s and women’s clothing have also changed throughout time: until the late 1800s, both boys and girls wore dresses, the former transitioning into men’s clothing at around age seven or eight. Some garments have even changed gender, so to speak, like fedoras, which were at first women’s hats, and high heeled boots, which were men’s shoes worn during horseback riding.
Similarly, makeup has also become a gendered aspect of fashion. Different types of makeup throughout the world developed for different uses and aesthetics, such as kohl in Egypt that protected the eyes from the sun, but most cultures have historically used makeup to enhance the face or exaggerate its features for theater, like Kabuki makeup in Japan. While makeup use used to be prevalent in both sexes, by the 16th century the market had shifted towards catering more to women, likely due to the emphasis on physical beauty for women as a means for acquiring husbands. When cinema entered the picture in the 1910s, makeup for men came back—briefly—as young men took inspiration from Hollywood. However, makeup for men outside of film (and later television) did not become the norm like it is for women.
What is Androgyny?
Androgyny, coming from the Greek ἀνήρ (anēr, man) and γυνή (gunē, woman), is the combination of masculine and feminine characteristics in gender expression and/or gender identity. While often associated with non-binary or genderqueer people, androgynous people may identify as any gender. Androgyny refers to both physical attributes of people (typically ambiguous secondary sex characteristics) as well as their fashion choices, including makeup, hairstyles, and clothing.
Androgynous people have had a variety of roles in different cultures. In Sumer and Mesopotamia, “hermaphroditic” men called gala in Sumer and kurgarrū and assinnu in Mesopotamia served as priests of Innana and Ishtar, goddesses of love, beauty, war, and desire . As for cultures still around today, there are the hijra of India—a legally recognized third gender, the kathoey of Thailand, the fa’afafine in Polynesia, and the people who identify with the various two-spirit genders of indigenous North Americans, who are mostly karyotypically male people fulfilling stereotypically female roles in their communities. While there are karyotypically female people who fulfill male gender roles in some cultures, such as the Cree napêhkân, the Ojibwe ininiikaazo, and the Jewish ay’lonit, “effeminate males” are much more common throughout the world, particularly in Asia.
Aside from traditional religious and cultural third genders, androgyny is a critical aspect of the Bem Sex Role Inventory, a test the categorizes people into one of four gender roles: masculine, feminine, androgynous, or undifferentiated. In this inventory, an androgynous person ranks high on both feminine and masculine traits, while an undifferentiated person ranks low on both. Both “androgynous” and “undifferentiated” in this instance are typically referred to as androgynous in other situations, one being the mixture of masculinity and femininity and the other being an ambiguous gender expression.
Androgyny and Fashion
Fashion has a direct link to gender expression and thus links to gender identity as well . Before sexual reassignment surgery or hormone replacement therapy, the only way gender-nonconforming, non-binary, or transgender people could communicate their gender identities physically was through fashion (including clothing, hair, and makeup). While not all non-binary people present as androgynous (and not all androgynous people are non-binary), androgyny in fashion is an easy visual way for people to communicate that they aren’t squarely men or women, whether they are a combination of the two, neither, or something else all together.
Androgynous fashion has mostly incorporated “masculine” elements to women’s clothing, such as the practice of wearing trousers, obfuscating curvaceous or “womanly” figures, or cutting hair short. The praxis of men dressing in “women’s” fashions, such as frocks and makeup, has yet to become remotely mainstream. Overwhelmingly, androgynous or “gender neutral” fashion has skewed towards traditionally male clothing rather than women’s clothing or an even mixture of men’s and women’s garments. In “Sissies and Tomboys,” D’Lane Compton and Emily Knox note that effeminacy has traditionally been discouraged in boys and men, whereas girls lack the same amount of pressure to conform to pre-established gender roles. Still, gender scholar Jack Halberstam argues that as girls grow up, masculinity in appearance is increasingly discouraged. Still, despite the rigid policing of gender roles—particularly towards boys—and the polarized perception of masculinity and femininity, a study by Evelyn J. Michaelson and Leigh M. Aaland found that many people actually admire individuals with a mix of masculine and feminine characteristics, at least when it comes to temperament (269).
Androgyny in the Mainstream
Many designers and celebrities have been forerunners of androgynous fashion throughout its periods in vogue, starting in the early 20th century. In the roaring 20s, Rudolph Valentino exemplified the tall, dark and handsome ideal, becoming an international sex symbol; meanwhile, female celebrities like Louise Brooks challenged the voluptuous ideals of the past with cropped haircuts and clothing that obscured (or even suppressed) their natural figures. In the 1960s, the ideal woman changed once again, this time with women emulating Twiggy, a young, skinny girl from northern London who took the world by storm, becoming the Daily Express’s “Face of ‘66” at 16 years old. Haute couture and bespoke designers also began experimenting with androgynous fashion. Michael Fish, also from London, amongst other fashion projects, experimented with “dresses for men,” working with musicians such as David Bowie and Mick Jagger. In women’s fashion, Yves Saint Laurent, a French designer who studied under Christian Dior, created Le Smoking suit in 1966, the first tuxedo designed for women (though for years many places did not consider it appropriate formal attire for women). In the 70s and 80s, the rise of glam rock, glam metal, new wave, synth-pop, and camp and kitsch in general brought androgyny even more to the forefront of the pop-cultural consciousness, with bands and musicians such as David Bowie, The Eurythmics, KISS, Queen, and the B-52’s performing extravagant and theatrical shows. Recently, some models and other celebrities have incorporated androgyny into their editorial fashion (a genre that tends to be very experimental), including Ezra Miller, Jaden Smith, Andreja Pejić, and Rain Dove.
Somaesthetic Relationships Between Clothing and the Body
The clothing we wear affects our somaesthetic experiences in many ways. Some of the more obvious experiences include foot pain from too-small shoes, cool comfort from silk undergarments, or warmth from a fluffy ushanka. But some of the more subtle effects include awkwardness in ill-fitting clothes, sight of the world from a different angle in heels of varying heights, and lightness or heaviness depending on the fabric and construction of clothing. Clothing also has the more subtle effect of making people feel like they are a part of some in-group; as Shusterman writes in Fits of Fashion, “We have considerable choice in what we wear but we often use that choice to identify ourselves with certain social groups or classes” (95). These effects change habits of movement; people tend to act more rigid and reserved wearing formal attire than they do in casual clothes. Some of these habits manifest even if people aren’t wearing the clothing that formed those habits, like when women who frequently wear steel-boned corsets sit up straighter even without the corset on. While clothing is not a direct aspect of representational somaesthetics like like makeup or body modifications, since people are rarely seen nude, the clothing they wear becomes an ancillary part of their body.
Gender and Somaesthetics
Body type is a major influence of the somatic experience. A person who is short perceives the world differently than someone who is tall, someone who is fat moves differently than someone who is thin, a person with long hair experiences wind differently than someone with short hair. As such, it is not irrational to examine how karyotypically male and female people experience their environments disparately. But the binary designations of male, a person with XY chromosomes, and female, a person with XX chromosomes, is not enough to account for the differences between “biologically” male and female people. For starters, it neglects the approximate 1.7% of people born intersex: karyotypically and/or phenotypically aberrant from that binary. The binary also neglects to account for differences within people of the same sex such as hormone levels.
Perception of one’s own gender also plays a role in one’s somatic experience. Gender dysphoria, which includes “a strong desire to be rid of one’s sexual characteristics due to incongruence with one’s experienced or expressed gender” (DSM-5 451-460), can lead to a negative perception of one’s body and thus negative bodily experiences. A transgender woman may dislike how her large feet force her to walk in uncomfortably small shoes, or a neutrois person may dislike how their breasts move when exercising; both situations exacerbate gender dysphoria due to negative somatic stimulation. Moreover, while gender identity for some is mostly an internal experience, a lot of transgender people want to be seen as the gender with which they identify. As transgender YouTuber Natalie Wynn puts it, “I want people calling me ‘she’ not out of politeness or respect for my identity as a trans woman, but just because I seem like a woman to them… I live with this constant crushing anxiety that I don’t seem like a woman to other people” (Wynn, 2018). Thus, gender expression is a critical aspect of most trans and non-binary people’s somatic experiences.
The Somaesthetics of Androgynous Fashion
Since gender expression is a crucial element of gender identity for many non-binary and trans people, and fashion is historically the most significant non-biological indication of gender, androgynous fashion serves the important purpose of giving gender variant people a way to express themselves that matches their internal perception of their own gender. The various design choices involved in making garments can drastically affect how people feel about their bodies, and in people who experience gender dysphoria due to their sexual characteristics being incongruous with their identity, masking sexual characteristics or combining traditionally masculine and feminine traits can help alleviate the stress caused by dysphoria. While mainstream acceptance of non-binary genders, both in identity and expression, is not universal, the act of dressing androgynously can still indicate to even bigoted people that someone does not identify as the established gender norm of a man or a woman. According to Tiffany R. Glynn et al., there is a positive correlation between psychological and social affirmation of one’s gender and self esteem for transgender women; being recognized by the gender one identifies as, even begrudgingly, helps increase one’s self confidence and thus bolsters a positive relationship with one’s body.
In “Somaesthetic Design,” Kristina Höök and her collaborators discuss how to incorporate somaesthetic considerations into the design of furniture. Höök et al. assert, “Somaesthetic design focuses on making people more aware of their felt body experiences” (27). This same emphasis on somaesthetics in fashion design has the potential to create clothing that not only emphasizes people’s outward appearances, but provides wearers with a “space for reflection” (Ståhl 6) on their own bodies, reflection that may assuage feelings of gender dysphoria.
Fashion is inextricably linked with gender expression. Since gender expression is an important aspect of communicating gender identity for many transgender and non-binary people, androgynous fashion is a godsend for gender variant people as it enables people to instantaneously display to strangers and friends alike that they lie somewhere on the transgender or genderqueer spectrum. Even for cisgender people, the rising acceptance and pervasiveness of gender nonconforming fashion may come as a relief to those who identify as a certain gender but wish to express the aesthetics of another one. Taking into account the effects of gender dysphoria on the mind and body, somaesthetic design principles as applied to androgynous fashion can help eliminate negative perceptions of the body as well as change the external perceptions of it, enhancing the somaesthetic experiences of all who wear it.
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