No Man’s Land: A New Normal in an Age of Androgyny

In April of 2011, following the recent release of his fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West took the stage at The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival to deliver what would eventually become known as one of the greatest hip-hop sets of all time. Hovering above the churning crowd on elevated platform overlooking the stage, West seemed at once ethereal and apprehensive; his performance at Coachella marked the end of a very public fall from grace, including a string of uninspiring shows and a debacle involving Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs shocking enough to make even the savviest PR maven shudder. West, having been deposited safely back on terra firma, glided through the crowd to the main stage amidst riotous applause wearing a pair of faded blue jeans and a flowing silk top that looked an awfully lot like the one Phoebe Philo sent down the runway for Céline’s spring collection earlier that year. The following morning, the blogosphere confirmed it: yes, Kanye West was wearing a woman’s blouse.

Later that year, West would also release Watch the Throne, a collaborative studio album made alongside his longtime mentor Jay Z. In the subsequent tour for the album, West often appeared on stage in head-to-toe black wearing a leather skirt from Givenchy. West, however, was not the first musician to experiment with the boundaries of gendered dress in his on-stage performances. Mick Jagger famously wore a ruffled white smock with a bow-laced front for the 1969 Rolling Stones’ Hyde Park Concert, and David Bowie, appearing on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World just a year later, was photographed wearing a cream gown with vivid blue detailing in an outfit that would only hint at the later exuberance of his glam rock persona, Ziggy Stardust. West was not so adventurous. Underneath his skirt, he wore a matching pair of black leather pants.

Hip hop has a storied history of forging new fashion frontiers. West, in particular, has a notorious knack for predicting movements in the mores of men’s dress with a prescience that often borders on the prophetic. In March of this past year, Young Thug, the 24-year-old Atlanta-based rapper, was featured in CR Fashion Book, a glossy magazine published by Carine Roitfeld, a former editor of Vogue Paris, wearing a curated collection of women's tops in an editorial entitled “Pretty Young Thug”. Thugger, the noted clothing enthusiast’s cognomen of choice, was recently quoted as saying he wears almost exclusively women’s clothing, because their slim cut better suits his wiry frame. Appearing in the pages of Dazed just a few months ago wearing a sheer tulle dress, Young Thug mean-mugged for the camera and lent the same sense of wild insouciance that has come to define his music to the clothing he wore in the pages of the magazine.

If you told Young Thug his sui-generis sense of style represented a significant shift in the way men dress, years in the making, he would probably cough and then laugh wildly through a dense fog of smoke, dismissing the notion that he represented anything momentous just as ably as he would flick away the burnt end of a blunt. But it’s true; Thugger, along with other like-minded members of his generational cohort, including Jaden Smith, that enigmatic capturer of tweeted zeitgeist, who wore a white skirt and black blazer to prom, are seriously changing the way men relate to the previously rigid boundaries of gendered dress. So much so, in fact, that when Alessandro Michele, the newly appointed creative director of Gucci, sent his debut men’s collection down the runway this past fall, critics raved about what Tim Blanks, writing for Style.com, referred to as the “droopy, androgynous languor of the show and its blurred gender divide”, which, translated into clothes, meant stock-tied blouses in chiffon and slinky lace tops, and even the occasional female model. At Burberry this past summer, models wore delicate shirts made out of fine lace that perfectly offset the implied masculinity of the strong-shouldered suits layered over them. Under Hedi Slimane, the controversial creative director of Saint Laurent Paris, the house that Yves built was transformed into a brand now defined by the grungy androgyny of its rock ‘n’ roll-inspired collections, which are often modelled by waifish, lanky, barely-legal teens of both sexes, typically with long, flowing hair and an affected aura of druggy cool. Slimane, who made a name for himself designing shockingly skinny, hyper-sexualized menswear for Dior, and happened to dress David Bowie for his 2002 Heathen tour, is widely credited with effecting a paradigm shift in menswear, away from the ultra-masculine baggy excesses of the late 90s and towards the slim silhouettes of the early aughts. That artists like Young Thug can today wear women’s clothing and rap just as convincingly about doing “a lot of shit just to live this here lifestyle” without being criticized for being disingenuous, or “not real”, in the more scathing slang of hip hop phraseology, is in no small way a testament to the changing mores of men’s fashion, and, in particular, the acceptance of androgyny not as anomalous but as the norm.

It’s not for nothing that designers like Craig Green and Jonathan Anderson, both considered to be two of menswear’s best and brightest rising stars, are also two of the most experimental when it comes to consistently pushing the boundaries of gendered dress to the very outermost limits of commercial salability, oftentimes adding an air of androgyny to more staid menswear staples, like the oversized shawl collar coat Anderson showed in his latest collection or the funnel-neck crop top Green showed in his. Andreja Pejec, the Australian transgender model, who walked the runway for Anderson and Jean-Paul Gaultier, the OG, if you will, of gender-bending design, initially began her career as Andrej Pejec, a male model whose unusually androgynous look caught the eye of industry insiders across the globe. Pejec, who was dubbed the “Prettiest Boy in the World” by New York magazine in 2011, is described in the article of the same name as having “flawless and poreless” skin with an “English-rose luster”, “mussed blonde locks” and a height of six-foot-one, but “thin as the stroke of a paintbrush”. “If he were not a man”, the article, which was published before Pejec’s transition, states, “he would be the most beautiful woman” ever seen in the flesh.

The term “androgyny”, from the Latin androgynus, (derived from the ancient Greek word-stems andr-, meaning man, and gyne, meaning woman) is not the exclusive domain of fashion industry avant-gardism. The New York Times has reported since as early as 2009 that the gradual breakdown of gender boundaries has resulted in a generation that scoffs at the formerly sacrosanct confines of the gender binary and dresses itself accordingly, mixing and matching men’s tailored clothing with flared women’s trousers, or embracing trends that were typically considered exclusively masculine or feminine like no other generation before. In 2012, The Times again explored the ever-evolving topic of gender fluidity, in a magazine article entitled “What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?”, which describes some of the difficulties, as well as some of the delights, of being a young, gender-nonconforming child. As societal values shift to become more aware and accepting of these important gender issues, the fashion industry will surely follow suit, making clothes of the type designed by Green and Anderson less experimental and more de rigueur.

Earlier this year, Kanye West debuted “Yeezy Season One”, a clothing collection made in collaboration with the German apparel giant Adidas. The collection, comprised of grungy, post-apocalyptic active wear in the likes of Helmut Lang and Raf Simons, represented the culmination of West’s decade-long struggle to be treated as a serious figure within the fashion industry. Although reviews for the line were mixed, the collection was notable for its wholehearted embrace of androgyny; West has said that the entire line was designed with the intention for all the clothes to be worn just as easily by members of both sexes. West, though often criticized as a designer for being distractingly derivative, tends to exert an extraordinary influence over the menswear masses. Put more succinctly, the man moves merchandise. That’s not to say that West’s forays into fashion have always been successful -- a particularly disastrous debut designing a short lived women’s collection comes to mind -- but it does mean that when West commits to a certain aesthetic he does so methodically, in a manner more calculating than it may seem. That West would incorporate androgyny so obviously into a collection he worked so hard to realize speaks to the societal shift in the way people perceive gender, and the way designers have responded in kind. Still, society is far from finished shifting. On Hypebeast, an online fashion forum known for its particularly fanatical fan-base, a post recapping the looks from the show received over 150 comments. One guest, posting anonymously, wrote: “Kanye I love you......but this shit is so fucking bad”.

On the night of October 23rd, “Yeezy Season One” went on sale unannounced on the website of the Italian retailer G&B Negozi. Despite the buzz surrounding West’s design debut, many critics had voiced confusion over the genderless nature of the clothing, and expressed concern about the actual commercial appeal of the collection. Would West’s progressiveness translate into profits? Would the androgynous nature of the collection rocket “Yeezy Season One” beyond the realm of attainable avant-gardism and instead end up alienating even West’s most fervent followers? Many of the items listed online were some of the more experimental pieces from the collection, including a slouchy, semi-sheer sweater priced at almost $2,000, and a fur coat with a price tag of equally astronomical proportions. It’s hardly difficult to imagine the success of West’s collection as a sort of litmus test for society’s gradual acceptance of the androgynous, at least on an aesthetic level. Was West once again just a bit too far ahead of the curve?

A search for “Yeezy” on the G&B website now yields no results. By the early morning of October 24th, the entire collection had sold out.