The world of fashion and beauty has expanded significantly in recent years in terms of gender expression, from explicitly genderless fashion and makeup lines to increasing representation of gender-fluid fashion by our favorite celebrities, such as at the Met Gala, for example. To help explain the annual fundraising event’s 2019 theme of Camp, head curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art says, “Camp is by its very nature subversive. It reacts with and against…the status quo.”
For many unfamiliar with genderless, gender-fluid, and androgynous fashion, the 2019 Met Gala was their first introduction to the concept. Most recently, Vogue’s December 2020 issue featuring Harry Styles, photographed by Tyler Mitchell, had folks discussing the trend of “gender-bending” fashion. However, this trend is not really new at all, in fact gender-bending fashion has been around for years. In a 2017 article by Refinery29, fashion designer Rick Owens actually points out this hypocrisy, stating, “I don’t understand why this generation thinks they invented gender fluidity. They did it harder, stronger, and louder in the ’70s.” Even Billy Porter’s gown for the 2019 Academy Awards, designed by Christian Siriano, paid homage to ballroom icon Hector Xtravaganza, grandfather of the House of Xtravaganza, who actually consulted on the hit show Pose prior to his death in 2018.
While gender-subverting fashion has been around for decades, that did not stop Styles’ Vogue cover from gathering plenty of media attention, both positive and negative. Candace Owens came under fire for replying to Vogue’s tweet promoting the cover and stating, “There is no society that can survive without strong men…the steady feminization of our men at the same time that Marxism is being taught to our children is not a coincidence. It is an outright attack. Bring back manly men.” Yikes.
What has been overlooked by many fashion critics and aficionados alike is that Black artists, musicians, and fashion icons have been subverting notions of gender for decades. From disco legend Sylvester to the Black ballroom scene to André 3000 in a dress for the “Ms. Jackson” cover in 2000 to now seeing artists like Lil Nas X in full neon suits for red carpet appearances, all prove the case that this is nothing new for our community.
We’ve gathered some of the legends who have been serving us gender-fluid fashion long before Harry Styles, and who opened up the conversation of Black expressions of gender by showing us that fashion is not binary.
The aforementioned Billy Porter paid homage to Little Richard in his role in the miniseries Shake, Rattle, and Roll in 1999. Little Richard’s use of makeup was just one example of how he never remained within the confines of stylistic rules and regulations. In an interview in 1972, he referred to wearing makeup as simple as “adding sugar to your coffee — you’re supposed to add a little touch to it.”
Little Richard’s style in actuality was reminiscent of other Black sartorial moments, such as the Harlem Renaissance and the era of the zoot suit, by not only wearing loud colors and fashion, but also always remaining perfectly manicured. He was giving us such greatness since the 1950s, even while appearing on black and white television that couldn’t fully capture the essence that was Little Richard. He challenged heteronormative notions of race and gender at a time that was defined by White, middle-class heteronormativity.
When Prince Rogers Nelson passed in 2016, singer Frank Ocean paid tribute to him via Tumblr saying, “He made me feel comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his display of freedom from, and irreverence for, the archaic idea of gender conformity.”
Prince gave us a different view of what masculinity looked like, with his use of heels, lingerie, and makeup. When he opened for the Rolling Stones in 1981, his look was initially met with resistance and hostility from the crowd. However, this did not stop the artist from pushing gender boundaries, which ultimately led him to forge a path for other artists to experiment with gender in their dress practices. As he poignantly expressed in his 1984 hit “I Would Die 4 U,” “I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I am something that you will never understand.”
Cam’Ron’s iconic pink fur made its debut at the 2002 Grammy Awards. The head-to-toe Baby Phat outfit in the shade “Killa Pink,” as referred to by the artist and later registered with the leading authority on color trends, Pantone, became the precursor to what we now refer to as “millennial pink,” which is often associated with the modern feminist movement. After Cam’Ron made the hue a regular part of his ensembles, stores that typically sold menswear, especially sportswear stores, began to see a huge uptick of pink purchases.
While wearing pink today isn’t considered as subversive as it was in 2002, there’s a bit of history to be learned about color association and gender. As explained by fashion studies scholar Susan Kaiser in her book Fashion and Cultural Studies, it was only in the past 50 years that pink and blue have been associated with boys and girls. Up until the early 20th century, children were dressed in plain white dresses and wore similar clothing until puberty. The earliest demarcation of assigning colors to genders occurred in the 1920s, when it was first suggested that boys wear pink, as it represented the rosy cheeks of a healthy boy, and young girls wear blue, as the color was considered soft and feminine. The switch did not occur until the 1940s. We’re now in a time where gender reveal parties are so popular they have been responsible for wildfires, explosions, and have even been fatal.
Young Thug’s 2016 album, No, My Name is Jeffery, arguably made more headlines for the cover art than it did for music. It featured the rapper in a soft periwinkle dress with a billowing layered skirt, topped with a paper parasol used for the headpiece. The dress, designed by Alessandro Trincone, first caught Young Thug’s eye after New York Fashion Week Spring 2017. This was following his Calvin Klein ad in 2016, which had similarly captured attention for his subversive gender expression. Young Thug actually spoke on the issue of gender and dress in his comments following the ad, stating, “There is no such thing as gender…In my world, of course, it don’t matter you could be a gangster with a dress or you could be a gangster with baggy pants.”
The use of celebrities in fashion advertisements and campaigns is not unusual by any means, particularly in an age of street style meets high fashion. However, Jaden Smith for Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 2016 ad made headlines for different reasons than Smith’s name alone. In the image he shared on his Instagram, he is pictured in a leather jacket, textured fringe top, pleated skirt, and patent leather loafers. This was a prominent moment in fashion, because not only was Smith wearing clothes that went against traditional gender norms, but he was also featured in a campaign for womenswear, wearing the womenswear collection. This wasn’t a situation in which the brand created something “genderless” but still used masculine dress to convey uniformity. Smith was, in theory, cross-dressing by wearing “women’s clothing,” which actually allowed viewers the opportunity to ask the question, What exactly makes clothing gendered?
Culturally speaking, dresses and skirts are really only gendered in the modern Western world. Across various civilizations things are different. For example, there’s the hanbok in Korea, the kaftan in North and West Africa, the lavalava in Polynesian cultures, and many more.
We spoke with writer and professor Jonathan Michael Square about the history of Black folks disrupting heteronormative standards through fashion. Square is also the creator behind Fashioning the Self, which aims to celebrate “the sartorial ingenuity of Black people.”
He regards the clout that Harry Styles has received over the many Black artists that have been subverting gender via their aesthetic for years as an example of heteronormativity, which is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as, “based on the attitude that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of sexuality.” However, many scholars in the fields of gender and race studies have pushed this definition further to also include predicated notions of race, gender expression, and identity, as well as class status. Square says that “because [Harry Styles] is White and cis[gender], it is a more palatable and marketable version of gender fluidity. It’s not too disruptive.”
The professor explains how Black folks have laid the framework for gender-fluid fashion, and what makes Black fashion, style, and aesthetic unique in this larger conversation of genderless fashion, gender fluidity, and gender-bending in fashion. He states, “Black people are often denied the privileges that come with prescribed gender roles. Black men are not allowed to be masculine without being labeled as aggressive or threatening…or worse, killed. Black women are not allowed the trappings of femininity. So we often strategically flout gender norms altogether.” His favorite fashion icons that fall into this category? Little Richard, Grace Jones, Prince, Sylvester, and Big Freedia, to name a few. According to Squares, “Black people have been and continue to be at the vanguard of gender fluidity and non-binarity.”