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Gender Identity through Fashion and Clothing

Unlike sex, which determines an individual’s biological traits, gender notions are fluid social and cultural concepts that change with time. How we construct our gender identity with clothing today wasn’t the same throughout ages. Fashion wasn’t always strongly gender dependent like it is today. The gender scarred fashion statements of today are result of a long evolutionary process that was altered with various socio-political phenomenons over time. Until 18th century, both men and women preferred to wear long and decorative clothing. Though there weren’t many significant differences in clothing of men and women till 18th century, it is possible to examine the evolution of clothing as a medium of gender expression and understand it’s relationship to gender specific roles and social status.

Left: Ancient Egypt, 1279BC-1213BC | Right: Indus Valley Civilization, 2500BC

The costumes of earliest civilizations are studied from cave paintings, sculptures and other iconography. Though clothing never varied drastically on basis of gender in ancient world, social class identity was however established through dressing norms even in the earliest of civilizations. Nudity was a very natural concept in most ancient civilizations including those of Egypt, Greece and Indus-valley. In fact, gender specific nudity norms tagging exposure of breasts as obscene was established only after influence of Christian missionaries and Islamic invasion in most parts of the world.

Ancient Egyptian clothing
Till the near end of Romans in late 400AD, a rectangular cloth was the primary source of a dress. A rectangular cloth was either draped or stitched into a tunic with holes for hand. One of the earliest gender specific clothing norm established was the length in hem. In Egyptian and Greco-Roman societies, men and women would wear tunics however the women’s tunics would reach till the ankles while a man’s would reach till knees. It was resultant of the gender roles where men had to go out and work, especially army men, horse-riders and travelers who wore shorter tunics for comfort. However, by the time the length of men’s tunic gradually inched upwards to resemble a shirt like garment, European clothing was already sexualized where it no longer was appropriate for women to reveal great deal of skin.
Comparision of hem length – Roman Empire
Yakshini – 3BC, Mauryan Empire (India)
From 321BC – 850AD, India was one of the greatest civilizations, parallel to Rome in West and China in East. Due to warm climatic conditions, Indians primarily wore draped garments. Both men and women wore antariya, a lower garment wrapped around waist (as seen in statue of Yakshini) and uttariya, worn across back, resting over shoulders. Prior to Roman influence, it was socially acceptable for women to not cover breasts in Indian society. Chandragupta Maurya empire had direct trade links with Roman empire and the former even married a princess from Greek court. The evolution of two-piece antariya & uttariya into a modern Indian sari can be possibly credited to Greco-Roman influence during Mauryan era. Even rules of gender-specific modesty in India was altered as women now wore a breast band known as stanmasuka or Pratidhi, which is similar to the mammillare worn by the Roman women. Men continued to wear antariya which evolved into dhoti and still remains as the omnipresent costume of many Indian men. Thereby, clothing as a medium of gender expression in India was clearly established by the time of Mauryan era.
King Louis XIV – 1700s
By Medieval era, norms on gender specific modesty/nudity, hem length and evolution of trousers clearly demarcated men’s clothing from women’s. However till 18th century clothing by large illustrated differences in class rather than gender. Rich ornamentation, abundance of lace, rich velvets, wigs and decorated shoes were won by both men and women. Even corsets were worn by men, although less frequently than by women. King Louis XIV wore hose and high heels to call attention to his calves, and he wore a high wig to increase his height.
19th century fashion
Greatest systematic divide between men’s and women’s clothing began in mid-late 1800s following the great male abandonment. The protestant values of hard work and economic progress influenced men competing in the arena of politics and business, thereby donating the decorative part to women to reflect men’s social status via dresses and appearances of spouses. While women’s clothing remained cumbersome and elaborate, embroidered silks and velvet paved way for carefully tailored woolen garments in menswear arena. Men followed a restricted code for appearance, limited to angular design lines, neutral and subdued color palettes, bifurcated garments for the lower body, natural but not tight silhouettes, sturdy fabrics and shoes, and simple hair and face grooming. By 19th century, full length clothes or ornamental textiles hampered the notion of masculinity while womenswear became more decorative and restrained than ever before. Those differences in dress came to symbolize the supposed differences in the genders: Men, like a suit, were serious and practical; women, like a flouncy dress, were frivolous and superficial.
Paul Poiret introduced harem trousers for women, 1920
Trends of women’s independence emerged in late 19th century. 20th century saw women being increasingly active in outdoor activities, thereby witnessing the biggest revolution in women’s clothing history. Paul Poiret introduced trousers for women in early 20th century. Feminist icons like Coco Chanel took it on them to free women from restrained clothing by wearing soft baggy trousers, but few women dared to wear it till 1940s. Coco Chanel also introduced tailored suit for women in 1920s and later popularized post World War. Women also went on to cut their hair to shorter styles to defy gender specific aesthetics.
Chanel Suit for women
As women defied the gender norms traditionally associated with feminity and went on to hold positions of power, fashion designer Yves Saint Lauren modified the male tuxedo to a women’s line. Low hemline no longer belonged to men when Mary Quant dismantled hemline rules by introducing mini skirts for women.
Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo for women
Mary Quant defying gender-specific hemline rules by introducing mini dress/skirt in 1960s
Hippies (1960-70s) questioning gender-specific nudity norms
Hippies and ravers were the first to voice a unisex approach to masquerade gender notions via clothing. In men’s arena, several pop cultural icons including the likes of David Bowie and Mick Jagger rebelled the idea of conventional masculinity by wearing women’s clothes.
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana performing in women’s clothing
Transgender model Andreja Pejic on Vogue magazine
Waif thin male models questioning the convention norms on masculinity – Raf Simons Exhibition
If 20th century revolutionized the social status of women (thereby, drastically altering women’s costume), 21st century carries on the unfinished business from 1970s by calling for the needs of increased personal freedom. Topics such as sex, unisex, nudity, gender and sexuality are hot popular issue. The gay and lesbian, bisexual, trans-movement has progressed and has expanded into these notions of a non-binary understanding of gender. Various socio-cultural phenomenons his history have reduced masculinity to men in male bodies and femininity to women in female bodies, which is not the case for all individuals. Our society is increasingly aware that gender isn’t binary but dual. Every individual is born with both masculine and feminine elements. Fashion responded timely by identifying the need for removing the genderism in clothing.
Fashion’s modern androgynous vision
Historically, clothing was used to protect ourselves from the natural environmental hazards before transcending into something ornamental to depict an individual’s social class or succumbed to social rules of modesty. The gender-specific divide in clothing is a direct result of inequality in social status of women as compared to that of men. We still live in a very gendered society. However fashion’s push for a gender free clothing is just baby steps for a future devoid of gender stereotypes and divide.
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