A fluid dressing room beyond the red carpet
Gabriel Kulti’s “precious good” is a vintage Jean Paul Gaultier long-sleeved top that grips the body and is woven from a semi-translucent mesh finer than spider silk. The 20-year-old London-based student and model found it – along with many other of her bodycon tops – on resale site Depop, in the women’s section.
“There are more options for women; men’s clothing can be quite restrictive, ”says Kulti, who carries his laptop to college in a monogrammed Goyard handbag and has a penchant for crop tops, patterned scarves and rosaries. “Crossing that line in women’s clothing is cool,” he says. “I am comfortable with my masculinity. I have no problem wearing feminine clothes and being a man.
Views like these are shared by a growing group of teenage and 20-something men looking at gender-bending accessories, makeup, and clothing. These Gen Zers and millennials tend to frequent the hippest parts of big cities – east London, Brooklyn, Kreuzberg in Berlin, Gangnam in Seoul – and work in the creative industries.
Over the past few weeks, in Hackney, east London, where I live, I’ve spotted hipsters with sparkly hoops, eye shadow and long locks held back by scrunchies; skateboarders and baristas with pastel or burgundy varnishes; streetwear bros showing off pearl necklaces; the guys at the pub in delicate crop tops and blouses; and the men heading to the club in platform boots and small Dior saddlebags.
“[Wearing typically feminine pieces] is exactly like I like the print or pattern on a cool top, ”says Alexander Thomas, a 29-year-old London DJ and model who, over the past two years, has started wearing crop tops, Sports bras and bikinis with baggy jeans and Nike works out when he broadcasts his DJ sets or goes clubbing. “It’s not about shock value.”
While the fluid gender style isn’t new, it tends to apply overwhelmingly to women wearing so-called ‘men’s’ clothing – from boyfriend jeans to Annie Hall-style suits – rather than the other way around. Yet over the past five years it has become common for fashion brands to dress male models in skirts and dresses and to launch unisex and men’s cosmetic lines. This is accompanied by a growing rejection of gender binaries, by young people in particular, as rigid and outdated. “Gen Z doesn’t pay as much attention to sartorial distinctions compared to older generations,” says Kulti.
Nevertheless, even the most avant-garde men took a long time to wear clothes traditionally considered to be feminine. Now, it finally feels like a good faith move rather than something confined to the fantasy world of tracks and red carpets.
Men wearing quintessentially feminine items “sure perform on a mainstream level in real life,” says Emily Gordon-Smith, director of consumer products at trend forecasting agency Stylus. She says this has gained momentum over the past year, “where inclusiveness and diversity has become such a goal for a lot more people,” and points out that it is playing out in online spaces such as TikTok and Instagram – where men who don’t live in metropolises feel more free to express themselves – as much as on the streets.
Retail data backs it up. On the online shopping engine Lyst, Telfar’s lime-green leather handbag and gray pleated skirt by Thom Browne were among the most sought-after items for men earlier this year, while at Selfridges pearls and pearl jewelry became “equally popular” in the last year in the form of silver coins, according to Bosse Myhr, director of men’s and women’s clothing. Palomo Spain, a menswear brand known for its floral kaftans and ruffled shirts, has more than doubled its annual revenue this year to around £ 1.5million, according to founder Alejandro Gómez Palomo. And at Browns East, the luxury boutique in Shoreditch that eschews gendered sections, manager Adrian Gordon estimates that “between 15 and 20%” of men who walk into the store don’t ask if they’re trying on men’s styles or for women. Bottega Veneta’s padded cassette pouch, Marine Serre’s form-fitting tops and Eytys platform boots are current men’s hits, he adds.
The movement is carried by a new generation of genderless brands like Telfar and Nicopanda, and by luxury labels with flamboyant or androgynous codes like Gucci, Palomo Spain, Rick Owens or Charles Jeffrey Loverboy. Their impact is amplified by the stars who wear their items, whether it’s Harry Styles in a Gucci dress on the cover of Vogue; basketball player Russell Westbrook floating along a Manhattan sidewalk in a Thom Browne skirt that lowers his shins; or the many rappers who have donned dresses, blouses and babushka scarves, including ASAP Rocky, Lil Nas X, Kid Cudi, Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert.
“Traditionally, most of these [stars] are straight and in “male” industries, so young straight people see it [and thinking] “Oh, I can do it,” says Gordon of Browns East. He thinks that youth is a more defining characteristic of fluid dressing than sexuality. In addition to the homosexuals who “break the borders”, says DJ Thomas, “it is definitely moving in this [gender-fluid] direction for extroverts, rock stars and other heterosexuals in the creative industries.
Men’s adoption of a fluid style between the sexes falls across a wide spectrum. On the conservative side, you have gentlemen wearing traditionally feminine colors and patterns (pinks, pastels) (flowers, animal prints). In the middle you have men adding nail polish, pearls, handbags, and other dainty accessories. And at the most liberal, you have guys like Jonny Semble, a 28-year-old recruiter at a music technology company in Berlin who recently wore a black & Other Stories dress with dangling earrings and Chanel sunglasses at a cocktail.
It takes boldness for men to challenge gender stereotypes with their clothes. Although Seems has only had one unpleasant encounter in real life (when someone spat on him for wearing makeup and hotpants), when he posts pictures of his outfits on Instagram, some friends respond with a laughing emoji. “Even though it’s fun for me [to dress like this] it’s not a joke either, ”he says. “[Replies] like that makes me want to challenge people to find out what is wrong with them.
Thomas, meanwhile, has a miniskirt hanging in his bedroom but continues to muster the confidence to “put it on and walk down the street.” What will it take to overcome his blockages? “Representation, representation, representation,” he says. “The more I see, the more I trust myself.”
Over the next two years, Gordon-Smith of Stylus expects fluid gender styling to become a “big item on the agenda” for even the most traditional menswear brands, while designer Palomo says there’s a precedent for how this trend could play out: skinny jeans. He remembers over a decade ago when skinny denim was donned by people pushing the limits but ridiculed by macho men for being too camp. Now? “Skinny jeans have become a staple for the straightest man possible,” he says. “This is a clear example of a trend created by a niche of people and then followed by masses. “
While it doesn’t happen overnight, those pink button down shirts will eventually soften into blouses, shrink into crop tops, or maybe even blossom into dresses.
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