Androgyny is certainly not a new word in fashion circles, but so far, it’s been mostly bandied about in women’s wear. Decades ago, women adopted pants and blazers. Then came boyfriend shirts and jeans, and today you can see aspects of masculine dressing in nearly all areas of women’s clothing, from the shirt-dress to dungarees to jacket saris. It is completely acceptable for a woman to wear a suit and tie for a board meeting, and the Indian police force abounds with women officers wearing unisex khaki shirts tucked into sexless pants.
But hints of feminine dressing in menswear have, so far, been something of a joke. In 2003, when the undoubtedly macho action-movie star Vin Diesel wore a leather skirt for a performance at an awards show, it was all taken in good humour. The same happened when in 2008,iconic American designer Marc Jacobs took to wearing ‘skorts’ (skirt + shorts), and hunky pop star Kanye West began sporting feminine garments such as a Celine blouse and Givenchy skirt— which ended above the knee, naturally— for his performances. Male superstars Gerard Butler, Ewan McGregor and Sean Connery have also been seen in skirts, except they’ve called them kilts—the most invaluable Scottish contribution to male comfort after malts.
But these men will now be called ‘early adopters’, for androgyny has decidedly become a two-way street. Gender- neutral clothing has been sitting pretty in mainstream menswear this past year, and it’s getting serious. From lace shirts to feminine bow-necks to even dresses, major fashion houses presented gender-fluid collections all through the year, the world over. The Prada fall-winter 2015 show— which featured both male and female collections at the same time—made its creative head Miuccia Prada’s manifesto clear: ‘Gender is a context and context is often gendered.’ Colours and cuts were unisex, the keywords being ‘uniform, severe, elegant’.
At Gucci’s menswear show, the new creative head Alessandro Michele—he of the multiple vintage rings, hippy-long hair and 320 pairs of shoes—presented male models (and some female) with long, straight locks wearing pussy-bow blouses, girly berets, blazers with piping, plenty of finger rings and a scarlet crochet top. The show created a flutter in the fashion world—until his spring 2016 show came along with even more risqué womanly elements: crochet shorts, three-fourth shirt sleeves, lace pant-suits, and embellished strappy sandals. Saint Laurent offers high-heeled boots for men. New York-based Hood by Air, a cult label that has broken several style barriers, had male models walk down the ramp in dresses and wedge heels, and women in baggy pants and puffed jackets. One couldn’t even tell whether the clothes designed by its creative head Shayne Oliver were for men or women. And let’s not even talk about the eccentric Rick Owens, whose winter garments were designed with ‘penis holes’ and displayed the models’ genitals for all to see.
For India, where androgyny is as old as the epics, the male-female divide in clothing has never been as marked as in the West. Practically every garment has been used and modified by both sexes over the centuries—the Maharashtrian nauvari sari drape is similar to the male dhoti; the Rajasthani matron wears a masculine shirt with buttons and collar over her traditional ghagra; the Malayalee man wears a skirt-like lungi folded up—to end above the knee, naturally. The ancient dances of India depict gender-fluid garments and postures; kings wore earrings and necklaces; queens wore turbans; grooms still wear henna; Sufi dancers wear anarkalis with dupattas. You’ll find variations of kurtas- kurtis, churidaars, salwar-kameezes, pyjamas- palazzos, shawls-stoles and Nehru jackets-bandis in both male and female wardrobes even today. Indian clothing has been a product of class and social function rather than any gender-specific role.
Once Western culture made inroads into the Indian closet, however, our fashion tastes and choices became as vulnerable to global fluxes as oil prices. The shirt and trouser became the uniform for the working man across India, a sign of professionalism and manliness. Shapes, fabrics and colours changed with the times, but the idea of the collared, button-down shirt, tailored trousers and formal suit remained intact. To be a man, you had to dress like a man. But what do you do when the idea of men’s Westernwear is changing at its very roots?
The question of gender has preoccupied Western imaginations for several seasons now, culminating in a flurry of debate, gossip and cheer when a former athletic champion turned himself into a woman and displayed her new, demure avatar in a bustier on the cover of Vanity Fair, coquettishly telling the world, “Call Me Caitlyn.” Transgender models such as Andreja Pejic and Hari Nef made headlines after walking the ramp for both menswear and women’s wear, and some of the newer models on male ramps could easily pass off as pre-pubescent girls. In June this year, the US Supreme Court made gay marriage legal—a small step for Europeans watching the news perhaps, but a giant leap for homophobic American mankind—unleashing animated exchanges across the world.
Fashion is, in any case, famous for being the only industry where homosexuality is a non-issue; gay men are highly likely to find social status and financial reward in the fashion world, unlike other male-dominant careers and corporate setups where the glass ceiling for women also extends to the LGBT community. Some of the most iconic designers— Karl Lagerfeld, Gianni Versace, Valentino Garavani, John Galliano, Tom Ford, Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen—are (or were) proudly gay, and there are scores of others who choose to stay closeted (especially in countries like India where homosexuality is a legal black hole). It is not surprising then that the boundaries of femininity and masculinity are often blurred in fashion ateliers and on drawing boards. On planet fashion, homophobia and sexism are so last season.
But how does that affect the clueless Indian man who is out at the neighbourhood mall to buy a new pair of trousers for work or a dress shirt for a wedding? Read carefully, because this is what you are likely to find.
The Flowers Are in Bloom
Floral prints and patterns have invaded male dressing, and are bigger, sunnier and more effervescent than ever before. From dark floral printed shirts at Burberry to all-over petal-printed suits at Alexander McQueen, blossoms are de rigueur. DSquared2 offers floral embroidery on a leather bomber jacket, while Moschino has come up with a shiny silver tuxedo with neon orange flowers all over.
In India, the kind of avant-garde androgyny seen on Western ramps is still some distance away—or maybe not since Indian men are more open to the idea of embracing their feminine sides. In any case, one thing is certain: flowers and the colour pink fit in perfectly with the male wardrobe here. Varun Bahl presented an uber-metrosexual couture collection featuring delicate floral embroidery on pink jackets and layered bandhgalas, and his models looked perfectly dishy to both male and female gazes.
Narendra Kumar offered a pleasing soft pink floral-printed blazer paired with a pink shirt and trousers at his winter- festive 2015 show. His showstopper, the beefy, tattooed British model Stephen James, looked ravishing in a maroon tailcoat with a pink shirt and tie.
What this means for you: You’ll find more shirts in pink besides bright and subtle floral prints at the local mall; you may buy them and not worry about looking girly. If you are a social butterfly or an attention-seeker, you can even go all out with a floral-print blazer or suit. And take heart from the fact that even Salman Khan and Abhishek Bachchan have sported pink blazers. For everyone else, it’s best to go with just one floral or pink detail in your entire look, for instance, a tie with a sophisticated, small floral print. For a casual day out, you can go for a floral-print polo tee or floral-print loafers with your jeans. It’s too early to wear a pink kimono, though.
Silhouettes Are Androgynous
It isn’t necessary for pants to look like pants and jackets to look staid. Several designers, notably Givenchy, Versace and Rick Owens, created layered looks that appeared like a jacket worn over a dress or skirt, paired with leggings and boots. At Balmain, you will find shiny feminine palazzos. British designer-duo Ada+Nik showed skirts of differing lengths for men—one even had a thigh-high slit. Rohit Gandhi-Rahul Khanna created pants that had a skirt-like diagonal flap in the front—also seen at Japanese design maven Yohji Yamamoto’s show. At Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla’s Lakmé Fashion Week winter-festive 2015 show, a bearded model wore a low-neck, embroidered vest that showed off clean-shaven cleavage, paired with harem pants. It created much flutter on the front row. At JJ Valaya couture, a tall, handsome male model wore a blue floor-length anarkali with gold detailing inspired by the Russian winter. Dior Homme presented an ankle-length overcoat.
What this means for you: Essentially, this is unisex dressing, and your wardrobe will never be safe from the women in your family ever again. For instance, if you’re shopping at a Balenciaga store, you will spot what looks like a cross between a shirt and a shift-dress, and a cropped grey jacket-blouse, both of which your wife might steal from you.
Skinny Pants Aren't Only for Women
Show after show across the world, pants have hugged male legs tighter than certain politicians hold on to their seats. From David Hart’s drainpipes and DKNY’s skinny jeans in New York, to leather cigarette pants with zipped details at Saint Laurent in France, to slim-fit chinos at Marni in Italy, skinny pants have become a fixture on the men’s runway. Even the most conservative menswear designers such as Canali and Paul Smith haven’t been immune to this movement, and you’d be forgiven for recalling early 19th century Regency-era dressing when men wore tailcoats with tight-fitting pants.
What it means for you: Perhaps nothing. This silhouette only suits young, svelte men of medium height (as it elongates the legs). For sure, high- street brands such as Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and J Crew now offer slim- fit trousers in just about every fabric, shape and budget. But stay away from ultra-skinny fits if you have a beer belly, a bulging bottom, a wide chest and brawny arms, are too tall or too short, well endowed, or plan to sit.
Embroidery Can be Manly
The epitome of Italian opulence, Dolce & Gabbana showed black jackets and sweatshirts with thick gold embroidery. Balmain, now headed by the media-savvy, dashing Olivier Rousteing, came up with stone-studded and sequined cropped jackets reminiscent of women dancers at a Bollywood awards show. A champion of embroidery for Westernwear in India, celebrity fashion designer Manish Malhotra introduced velvet dinner jackets with patches of hand embroidery on the shoulders and arms for his winter- festive 2015 show.
For Indian silhouettes, in any case, embroidery is par for the course. Designers like Rohit Bal, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Tarun Tahiliani and Varun Bahl showed plenty of heavily embroidered bandhgalas and achkans at their couture shows.
What it means for you: When your wife or mother buys swathes of embroidered fabric for an upcoming wedding in the family, keep some aside for yourself. It’s perfectly legit to have a little embroidery on your formal jacket, on the collar of your shirt, or on the border of your stole. You can also brighten up a staid, old-fashioned suit with velvet loafers with gold embroidery on them, or add a touch of embroidery on your turban. For daywear or workwear, though, subtle details are safest.
Sheer is Sexy
Released from the fuddy-duddy notion that sheer fabrics are only for the female of the species, men too can now happily show off hairless, well-groomed and toned bodies. Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla’s transparent, dreamy kurtas and sheer button-down shirts with delicate white-on-white detailing left many women watching the show in a swoon. Virtues also showed sheer, printed kurtas under military-inspired jackets at their fall-winter 2015 show. 3.1 Phillip Lim’s menswear show featured a couple of nip-slips as models strutted down in mesh shirts under jackets. Young British designer Joseph Turvey even offers sheer lace pants for men.
What it means for you: It’s time to get a gym subscription and a waxing appointment at the salon.
(Aekta Kapoor is the editor of Fashion101.in)