The Language of Gender

The Language of Gender

Topshop Website, July 2011.

The fashion media has a way of sensationalising trends – everything with a scrap of colour has been dubbed “colour blocking” recently, and it only takes a couple of celebrity pictures before they start heralding the new must have bag, the new must have shoe that replaced the must have bag or of course the easy target of the “new” black.

The energetic language that enthuses over the next phase every season is part of what keeps the fashion cycles turning – of course red looks new when you’ve just seen a lot of blue and crisp pastels will look fresh when we’ve just filled our wardrobes with muted dusky tones. Despite the fact that this can make for repetitive reading for the savvy consumer, it’s generally harmless, and simply a bit of over simplification for the sake of creating a story or pushing a product.

So it is mainly when gender is used as a trend or selling point that fashion language hyperbole goes into tricky territory. Perhaps it has always been this way but it seems that of late there has been a particular focus on the trend of “Masculine” dressing for women that raises some interesting questions. When the media start using masculine and feminine as adjectives to describe an outfit it assumes that the reader is going to associate all sorts of other attributes to the clothes. For example, when a journalist says that a shirt is masculine are they referring to anatomy, to a cut of clothing more suited to the male body? Or are they using the word to recall the stereotypes that we have of what it means to be masculine?

(Editors Note: Please note that links have been removed from this article where pages have expired and were updated or replaced where possible on 29th Sept 2012)

Topshop Newsletter and Website, July 2011. Original link has expired. Link replacement as at 29th Sept 2012,»

Often it seems that the terms are used to represent opposites that play into the stereotypes of feminine meaning soft, delicate, fragile, pink, sparkly as opposed to masculine meaning strong, bulky, large, tough etc. In the screen grabs of the Topshop newsletter and website above, the language used definitely reinforces the idea of feminine and masculine dressing being opposites. The feminine “prim and polished” trends use the flowery language of “sweet” and “delicate” to describe pleats and prints. In contrast the masculine theme inspired by the mods uses “sleek tailoring”, “rebellious” and “outlandish” to describe the collection. It must be said of course that Topshop are going for a 1960s theme here, so it does play into more old fashioned ideas of what it means to be a man or woman. But this seems to be part of the problem… as soon as you start dividing fashion up into masculine and feminine, it does seem dated. The old notions of what it means to be a man or a woman has evolved so much that surely simplifying the description of feminine and masculine dress codes in this way is going to lead to a lot of misunderstanding?

Shop Til You Drop, 2011. Link Updated 29th Sept 2012»

Screenshots from Link updated 29th Sept 2012»

Then there’s the problem of where you draw the line between what is feminine dress and what is actually masculine. In the screen grabs above it seems that the definition for what constitutes masculine dress is now anything tailored – be it blazers, trousers, or halter neck jumpsuits. If it’s monochrome, oversized or drop shoulder, it’s possible that again you are probably dressing like “one of the boys”.

At the end of the day surely this is all based on context, and what we consider to be masculine or feminine dress today will shift season after season over the years ahead of us. And I’m sure that when women first began to wear trousers back in the 1930s and 40s perhaps it came as a bit of a surprise, but after seventy odd years wouldn’t you think that some of the garments such as trousers, blazers and shirts would have shrugged off their male only label?

From Top Left, Image 1 – Marlene Dietrich in a Coco Chanel suit, 1933 (via Fashion Encyclopedia»), Image 2 – Woman in Nautical Trousers (via Vintage Dancer»), 1940s, Image 3 – Women in 1940s dress (via Virtual Womens Makeup Zone, link expired as at 29th Sept 2012).

If this seems like a one sided article, then this is because this appears to be a largely one-sided problem at the moment. The guys seem to be able to get away with wearing pink, frills, or gemstones in their menswear collections without it being dubbed feminine.

This is also a problem that can be easily avoided – just don’t use gender to describe clothes. If a blazer is sleek, tailored, crisp, strong or boxy then there are plenty of words such as these that will describe the garment, without insinuating that a woman may be cross dressing by wearing it. It is equally true that every delicate, light weight or floral garment does not have to be dubbed feminine. There are many shades of what it means to be feminine or masculine, so it is a shame not to use the full scope of vocabulary to describe the dress codes of both sexes and to allow for all the grey area in between.

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