Androgyny – of the Stella Tennant, Agyness Deyn and Kate Moss variety – has long been embraced by the modelling industry. When masculine beauties like Omahyra Mota and Kristen McMenamy hit their stride in the ‘90s, fashion’s focus shifted from voluptuous curves to waif and willowy boyish beanpoles. You need only look to the success of Calvin Klein model Jenny Shimizu and David Bowie-lookalike Elanora Bose to get the picture.
Over the past decade, designers such as Marc Jacobs and Riccardo Tisci have continued to run with the gender-bending theme, sending an increasing number of transgendered, cross-dressing and epicene models down the runway. There are a number of top models straddling the gender median, from the fragile, flaxen-haired Andrej Pejic to transgender model and face of Givenchy, Lea T. Casey Legler is the first female model to be exclusively signed up as a male model. They’ve become poster children for this new “androgyny”, fronting campaigns, modelling wedding dresses and posing in the pages of Vogue with their genitalia strategically hidden.
While Boy George pioneered androgyny in the ‘80s by dressing in billowing blouses and sporting bright make-up, winged eyeliner and crimped hair, there’s nothing so outlandish with the way these models look. With chiselled cheekbones, plump pouts, poreless alabaster skin and 25-inch waists, Andrej, Stav Strashko and others still fit well within familiar feminine beauty standards, despite being male.
Lea T for Brazilian Elle.
There’s something about the androgyny trend that seems almost faddish, played up by an industry hell bent on being subversive. Commentator Bidisha describes it as the fashion world’s latest attempt to create “cultural buzz” and boost sales, like casting a “defiantly unshaven” feminist model or having your 72-year-old grandfather star in your latest lookbook.
“What fashion says is: 'You can be transsexual, you can be androgynous, you can be old, you can be young, you can be larger than a size 12 but you must still be as beautiful as all the other models.' Their wallet lives on the side of the status quo,” says Bishida.
Whether modelling as a man, a woman or a nonspecific gender, the industry requires compliance with the same strict standards – tall, thin, pretty, in proportion. Though the androgynous trend purports to celebrate diversity and liberate individuals from strict gender roles, we remain sceptical about whether it is, in fact, revolutionising the fashion industry.
Casey Legler models. Image via Time magazine.
The androgynous aesthetic is also exclusionary. There’s such an emphasis on having no curves on the catwalk that designers are able to cast teenage boys to model designs for adult women, while full-bodied, big-breasted ladies get bupkis. While transgender and cross-dressing models may add some exciting gender non-normativity into the mix, they remain very much a novel twist on your standard catwalk presentation.
Though designers and editors have conjured a whole lot of shock value and praise for their “progressive” thinking, they’ve done so without actually expanding the high-fashion definition of what it means to be beautiful. When a ridiculously beautiful girl is replaced with a ridiculously beautiful boy playing a ridiculously beautiful girl – like cookies cut from the same waif thin, Eastern European mould – is there really anything radical going on?
This article was amended on December 14.