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.”
J.W. Anderson, unlike Hourani or Targon and Studenberg, has separate menswear and womenswear lines, yet a splatter-painted tunic from one line can easily end up in the other. And his clothes, for men and women, play with the idea of traditionally feminine details, such as ruffles, juxtaposed with tough fabrics like leather or suede. “These sources of tension—exploring different forms on different body shapes—make fashion,” Katherine Bernard, a writer for Vogue.com, says. “It’s exciting to see how a ruffle moves on a male body.”
And just as women have taken up oxfords and flat shoes, men are also incorporating previously “female” garments into their wardrobe. Take Kanye West, who wore a floral Celine tunic to Coachella a few years back; or Marc Jacobs, who for a good year was hardly seen in something other than a Comme des Garcons kilt; or A$AP Rocky, who has taken to wearing skirts by his friends at Hood by Air.
“Have I seen a J.W. Anderson ruffled shirt on the street? Probably not,” Bernard says. “But terms like ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ or ‘borrowing from the boys’ just don’t apply to the way we wear clothes anymore.”
Which is a reason why so many of these designers chafe at the term “unisex” or “postgender.” Unlike, say, Pierre Cardin or Rudi Gernreich—whose experiments with unisex dressing in the 1960s and ’70s had a radical, political edge—designers such as Targon and Studenberg and Hood by Air’s Shayne Oliver are merely creating clothes that fit the lifestyles of the increasingly diverse people who wear them.
Indeed, take a look at Oliver’s runway, and you’ll realize that gender—as well as race and nationality—is not only fluid, but almost beside the point. Hood by Air's presentations are by far the most diverse in the Fashion Week calendar: with African Americans, Asians, whites, mixed-race people, females, males, and transsexuals all represented—many of them close friends of the designer. (The hair-whipping vogue-ers he got to close his Fall 2014 show? High school buddies.) “Sexuality isn’t something to be held down by,” Oliver says. “We take what people know of masculine, feminine, and make them veer away from the structure of it being associated with a man or a woman and instead have it be associated with a feeling, a moment, a look. It’s about an attitude or a gesture rather than being male or female.”