Models are Challenging Gender, But How Far?

Recent years have seen a fascinating explosion in the modeling industry of men modeling womenswear, women modeling menswear, and designers featuring highly ambiguous garments in their collections, such as skirts and dresses on the runway in menswear collections. These confrontations of gender and the presentation of gender have been taking place in high fashion for a long time, but they’re sparking larger discussions right now thanks to the fact that these trends are beginning to trickle down, and they’re occurring at lower levels of fashion as well. Some of the very same models who are challenging gender on the runways are also appearing in print campaigns, and these ambiguous, fascinating, delightful clothes are showing up on the rack, not just at fashion week.

On the one hand, all of this is very exciting. I am a huge fan of changing social attitudes about gender and what it means to be a man or a woman. Since clothing can be an integral part of gender presentation and many people struggle with clothing, it’s fascinating and wonderful to see the fashion industry taking on gender in ways that are often quite edgy and daring. It’s a splendid thing to see a man wearing beautiful frocks as part of a runway collection for women, just as it’s wonderful to see a female Olympian modeling menswear in print ads and looking calm, cool, collected, and beautiful.

These challenges to the fashion side of gender presentation raise uncomfortable questions for viewers and consumers about clothing and assumptions, challenging people to think beneath the hems and explore their attitudes about the people they see, the clothes they wear, and their genders. Every time I see a man heading up a womenswear campaign, it intrigues me, just as I love to see women modeling menswear, because in both cases, they are challenging the status quo and they are blurring the lines by asking questions about gender and the gendering of clothing. Is a female model in menswear a man? No, she’s not, but she is wearing men’s clothing in campaigns aimed at men, and she’s modeling a very specific vision of masculinity that is also feminine. Thus, she intrigues me, and she intrigues many other people who are fascinated by gender presentation and exploration.

But how edgy are these campaigns, when you dig a bit deeper? They’ve received increasing press coverage and excited discussion among numerous circles, yet it’s worth taking a closer look beyond the superficial nature of such campaigns and into their deeper nature. One of the most important things to note is that in the fashion world, the idea of challenging gender is still rooted in a masculine idea of androgyny. These models are thin (as are models of all genders, thanks to beauty standards), but they are also angular, they often have short hair in cuts traditionally deemed as masculine, they have narrow hips, they have flat chests. At a superficial glance, many would be taken for men—feminine men, perhaps, but men nonetheless, and this is important in a world where people are trying to confront and break down gender.

Where are the fat models of any gender walking down the runway, challenging the assumption that you need to be thin in order to model? More critically, where are the large-hipped models wearing menswear? What about the runway shows for menswear collection featuring models with breasts, rounded faces, and curvy bodies? Why are designers reluctant to push the norm even further, challenging assumptions about models and gendering? This presentation of gender mutability and exploration is actually distressingly narrow, fitting only a small range of people with very specific features and attributes; in many ways, it doesn’t offer much of a relief from the larger world of gendered assumptions and attitudes.

Yes, it’s wonderful to see a woman modeling a menswear collection, but I’d like to see the 201 version of this, as it were. I’d like to see a woman with stereotypically feminine features modeling menswear: I’d like to see a curvy girl with cupid’s bow lips sashaying down the runway in a suit. I’d like to see a woman with big breasts strutting through a print campaign in men’s vests and ties. For that matter, I’d like to see a hairy, muscular man wearing dresses in women’s print ads. I’d like to see a bearded male model on the runway for a womenswear collection.

And I would like to see these design decisions played not as novelties or something to laugh at, but as legitimate expressions of fashion and commentaries on fashion and gender. I would like to see designers exploring the full range of the human body, rather than limiting themselves, and in the process limiting their audiences, too. Society takes cues from fashion, and the heavily gendered nature of fashion is a pressing issue for those who don’t fit within the narrow confines of what is ‘acceptable’ in terms of physical appearance.

Pushing at the gendered limits of fashion could result in an entirely new and fantastical world, if designers are willing to go there. Sadly, many seem to be deeply bigoted when it comes to actually thinking outside the box, judging from hateful comments about fat women and those who don’t fit the beauty standard. Fashion isn’t actually taking a bold stance on gender and presentation when it’s selecting from a very narrow range of models with very specific appearances; it’s just creating a slightly larger box for people to thrash around in as they try to seek a place for themselves, their genders, and their bodies.