Man or woman?
Polish fashion model and actress Malgosia Bela. Photo: Carlo Allegri
Every few months or so, something is hailed as a reason that gender equality has been reached, and the call is put out for all the feminists take their foot off the accelerator towards Suffragette City.
These supposed paradigm shifts have included everything from a female Prime Minister to crowds of women whooping at Magic Mike’s bare male bottoms to, now, female models represented in the agencies’ male books.
To non-fashion-nuts, that sentence is probably impossible to parse, so in other words, female models are now modelling male clothes.
Male model Andrej Pejic walks the runway during Barcelona Bridal Week last year. Photo: Robert Marquardt
“Now” is a relative term, of course, because fashion - particularly haute couture - has played with gender representation for some time, but this is the first instance of gender-bending female models attracting as much mainstream attention as their male equivalent, the delicately beautiful Andrej Pejic.
There’s Casey Legler, the handsome 6’2” former-Olympian and artist who is on Ford Models’ Men’s roster, Next Models' boyish star Erika Linder, and to a lesser extent (though fashion bloggers seem pretty stoked about it), Malgosia Bela’s work for the latest Alexander Wang campaign.
Much like Pejic’s repeated assurances to the dunderheaded tabloid press that he is, in fact, a man, Legler - though she cannily steers the conversation away from terms like “gender identity” in this charming Time video interview - identifies as a woman.
Casey Legler models. Image via Time magazine.
The conclusion it’s tempting to jump to is that this is a giant leap for beauty ideals, and that Legler’s presence will open the door for a broader notion of what women are allowed to look like. But outside of high fashion campaigns, the rather less glamorous reality is that gender-fluidity and androgyny in the public eye tends to reveal a rather alarming vein of misogyny.
Remember that Cement Garden line that was sampled at the beginning of Madonna’s What It Feels Like For A Girl? “Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots, because it's OK to be a boy, but for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, because you think that being a girl is degrading.”
It often runs that women who play with androgyny are celebrated (Tilda Swinton is an example, as is the wonderful visual artist and one-time Lady Gaga associate, Heather Cassils), while men who do the same in reverse are considered “weird” and “freaky” (Pejic was referred to as a “thing” by FHM).
Lea T for Brazilian Elle.
Pejic is a man who models women’s clothes, and the mainstream press seems to see him as a sort of fascinating oddity; the treatment of model and transwoman Lea T by the broader media has been considerably less kind. In fact, I would encourage you to never read the comments on any mainstream media article about trans women.
Indeed, we have so-called feminists to thank for some of the most blood-curdling transmisogyny of late, from Germaine Greer calling our trans sisters “ghastly parodies [of women]”, to Julie Burchill’s nightmarish hate rant last week in the Observer, which the British Press Complaints Commission is now investigating. One of its gentler sentences was, “Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don't threaten or bully we lowly natural-born women, I warn you.”
The response to Burchill’s swill (which The Telegraph have stubbornly republished in the interests of “free speech” - trigger warning for trans hate and a truly remarkable lack of basic human decency - here) was, rightly, outrage. My feminism stands with that of Deborah Orr, who wrote in her Guardian response to Burchill, “It is hard, being a woman, less hard now, in the west, than it has ever been. Most feminists do see it's unbelievably hard being a woman who is driven and compelled to have her body rearranged before society will treat her as the woman she is.”
(Or, as performer Lisa-Skye said last week, “"If you identify as a woman, then guess what? It’s woman o’ clock and you are right on time.")
There are multifaceted reasons for all this, but one of the core issues is that being, becoming, or even dressing as a woman is seen as the lesser choice, because women are lesser than men.
Complicating things further is the fact that fashionable androgyny very rarely goes beyond fairly prescribed notions of “body beautiful”, that is, athletic and slim “male” looks, and sylphlike “femaleness”. If a fat woman plays with androgyny in slacks and suspenders, or a bearded Black man takes to makeup and a sequinned frock, the fashion press is less likely to applaud.
Indeed, as Legler herself said, "We have very specific ways in which we identify ourselves as men or women. And I think sometimes those can be limiting. It would be a lovely place if we didn’t necessarily judge or jump to conclusions because someone wants to wear a dress or wants to wear pants.”
It would be nice to think that androgyny in fashion editorials might make people more willing to accept gender as a fluid spectrum rather than a rigid binary, and maybe we’re on our way to a more enlightened age. In the meantime, one besuited woman does not a gender revolution make.