When William Fan designs a collection, he thinks in terms of material and silhouettes. Of a combination of fine materials such as silk and wool and of the cuts of functional workwear. What he does not think about are men and women. Because Fan’s style knows no gender—he designs classic shirts, casual trousers, jackets and coats. The single concession he makes: all his clothing comes in the sizes XS to XL, because people’s bodies after all have different heights and widths.
When a garment can be worn by men and women alike, it is called “unisex”. The term has long been a synonym for unsexy and for fashion that is so shapeless it fits virtually each and every body. But the term is becoming again interesting in a time which recognizes that the contrast between man and woman is not so natural. People born with male biological characteristics can feel feminine and vice versa. The dichotomy male-female does not reflect reality, but is rather a cultural construct.
Playing with Identities
“I don’t put a ‘for men’ or ‘for women’ label on my fashion; that’s no longer the spirit of the times”, says Fan, who lives and works in Berlin and Hong Kong. He is regarded as one of the best young fashion designers in Germany.
When the likewise Berlin-based designer Esther Perbandt is asked whether her fashion is androgynous, she talks of “gender bending models”. It is about being “in-between”. For Perbandt, fashion is a play of identities. “It’s a game and no one demands a clear affiliation.” In a legendary show for her Berlin label Sadak, the designer Saša Kovačević sent men in colourful burkas onto the catwalk. It was the most acclaimed show of the Berlin Summer Fashion Week 2015.
In fashion shows the antithesis of man/woman has become more and more blurred. Transgender models are as much in evidence in the campaigns of major fashion houses and chains as on the front pages of leading fashion magazines – an important step in the broad acceptance of transgender. In November 2016 Aydan Dowling was the first trans man to be seen on the cover of the American edition of Men’s Health. A few months later the German edition followed suit and put the trans man Benjamin Melzer on the front page. The trans woman Andreja Pejic is a supermodel. In February 2017, the French Vogue put the Brazilian trans woman Valentina Sampaio on its cover under the title: “La beaute transgenre”—the beauty of transgender.
There have been transgender models before, but the transgender aspect was not broached. Nor is the question of gender identity new. David Bowie already played with ambiguity in the 1970s as Ziggy Stardust, as did Amanda Lear and Grace Jones, and more recently Conchita Wurst. The blurring of gender identities has a long history—for example, in the tradition of travesty and drag queens.
Dissolution of Gender Boundaries
In this, fashion has a very decisive role; it is fashion after all that furnishes the codes according to which we know whether clothed people are to be recognized as men or women and that help us to present ourselves as representatives of the other gender. Disguise and mistaken identity are a popular theme of comedies, whether in Shakespeare’s As You Like It or Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot.
Thus fashion has the power to redefine gender. And it has a pioneering role when it comes to the dissolution of gender boundaries. At the end of 2016, Gertrud Lehnert, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Potsdam, published together with Maria Weilandt the book Ist Mode queer? Neue Perspektiven der Modeforschung (Is Fashion Queer? New perspectives in fashion research). She has been studying fashion and gender boundaries for a long time. “Queerness is the deliberate and conscious subversion of norms and appearances”, she says.
And adds: “Queerness originates in the lesbian-gay community and means living outside heteronormativity, feeling yourself to be different and also staging yourself differently, generating different images of yourself. In essence, we can say that queerness is the destabilizing of meanings, of attributions, of the seemingly self-evident.”
Fashion treats the issue of gender identity in a variety of ways. It does so in its own playful, transitory and also a bit superficial way. And yet precisely because fashion, with its avant-garde function, attracts so much attention, it becomes an important factor in gaining recognition for the issue of transgender and so for achieving its social acceptance.
English translation by Jonathan Uhlanerin published in Goethe Institut. First published in Deutsch by the author Stefanie Dörre, editor-in-chief of the Berlin city magazine “tip.”