He’s a Woman, She’s a Man
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When the woman first wore a pair of trousers, in the 1960s somewhat commonly, one could almost hear gainsayers crow with disdain: "What's next, men in skirts?" Er, yes. Or so it seems. Women's clothes are getting a more masculine and tailored look, while men's silhouettes are becoming softer and more fluid.
Gender-neutral dressing, or even cross-dressing, is sensationally au courant. Both European fashion and its Indian correspondent are experimenting with androgynous styles in dressing. As society's boundaries are being redefined, so have masculine-feminine aesthetics.
At the men's fashion week in Paris two months ago, several designers sent their male models out in various forms of the skirt. Ricardo Tisci for Givenchy had vagina-shaped flowers on his skirts. Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garcons had calf-length skirts. Yohji Yamamoto showed baggy culottes like those of Samurai warriors.
In India, designer Arjun Saluja opened his fashion show at the recent Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week in Delhi with a model in a hooded black sari — one only had to imagine the motorcycle the woman wearing this just rode. His next outfit was on a beautiful male model: a men's shirt worn with a long pleated skirt. Especially exciting were his "bartender" pants for men: slim trousers with a knee-length skirt draped over them, as if one were a server in a restaurant.
Wendell Rodricks, a pioneer of softer silhouettes for men, continued to dress his men in lungis and lungi-inspired skirts, teamed with kurtas or bandhgalas. Power shoulders showed up in women's clothes ubiquitously. Every cocktail dress that Rajesh Pratap Singh sent out had padded shoulders. Designer duo Alpana Neeraj's origami-style silhouettes came with exaggerated shoulders and racer-back elastic details. Kanika Saluja Chaudhary's label Anaikka had women dressed in punk-rock metallics. "The world has been moving towards unisex clothing since the '60s," says Rodricks. "There's nothing more androgynous than jeans and a T-shirt. My clothes have been fluid between men and women from the beginning. We make shirts for men and do them in a different fabric for women," he says.
One of the most disarming news features doing the rounds of the internet has been of Nils Pickert, a father of a five-year-old boy who likes wearing his older sister's dresses. Pickert began wearing dresses and skirts too, so people wouldn't question and alarm his son.
History and pop culture have the androgynous labeled as rebels, or as men or women who enchant and entertain society. Punk and rock stars such as Boy George, David Bowie, Steve Tyler and Mick Jagger, iconoclasts like Coco Chanel (who borrowed from her lover Etienne Balsan's equestrian wardrobes often) and Marlene Dietrich added to the nonconformist repute.
In the 1920s, the flapper generation of women cut their hair boyishly short and began to adopt a gamine's body aesthetic as well. In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent created the women's tuxedo or le smoking. By the 1980s, women were in boardrooms and wearing trousers everywhere. In Woody Allen's Annie Hall, Diane Keaton famously wore tucked in shirts, waistcoats and trousers.
Androgyny may not be a modern idea at all, especially when one notes that women first wore trousers in Genghiz Khan's Mongolia. But it's especially interesting to note how it is coming out of its outlier mould and finding itself a more socially acceptable stool to straddle. It has become an evolving and large-scale phenomenon that even those outside of fashion's circles can't be oblivious to.
Like Brad Pitt for one. Who would've thought the man labeled the sexiest man alive by everyone who runs quizzes like these would model for women's perfume? Chanel has signed up the Hollywood actor to be the face of its No. 5, one of the brand's best-selling perfumes. The choice of Pitt, according to Marielou Phillips, Chanel India's head of press and public relations, "reflects the daring approach that has always characterised Mademoiselle Chanel in everything she undertook."
It's important to realise that what is "socially acceptable" keeps changing too. A woman wearing a pant-suit may have been scandalous 50 years ago, but it doesn't cause an eyelid to flutter now. Au contraire, several women have opted out of the ubiquitous and overkilled dress (that finally turned our socialites into mutton dressed as lambs) and find themselves in the terribly chic women's tux. Actresses Kangana Ranaut, Neha Dhupia, Sonam Kapoor, Anushka Sharma and singer Anushka Manchanda have worn these to paparazzi-filled events.
While it is common for women's fashion to adopt masculine styles, men's fashion adopting a feminine style is only just beginning. (Although Jean Paul Gaultier put men in skirts in the '80s, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen followed it in the Noughties.) American singer Kanye West and actor Samuel L Jackson in a skirt are hot tabloid items. Actor Jared Leto recently tweeted a picture of himself in a skirt, writing "Real men wear skirts".
Androgyny has also seeped into men's fashion through accessories, bright colours, loafers such as those by Tod's and colourful ties, pocket squares and socks, like those by Paul Smith. The "dandy" is rather commonplace: restaurateur AD Singh wears a lungi as elegantly as he does a Canali suit. Cricket commentator Gautam Bhimani and jewellery marketeer Vikram Raizada are hugely experimental with vivid colours, prints and more fitted silhouettes.
This subtle trend that's fast gaining steam needs to be looked at anthropologically. "The Indian male has always been androgynous but it hasn't been 'androgyny' for us," says Varun Rana, general manager, marketing and communications, Genesis Luxury, a company that owns franchises of labels such as Paul Smith, Tumi and also Jimmy Choo, Bottega Veneta and Furla. "India has been the paragon for the unstitched garment for much longer, a lungi is the sari equivalent for a man."
Rana is spot on. Much of this new gender-bending vibe is a European idea. But Indian fashion shows these influences too. This is especially so when designers are turning inwards, towards their indigenous concepts and heritage and reclaiming tradition. The trouser is but a colonial product, Asian men have worn dhoti drapes and sarongs forever.
"For us, lungis and dhotis are not a fashion statement, it's part of our utility uniform. The farmer wears a dhoti, and so does the politician. It's the middle class in between these two that doesn't and calls it 'fashionable'," Saluja explains. "Designers only make versions of what already exists in our collective psyche."
A new body-consciousness that hasn't escaped men or women has much to do with it. "Even men have problem areas in their body types, and a lungi silhouette or a men's kaftan is forgiving on big hips," Rana avers. This brings to mind Hedi Slimane's iconic slim suits for Dior Homme, which Chanel's chief designer Karl Lagerfeld famously said he shed a lot of weight to get into.
Moreover, India's tropical weather allows for comfort over anything else, hence dress codes are often flexible. "Practicality is the mother of acceptance," says Rodricks. "The reason I wear a lungi to a party is because it is the most comfortable thing I've worn. Our hot weather makes comfortable options possible." Rodricks says he has seen actor Arshad Warsi wear dhoti pants often. "I once saw a young man in Chandigarh wear Tao pants that looked like a skirt. "
"As much as I love wearing loose-flowing clothes, I usually wear them where I know they would be okay," says Warsi, who lives in "hot and humid Mumbai" where he prefers wearing clothes that breathe. "I wear a tie-up pyjama (salwar) very often, and I wear lungis at home. I'd love to wear it out but I would shock everybody."
Possibly not for long. Not if designers like Saluja and Dhruv Kapur have their way. Kapur, 25, is a former fashion sales exec-turned-designer who has just put together his first clothing line. He makes minimal architectural clothing that can be worn by men or women. "My philosophy in design is rather post-modernist: it's the idea of a world without boundaries, where masculine and feminine cease to be definitions, like in the books of Ayn Rand and Isaac Asimov, people are just numbers. Everything else is a social construct," he says. Kapur showed up at this year's fashion week in a divine sleeveless black linen Arabesque dishdasha or thobe.
"Rishta has always made clothing that is unisex," says Saluja of his label. "It's only now that the customer is disregarding his gender or sexual orientation. Men don't want to wear dhoti trousers or hakama pants first. It's only when it becomes a universal within a subculture that they disregard their gender."
Indian men are psychologically and genetically comfortable wearing the skirt silhouette. But will the man's skirt ever go mainstream? "Mainstream is a wide and lazy word. Mainstream is a pair of jeans. And jeans are never in fashion," answers Rana.
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