Straight, gay, bi, androgynous and trans are all terms that we are familiar with and each has had its own influence on fashion and culture. Sex and sexuality have been the driving force behind trends and marketing since, well, the beginning of trends and marketing. And the ambiguity of sexuality has given rise to some of the industries biggest trends.The androgynous David Bowie gave us Ziggy Stardust, who was everything, including alien, and sparked off fashion’s glam rock phase.
Bowie’s reinvention in 1975, with the emergence of the Slim White Duke, who was insanely well put together and all at once feminine and masculine, gave birth to the cool chic late 70’s fashion.
Gone were the hodge-podge colours, to be replaced with (for those who were on fashion’s tip) the clean lines of an immaculately cut cream suit and tonal turtleneck - think Yves Saint Laurent, Halston, Bill Blass.
The 1980’s gave us the New Romantic fashion craze, which many credit to British design duoMalcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, who debuted their first runway show with a collection they called “Pirate”, a unisex offering which channeled the highwaymen and dandies of a bygone time. But I feel that Prince, by the mid 80’s, was the real precursor to the trend-hitting mainstream. In 1981 Prince released his album Controversy and appeared on its cover with hair styled in what would become the New Romantic calling card.
Prince was clearly putting together outfits in the void of who he was. The lyrics of the title track play with the ambiguity surrounding his sexuality and racial identity and it would seem that he was engaging his fans with the questions they had regarding both. Petite and soft-spoken, Prince wore eyeliner and lip-gloss, lace shirts with frilly necks and favored tight pants, usually with lots of sheen. He, like Bowie, was not afraid to play with the traditional boundaries of sexuality. And by the time Purple Rain debuted in 1984, Prince’s look had hit the mainstream and had a name.
The 90’s gave us the fantastically talented Jean Paul Gaultier, who unleashed power and taboos in fashion. Gaultier’s woman was sexually free and no longer hiding her power or desires. Literally turning fashion inside out, he gave us lingerie,
bondage and the power suit rolled into one. And despite his designs being ultra revealing, there was nothing demeaning to the women who wore them. They were strong and bold and, in many ways, looked more predatory than victim. The Gaultier man was also empowered - the designer would offer them skirts and corsets. Sex and the visual frames that define our sexuality seemed to be a constant source of inspiration for the designer.
So let’s fast-forward to now and the buzzwords of today - Gender Fluid, Gender Flux and Non-Binary, all terms that un-define sexuality. They are not trends being pushed by highly visible musical stars. They are, in fact, organic. So the question is – will designers take their cues from a consumer that is out there and waiting to engage? And can they deliver a product that resounds?
My money will be on a unisex product in the performance and athleisure worlds. A product that does not court or pander to the consumer by calling itself out in a carefully crafted mission statement, or that tries to be provocative in design, but one that has an emphasis on the neutral and comfort. A product that is truly liquid and genderless. Now that’s good design…