Women aren’t the only ones who can wear ruffles and skirts these days. And men don’t have a monopoly on hooded vests and slouchy pants. The high-fashion runways have gone gender neutral.
Hot summer days have officially arrived in New York, and our apartment—which, like most old New York City apartments, has no air conditioning—felt like a swamp. “I wish I could wear a dress,” my husband sighed with envy as I breezed through our bedroom in a diaphanous cotton frock, while he struggled with a necktie before going to a Christening Sunday morning. “Well, you know, you could,” I said. And though I knew my husband—a formidable 6’1” man with a full beard—would probably never wrap himself in a sarong or don a breezy caftan, I wasn’t entirely kidding.
Fashion has long played with gender stereotypes—from Coco Chanel, who, one critic groused, turned all of Paris’ women “into little boys” in the 1920s, to Jean Paul Gaultier, who has featured skirts and corsets on men’s runways since the 1990s. But recently, young designers have taken this concept to another level. At New York Fashion Week in February, cult streetwear label Hood by Air featured models whose genders were a mystery, thanks to long-haired wigs and unisex leather-laced bomber jackets, zipper-festooned jeans, and, yes, skirts and tunics. Baja East had its girls and boys switch clothes halfway through its presentation (their slouchy satin pants, hooded vests, and linen caftans looked equally cool on both sexes). In London, J.W. Anderson showed leather blouses adorned with ruffles, puff-sleeved sweaters, and floral jacquards for both his men’s and women’s lines. Even the Olsen Twins’ uber-ladylike The Row swaddled its models in body-obscuring cowl-necked sweaters and capes, worn with super roomy trousers, which you could imagine lots of guys appreciating, too. (Ditto Telfar Clemens’ equal-opportunity snuggies.)
“Clothing, fashion and adornment distinguish—they identify who you are. And one of the primary things we’ve identified, that we’ve wanted to identify, is our gender,” Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, says. “But now, for a number of men and women, gender has become something that’s not so important for them to emphasize in their clothing. They feel there needs to be something that people can wear just as people.”
That’s what Rad Hourani had in mind when he launched his graphic, crisp, almost monastic-looking unisex haute couture seven years ago. “I realized that I don’t think of people in terms of gender or age or race or nationality, because these are all man-made constructs,” the Paris-based designer says. “If you look at history, men wore makeup and wigs and heels. The Romans wore skirts and jewelry. So who decided that a woman has to have makeup and a man not? We have enough limitations in life. That’s why it’s important for me to create something neutral, something that is free of any gender constraints or historical references. Something that reflects the way I want to live and dress today.” For Hourani, that means crisp white-collared shirts, black leather shorts, and minimalist structured black jackets in interesting shapes: clean, comfortable, almost monastic clothes that, when worn, don’t particularly look unisex, but fit both men and women equally well.
Same with Baja East, which designers John Targon and Scott Studenberg started after hearing so many of their female friends inquire about their clothing. “It’s our take on loose luxury: We’re rebelling against the tailored shirt and the designer dress,” says Targon of their fluid silk trenches and voluminous cashmeres. Instead of making everyone look the same, the gender-neutral garment can actually enhance the wearer’s individuality. “It takes on the attitude of who’s wearing it,” says Targon. “It’s made for you.”