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When Will the Clothes Catch Up to the Culture?



Female modelWhen I read this recent Vice article, my first thought was that the headline– “Trans Model Carmen Carrera is Transforming Fashion”–wasn’t exactly true.

Though it’s optimistic, makes excellent link-bait, and the pun on trans is irresistible, Vice’s headline makes it sound like Carrera is singlehandedly striking down the fashion industry’s resistance to transgender models and gender-neutral clothing design.

To be fair, she’s made serious strides. Author Sarah Ratchford catalogues these in a poignant interview with Carrera, who has signed with Elite and walked the runway for Marco Marco since she began presenting as a woman in 2012.

Ratchford also gives credit where credit is due–to other models who are pushing the industry to reconsider its binary gender outlook, including Isis King and Andrej Pejic. Pejic, born male, has rocketed to stardom in recent months for his extreme versatility; he walks the runway as both a male and a female. Jean Paul Gaultier called him a “beautiful modern woman boy.”

King, who has transitioned from male to female, competed in two cycles of “America’s Next Top Model,” and was eliminated both times. Since then, she’s been the face of American Apparel.

More and more trans models are emerging into the fashion industry, to the support and relief of transpeople all over the world who have been ignored, persecuted and misrepresented.

The way it still is

But really, the same bias pervades the high fashion runway as it always has. Designers and casting agents overwhelmingly choose to see the same body type and the same skin color wearing their clothes–and even now, with greater numbers of transpeople entering the world of high fashion and the public eye, labels still stick to designing for either male or female bodies.

This decision to ignore the trans population is apparent both in runway casting, and the clothing designs themselves. Yes, anyone, on or off the runway, can choose to wear whatever they want. But why are we still choosing to gender clothing? We have trans models wearing “male” and “female” clothes. Where is the gender-neutral high fashion?

In theory, yes; in practice, no

Fashion prides itself on its progressiveness. In recent years, we’ve cheered Christopher Kane’s neon take on the classic bandage dress; we were awestruck by McQueen’s towering, bewitchingly bedazzled heels; we applauded Hussein Chalayan’s LED-lit frock. But, with a few exceptions, this forward thinking has not extended to the models who carry clothing down the catwalk.

By contrast, pop culture is becoming more and more accepting of gender-bending and transpeople. There’s a VH1 show, “TRANSform Me,” centering on transition; French magazine OOB recently published a steamy editorial with a naked Tyson Beckford and transgender model Ines Rau; and Candy magazine, a recent endeavor of Luis Venegas, calls itself the “first transversal style magazine.”

But when J.W. Anderson’s male models hit the catwalk in dresses just a year ago, Anderson was ridiculed in the Daily Mail.

Androgynous modelBinary abandonment

The problem here is that high fashion, as a whole, still categorizes its work by male or female. But our culture has already left the world of binaries–male, female; gay, straight–and entered a more reasonable world, one of scales, degrees, and fluidity. Alfred Kinsey knew it in the ‘40s. Jean Paul Gaultier, Marc Jacobs and a few other high-fashion designers have no problem with it.

In an interview with Blouin Art Info on their exhibition, “His and Hers,” at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, FIT curators Coleen Hill and Jennifer Farley said, “Cultural and societal changes can correspond to trends in fashion. Designers are not creating their clothing in a vacuum — however, fashion cannot be viewed as a mirror of what’s happening in society; it’s more complex than that.”

Fashion is the only wearable form of art. Like other truly groundbreaking works of art, the best feats in high fashion diverge from outside influence. We recognize them for their pure, magical inspiration.

Could this commitment to higher art be the reason for fashion’s resistance to dressing trans bodies? To me, the opportunity to design clothes based on beauty, not gender, seems like an opportunity–not a limitation.

Flipping the script

Reflecting the seismic shift in the way we see gender, smaller designers like Marimacho and Polarn O. Pyret are designing clothes concerned not with gender, but with fit.

Usually, high fashion trickles down trends. This time, it looks like it will be backwards–while smaller brands cater to the growing desire for gender-neutral clothing of all shapes and sizes, big-name designers will continue to reinforce the binary beauty ideal.

45,000 petition signers want to see Carrera become Victoria’s Secret’s first transgender angel. I want to see a real game-changer–high-fashion clothes that are just as adaptable as the models who inspire, wear, and sell them.

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