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Pop Stars Didn’t Invent Gender Fluidity


In this op-ed, writer Jared Michael Lowe examines the recent phenomenon of today’s pop stars embracing gender-fluid fashion. Are we giving them too much credit for smashing gender norms?

Harry Styles in Gucci heeled boots. Jaden Smith in a Louis Vuitton womenswear skirt. Lil Uzi Vert clutching a pink Goyard bag. Zayn Malik stepping out in women’s blouses. Even Miley Cyrus who, earlier this year, opened up about her identity as non-binary, often remarks that some of her previous style choices have skewed towards masculine and super-femme.

Today’s pop stars are embracing gender fluidity, even in the face of visceral online ridicule, in a world where the topic of sexuality and non-binary acceptance bubbles.

Simultaneously, the conversation has veered into the world of fashion as more and more designers are developing genderless clothing.

Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

In recent fashion collections, various designers showcased gender-fluid garments as models of varying sexes strode down runways. Designer Thom Browne had a fleet of male models grace the catwalk in grey pleated skirts with his signature tailored suit jackets. Vivienne Westwood displayed her latest collection of frocks on male models. Most notably and by far the most polarizing, Gucci’s creative head Alessandro Michele cross-pollinated the world of fashion, mixing his unique sense of thematic historical elements with today’s Snapchat-crazed aesthetic, rendering brightly-hued and largely ornate floral appliqués on men’s suit jackets, unisex pussybow blouses, and sundresses. Even Jay-Z, who famously wore a white tee and baggy jeans in his “Big Pimpin’” video from the late ’90s, has since displayed a different sense of style, stepping out in Michele for Gucci’s elaborately-decorated suit jackets.

Of course, this wasn’t always the case in the fashion industry. “In the beginning of my career, my agents wanted me to wear a white t-shirt and jeans and to show off my broad shoulders to appear masculine to casting directors,” says model and actor Shaun D Ross. Ross, who famously kissed Katy Perry in her music video for “E.T.”, has appeared in music videos for artists like Beyoncé and Lana Del Rey, and modeled for Alexander McQueen and Givenchy. “My agents would tell me that no one wants to book a visible gay man because the male in ads should appeal to women”. That heteronormative approach to fashion is slowly disseminating, with a more inclusive, gender-fluid ideology taking its place.

Model Shaun D Ross

Designers like 69 Worldwide, Toogood London, and Telfar Clemens are on the forefront of that major zeitgeist shift. Launched in 2005, Clemens’ eponymous label, Telfar started out — and has remained — genderless. In a recent fashion presentation that showcased the brand’s gender nonconforming philosophy, Telfar hosted a dinner where models, editors and judges from the Vogue CFDA Fashion Fund, of which he is a finalist, broke bread together. “If you saw our show, gender was the last thing on your mind — it’s the last thing on ours. For us, it’s successful when you didn’t even ask if someone was a man or a woman — not when it’s some provocative statement.”

Fashion, music, and celebrity culture have long had an interconnected marriage, one that has proved incredibly lucrative for all parties involved. It stands to reason that, as the fashion industry slowly shifts the tide to be more diverse, inclusive, and gender-fluid, celebrities would proudly start wearing garments that blur gender norms. But as they merely experiment with gender-fluid fashion — without actually standing on the front-lines of the gender-fluid movement — are we giving them too much credit for sparking change?

As refreshing as it is to see pop stars Harry Styles, Miley Cyrus, Jaden Smith, or Lil Uzi Vert gain notoriety for embracing gender-fluid fashion, they didn’t invent or reinvent the wheel. Gender fluidity has been around far longer than today’s current iteration of celebrities. From the days of ancient Egypt and Rome to pop music trailblazers like Patti Smith, David Bowie, and Prince, gender fluidity — when it comes to expression of personal style — is nothing new.

Furthermore, while the power of celebrity is undeniable, we should be cautious about positioning stars as the faces of gender-fluidity, simply because they’re famous. “I think that fashion is extremely political and that as a celebrity or anyone in the limelight, being hyper visible comes with great responsibility. Celebrities can help shape our understanding of identities, where’s it going and where we’ve been, to help us better understand,” says Gabrielle Royal, photographer and contributor for dapperQ, a queer style and empowerment website specifically for masculine-presenting women and transgender-identified individuals. “Yet, the way celebrities use fashion can be either helpful, or harmful, depending on their performances and the moves they make with their stylistic expressions.” Royal, who serves as Assistant Director of Employer and Alumni Relations at Columbia University, believes that there needs to be more continued dialogue around fluidity. “Perpetuating gender nonconforming stereotypes can be just as toxic and violent as more widely discussed stereotypes about other presentations.”

Gabrielle Royal, photographer and contributor for dapperQ

Outside the veil of celebrity, real issues persist. For many who are transgender, gender-fluid, and non-binary, their mere presence is a sign of resistance with how they engage the mainstream culture through what they wear, think, say, or do. Yet, while the way a person may dress can say a lot about their character, it shouldn’t encapsulate their entire identity or experience. By compressing the many nuances of gender fluidity into whether or not a pop star wears high heels, blouses, or tailored suits, it ascribes that gender identity is mutually exclusive to someone’s outward appearance; which it is not. Moreover, when gender identities are thought of as trends, or become pithy buzzwords tossed around while pop stars wear genderless clothing from high-end designers, it only further harms an already-marginalized community.

For many who embrace all facets of their gender fluidity, there’s a level of risk and even danger involved in the simple act of getting out of bed, dressing, and leaving out their house for the day. Unfortunately, many are still targeted by how they dress, look, walk, or speak. In addition to countless discriminatory acts one may face on any given day, many are subjected to harassment and even violence because of how they present themselves. This can cause a level of anxiety and sometimes the desire to placate to traditional binary standards just to appease the mainstream.

As millennials continue to lead the movement for self-expression and actualization and as personas associated with the movement surface, it’s important to present and highlight those making an impact in various communities and not just pop stars shilling the latest genderless designer duds.

Related: What It’s REALLY Like to Go to Training Camp for Models

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