Tap into your androgynous side

Martha Henriques 1 October 2012

From to Bowie to Gaga, androgyny has had increasing influence on fashion for decades. But what of its consequences for the wider transgender community?

We are well used to seeing Kate Moss’s face adorning high-end fashion magazines left, right, and centre. Not so usual is to see her on one such cover embracing the delicate transsexual supermodel Lea T in a tender-looking kiss. Love magazine displayed this lustrous black and white image on one of the three covers of its Androgyny Issue in February of this year. Love isn’t alone; Vogue India likewise proudly claimed androgyny as its latest muse in the November 2011 issue. Androgyny may be ‘now’, but it has also been bubbling through fashion and pop culture for over half a century: from the sixties Flower Power movement to Elton John, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Annie Lennox, all the way through to Lady Gaga today. What these icons have in common is a combination of masculine and feminine traits in their personal style, and in some cases in their life philosophy as a whole.

The march of androgyny from the catwalk and pop stars to it-girls, fashionistas, and mainstream culture is certainly not just of interest to shopaholics and the fashion-savvy. Perhaps often dismissed as frivolous or shallow, fashion can nonetheless be viewed as a reflection of the culture from which it arises. The presence and perseverance of androgynous style in mainstream culture can therefore be interpreted as a sign of growing tolerance and acceptance towards non-heteronormativity in our society.

Considering the enormous audience that it commands, the fashion industry is in some ways the ideal mouthpiece for advocating open-mindedness to society at large. Playful irreverence on the catwalk may seem trivial when considered in isolation, but nonetheless it has the potential to tease the rigid boundaries between the feminine and the masculine, which in turn provides more breathing space for those who find themselves not easily slotting into the boxes provided. Need the model wearing the centrepiece bridal gown of a couture show be female? Jean Paul Gaultier thinks not, casting doll-like male model Andrej Pejic for the part in his Paris Fashion Week show in January of this year.

Despite the potential of the fashion industry to break down barriers through bringing androgyny into the public consciousness, there are concerns that the way such serious concepts are portrayed can also do damage to the cause. Putting models like Andrej Pejic on a pedestal is very different from welcoming ordinary people for their androgynous ethos in day-to-day life. The ‘unique’ and the ‘different’ is an eternal fascination in fashion, especially at the haute couture end of the scale. In an industry where art meets practicality meets a free market economy, something beautiful and unique is in danger of becoming reduced to a mere unique selling point, which can lead to a loss of respect for the initial inspiration in the process.

Deciding what is good and bad publicity is tricky at the best of times and made even more contentious when the issues at stake are so highly charged. There are some for whom coverage in the fashion media, regardless of the motives behind its interest, can only be a good thing. Lea T’s androgynous body and her sexuality have fuelled her dizzying ascent to the world of high fashion, and her gender-bending appearance has placed her firmly centre stage of several controversial photo-shoots and advertising campaigns. After her intimate encounter with Moss for Love, Lea T said in an interview in the New York Times: “I thought this would be a nice message for another tranny: ‘Look, we can be the same as other girls and boys.’ It’s small, but it makes you feel like you have a little chance. Maybe a transsexual will open a magazine and think: ‘That’s cool. We can be whatever we want.'”

It is possible that fashion is indulging in its fascination with androgyny for the wrong reasons; there is no excuse for exploiting the identity of a minority group in the name of marketing shock tactics. The line between celebrating the differences in our society and turning the exhibition into a freak show is a delicate one, not helped by the fact that everyone draws their own personal line in a different place. However, the progress made by the fashion industry towards breaking down gender stereotypes through exploration of the land between the extremes of the feminine and the masculine cannot be dismissed purely as voyeurism or cynical marketing strategies. The liberation that a career in fashion affords models such as Lea T through publicity and exposure not only helps them find identity within an industry, but also paves the way for others like them to use their image as a tool for self-expression with less inhibition, greater confidence, and pride.

Martha Henriques