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Essay: How Gender Identity Helps Redefine Gender Stereotypes Through Fashion

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The face a person presents to the world can in many ways be considered a penultimate form of their personal expression. One of the most flexible and impactful ways to affect the image one presents is through alteration of clothes and mode of dress. As our understanding of ourselves changes, so does the manner in which we choose to explore and express that with the world, which, as mentioned, is often represented by the clothing we choose to leave the house in each day. Personal expression by its very nature necessitates at least a partial understanding of oneself, and in the ever changing landscape of the 21st century, this can be complicated by a myriad of political and social constructs. Chief among these, particularly for the purpose of this discussion, is the notion of gender identity, and the evolving understanding that it is perhaps more complicated and unquantifiable than previously believed. The notions raised by the concepts of gender fluidity and non-binary gender association will be explored in detail. In the realm of fashion and philosophy, they allow an unprecedented freedom for personal expression. Further, through its capacity for exploration of personal expression, fashion is even helping to redefine gender stereotypes and reshape the social and cultural landscape in regards to what gender even means.

Gender identity

It seems important to comprehensively explore the concepts of gender and gender identity in detail, to establish them to then further investigate their relationship to fashion and dress. Gender identity is understood to be the highly personal association a person makes with either the male or female gender (or neither) and, most importantly, is not at all related to the persons biological sex (Bethea and McCollum 2013, APA 2015). Guidelines published by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2015 state the number 1. Guideline for psychologists dealing with gender as “Psychologists understand that gender is a nonbinary construct that allows for a range of gender identities and that a person’s gender identity may not align with sex assigned at birth.” (APA 2015). To reiterate, there is an assumption that gender identity is in alignment with assigned sex at birth, but prevailingly this is being found more and more to not be the case (Ruble and Martin 1998, Bethea and McCollum 2013, Nobullying.com 2016). Further, while historically gender has been either male or female, and in this sense ‘binary’, there is now an understanding that people may feel that their gender does not match either of these roles, allowing some to identify with new gender identities such as ‘non-binary’, ‘genderfluid’, ‘transgender’, and many more (Bethea and McCollum 2013).

Gender identity is largely considered to be a social construct by many theorists, including Judith Butler who asserts that “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender … identity is performatively constituted by the very "expressions" that are said to be its results” (Butler 1990). This concept is fascinating, and refers to the important notion of performativity – that bodies are gendered and then perform the roles ascribed to that gender. Essentially this could be interpreted as a comment on the way in which, at birth, a doctor provides a gender to a person, based on their genital arrangement, and from that point on, they are typically labelled as male or female (Bethea and McCollum 2013). From then on, they perform the roles expected of a male or female, according to what society dictates that assignment should do (Butler 1990). For example, those with a female assignment of genitals are encouraged to pursue an interest in dolls, pink, and dresses, rather than trucks and shorts (Davis 1988, Davis 1989, Coyne, Linder et al. 2016).

Much of gender identity relates to how a person associates with the expectations of one gender or another. As such, understanding the gender stereotypes which exist and how they shape behaviour is essential in understanding gender identity. Research regarding gender stereotypes reveals those labelled as men as being perceived to have traits related to dominance, ambition and action, as compared to those termed women who are typically expected to be expressive, nurturing and submissive in nature (Ruble and Martin 1998, Andreoletti, Leszczynski et al. 2015).  Physically, male gender stereotypes, particularly in western culture, pertain to being tall, with broad shoulders, whereas women typically have a smaller, more delicate, and slender body shape and physical presentation (Nobullying.com 2016). The expectations for physical appearance of different genders are of course important when discussing dress and gender identity, so should be considered going forward through this discourse. Dissecting their historical origin helps to understand their current forms.

Historical and conventional gender roles

The derivations of the different gender stereotypes relate to the perceived roles of different genders throughout the cultures of the time. Classically in many western societies, women are the home-makers, and are nurturing, stay at home dependents who raise children and prepare meals and the home (Clayton 1999, Pellegrin 1999, Nobullying.com 2016). This is represented by the dress styles, often conservative, elegant, concealing and relatively impractical, the female around the house was expected to look nice and maintain order (Pellegrin 1999). In the 1800s for example, the non-working female dress was demonstrative of the income of their male counterpart (DeLong, Salusso-Deonier et al. 1983). Comparatively, males were historically considered to maintain an active role. From hunter gatherer style, to breadwinner and provider for the family, many of the classically ‘male’ gender stereotypes historically related to being ‘men of action’ or responsibility (Butler and Roesel 1991, Clayton 1999). As a result, male clothes tended to be highly functional garments, which would not only enable productive action but also typically to endure the elements. Females, conversely, were not expected to fulfil particularly demanding or physical tasks and as such their dress was at times even restrictive, harkening back to corsets and long trains, which impeded the wearers capacity to do much at all, enforcing their perceived role as gentle and passive members of society. In western culture particularly, the female manner of dress limited women both symbolically and physically (Arvanitidou 2013). There was also  a lack of appreciation for non-normative/non-binary genders still all the way until the late 20th century (Butler 1990). In this era, the evolution of stereotypes was particularly evident in women who, along with their newfound independence, were also sexualised en masse in the media (Coyne, Linder et al. 2016).

More recently, with the reshuffling of the idea of the nuclear family and a modern era where the stereotype of the ‘independent working woman’ has emerged, these conventional views have changed. This is important going forward, as it pertains to the way womens appearance, dress and identity was shaped and expressed. This was often in relation to their sexuality, either positively or negatively, with depictions such as Disney princesses shown to people labelled as girls showing them what an ideal female body composition and presentation is (Coyne, Linder et al. 2016).

In the world today

These views and stigmas are fortunately changing, and as the feminist movement gathers momentum, more and more these gender normative stereotypes – which are believed to be restrictive – are being challenged (Watkins 2000, Mulvey, Rizzo et al. 2016). Increasing public acceptance of the notion that people may exist outside of a binary gender framework is a complicated endeavour. Much of this is because exclusively binary gender identities have been reinforced and maintained as the standard in western society, media and culture for quite some time. Introducing non-normative genders and more complex gender identities is therefore challenging, and can be achieved by increasing visibility of these demographics to the public and general population. In the past, media depictions of transgender and non-binary individuals were often derogatory (Anderson 2016), however this has begun to change. There is now even an international transgender day of visibility on March 31st of each year (Transstudent.org 2016). An example of this public exposure was when the famous celebrity Caitlyn Jenner revealed herself to the world as a woman in 2015 (Maffucci 2015), after having been previously been labelled a man and fulfilling the cultural expectations and appearance of a male her entire life. This was hailed as an act of bravery by many, given Caitlyn’s prominence in the public spotlight. This act enabled many individuals who do not identify with binary gender identities to have the confidence to come out, and engage in exploring their own more complex identities. A patient in a case study referred to Caitlyn releasing her story as “a doorway for him to actually do some exploration of his own”, going further to say “The Caitlyn Jenner story served as a kind of "catalyst" for him,” (Anderson 2016). This is thanks to the general population being presented with a public figure who did not fit their preconceived gender ideas, and Caitlyn challenging the established views of what gender is, publically, allowed others to come out without being estranged. It is important to note that this reaction was not universal, for some it made gender identity a more challenging personal journey, as for example some “felt the Caitlyn Jenner event sensationalized a process that for her was really painful" (Anderson 2016). This is important, as the development of Caitlyn’s gender identity had obvious and immediate alterations to her physical appearance and of course dress, and affected people’s personal understanding of their gender, which of course relates to expression through dress. It is an example of how a prominent celebrity was able to explore their gender identity in depth, change as a result, reshape their appearance, fashion, and presentation, and as a result empower others to engage in conversations about their own gender complexities, illustrating a case where a persons expression of their identity through presentation and dress was able to challenge and reshape current gender stereotypes.

This dissolution of classical gender roles is even evidenced in the way the English language is evolving. For example, the non-binary ‘singular they’ was announced as word of the year in 2015 (Steinmetz 2016), influencing the way that even language contributes to gender. ‘They’ endeavours to replace the gendered pronouns of ‘he’ or ‘she’ for use when referring to another in second person (Steinmetz 2016). In this way it provides more flexibility in language to allow people to express and explore their own gender complexities. Language is very powerful. To further illustrate the extent to which society encourages gender normative views, in the context of fashion “even reading the word ‘dress’ makes every reader think of some version of femininity.” in Barnard M.(2014) Fashion theory: an introduction, Oxon: Routlege, p.9. This exemplifies how language, just as external appearance, may convey conceptions or pre-conceptions about a person or concept which develops a picture and understanding without scope for their intended actions. Increased options allows for increased avenues of personal expression. This is true in language, the arts, in fashion, and many more.

Dress in relation to identity and personal expression

Society has expectations of different sexes and it is upon these which stereotypical masculine or feminine qualifications are laid (Arvanitidou 2013). People typically define themselves and their relationship with their femininity/masculinity in relation to these narrow bounds and predefined social constructs. This constructed identity will be expressed by a person in many diverse and complex ways. One of the most prominent methods is in alteration of experience to express oneself. A persons appearance has substantial impact on the construction of their social identity and clothing markedly influences and shapes appearance (Arvanitidou 2013). So clothes and dress are both powerful and flexible ways to alter social identity. Not only that but the presentation of a person has immediate influences on the way others interact with, perceive and assess them (Giles and William 1975).

The internal and external relationship between dress and identity

Fashion is a form of non-verbal communication, and while the intention in communication is typically clear from the wearer, the interpretation others have of the communication may vary (Barnard 1996). This relates to the notion that not only is it a persons expression of themselves which is altered by clothes, but also how others choose to interact with them. If a person wears certain clothes, for example, a dress, and as a result are treated as if they were feminine by those who associate that garment with belonging to females, this not only reinforces and shapes the dress-wearers gender identity, but also reinforces the person as being more female in the eyes of others.  There are both internal and external components related to the interplay between dress and a persons identity. When a person is making decisions about what to wear for their coming day, that decision is usually influences by social, politicial and historical factors and is likely not consciously making decisions about the way they are perceived (Arvanitidou 2013). Dress is in this way largely external, signalling to others information about a persons identity, but there are also internal elements which relate to self-confidence and self-image (Solomon and Douglas 1987). Self-image in this instance relates to how a person views themselves, and how seeing a reflection in a mirror which approximates their ideal view of themselves will allow them to feel more connected to their internal identity. It is also clear how presenting a face to the world which more accurately represents ones internal identity would translate to increased self confidence (Bethea and McCollum 2013).

The internal aspect relates to the way dress affects a persons own perception of themselves, which can have a wide range of emotional and psychological outcomes . External components refer to the way in which another person views a person, the way they treat them based on their own personal and societal assumptions – in general the way  in which a person is perceived by others and the ramifications that perception has. The degree to which dress is of internal or external personal importance varies from individual to individual and, likely, from day to day.

The external interpretation of a persons image is a social phenomenon (DeLong, Salusso-Deonier et al. 1983). The garments, arrangement, and manner of their dress and what this indicates/portrays is specific just not to the wearers culture and society, but also that of the assessor. For example, a canonically ‘punk’ style of dress will be presented uniquely according to the person who identifies as punk, but also inferences about their personality and how they are received will differ between other ‘punks’ (members of the same culture), and a highly conservative religious person (member of a different culture/demographic). So it is with gender and non-normative genders and modes of dress. The persons expression of their own gender identity through their dress is not just unique to the person, but will also be interpreted uniquely by others. This entire process contributes to the complexities surrounding gender identity and the expression of it through dress which, once again can be dissected by understanding the historical influences which make dress styles feminine or masculine.

The history of gendered dress and how it defined and was defined by gender roles

There is no great evidence of difference in gendering of dress styles between males and females preceding the 18th century. Particularly evident in the upper classes, a manner of dress involving pink, decorated generously with lace and other fineries and matched with perfumes and wigs was considered perfectly masculine (Davis 1989). In this era, elaborateness of dress was associated with social class, no more, no less (Arvanitidou 2013). After the 19th century, dress adopted its more modern binary incarnation, wherein highlighting differences between the sexes became the focus rather than showcasing status (Steele 1989). This coincided with the moment in time where adornment and decoration became reserved for women, and men adopted more utilitarian garb (Kawamura 2005). After this juncture, female dress aimed to emphasise femininity, which, typically then related to subservience and fragility,  and male dress became representative of their role as hardworking, capable and useful members of society (Arvanitidou 2013).

The 60’s represented a time when women began to enter the workforce, this led to men adopting dress which “incorporated narcissistic and superficial elements, trying to highlight their different personalities” (Arvanitidou 2013). The concept here is understood that men began to adopt dress which highlighted that they retained their importance in the business world, so as not to be seen to be superseded by their female counterparts and illustrates the social notion that masculinity is associated with capability and aptitude, a notion which female workers challenged by their very existence. The related reintegration of trousers into female dress was met with controversy with many claiming such women to be ‘unfeminine’ (Arnold 2001). This represented a relatively modern incarnation of genderisation occurring through dress. In particular, this was an example where gendered dress being worn by an opposing gender was met with derogatory remarks and criticism, a common theme for those who challenge gender normative views of what constitutes appropriate dress, even today.  

In 1970, feminists began to view fashion as a damaging construct which restricted women, many reacted against this, leading to the famed burning of bras movement. This evolution initiated the first discussions pertaining to femininity being a social construct and began the movement against femininity and the restrictions its expectations imposed (Breward and Evans 2005). This is an instance wherein fashion and the way women engaged with it, led to the challenging and redefining of preconceived gender roles. Later in the 80s, women returning to dress in dresses was criticised by theorist Susan Brownmiller, but was justified as being representative of their personal  expression, by demonstrating their difference from their husbands (Rodnitzky 1999). In both instances, females in trousers or dress – male or female attire – represented differences in intention in their dress and this was relevant and indicative of their own personal expression.

Then came the arrival of the haute couture movement championed by John Galliano and Alexander McQueens collections for Givenchy and Christian Dior. Haute couture sought to highlight the strength of the female character as synonymous with elegance (Arnold 2001, Arvanitidou 2013). It was in this way that dress once again evolved in relation to femininity. As a result, females were able to reconnect with the romantic which haute couture encouraged, and helped to redefine femininity across the turn of the millenium. Here the fashion both shaped the perceptions of femininity of the time but also arose as a result of what it was to be feminine in the late 90s. The emerging pattern is that gender and dress are both constantly evolving, and the ideals and themes of fashion are reactive or indicative of the meaning of masculinity and femininity at the time. The inverse is also of course true, wherein the perceived gender roles moderate the fashions in relation or reaction to the wearers relationship with the role which is expected of them.

How gender is expressed through fashion – what makes a garment masculine

Classically, in western culture, masculinity has been associated with a certain rough ruggedness, which hailed from simpler times and spoke of a persons capability to physically and at times violently affect their natural habitat as a means of survival and of providing for their family (Tanner 2016). Femininity through dress  has often been a counterpoint to this, wherein females would delineate their difference to these rugged men by adopting soft, delicate, impractical and non-utilitarian dress, to denote that they expressed themselves in relation to the absence of physical work in their lives (Tanner 2016). In this way, archetypal rugged and masculine dress is defined to prioritise function over aesthetics, with sometimes the appearance of function being the desired aesthetic in modern takes on masculine/modern dress. Features of this include that the clothes are not too tight, so as to allow for unrestricted movement, makes the wearer seem more physically imposing – reduction of bagginess, contains textiles resistant to wear – such as leathers and denims, and lacks unnecessary adornment (Tanner 2016). Masculine dress does not typically incorporate a sexualised component in the way feminine dress does. Feminine dress in its sexualised element encourages shifting of gaze between erogenous zones, and in its expression of status being synonymous with concealing the body modestly (Bolich 2006). These are the features which someone adopts in certain ways if they intend to incorporate masculine and or feminine style into their dress as a means of expressing the masculine characteristic of their own gender identity.

The metrosexual trend at the start of the millennium which was accentuated in shows such as queer eye for the straight guy, challenged the idea that caring about ones appearance was an unacceptable idea for a male who wanted to retain their masculinity. This also helped to reduce the notion that feminine interest in beauty and appearance was something to look down upon. This entire movement has helped shaped modern cultural acceptance of what is and isn’t acceptable for masculine identifying people, who now are more able to buy products like moisturiser without derogatory comments (martin 2016).

At least this is the case in binary and gender normative dress. Dress in relation to more complex gender identities is less developed, as the entire notion of non-binary genders is a relative modern evolution.  

Approaches to generating a non-binary mode of dress

Those who may choose to dress and explore their gender identity outside of the standard gender binary, include but are certainly not limited to those who may label themselves transvestites, butch, genderqueer, transgender, genderfluid, femme, nonbinary and androgynous. There are of course many more examples but these are categories of expression which many may already have a concept of, and as such aid in the discussion and characterisation of such people and groups. Frequently these groups tend to be marginalised and lacking in power, as a result, it is not uncommon for them to express their identity through adopting masculine garb. This is because masculine garb, in the patriarchal focussed society we currently live in, is indicative of power and control. Adopting garb which resonates with this concept has been used as a strategy to overcome oppression since the resistance of beautification and sexualisation through desexualised masculine attire was adopted by feminists in the 1970s (Kim 2011).

An interesting observation is that a unisex style of dress seems to generally involve adopting the canonically masculine style – trousers and utilitarian garments. Additionally as female style dress tends to sexualise and reveal, unisex styled dress has conventionally desexualised and concealed (Arnold 2001). The clearest comparison being one between feminine tight fitting, midriff bearing ensembles, compared to the unisex fashion of baggy overalls and a t-shirt. This unisex approach to dealing with gender complexities via dress is to remove evidence of difference in gender via concealment. It removes the ambiguities between the binary genders by obscuring the physical features which define each sex. A criticism of this approach to non-binary fashion is that it restricts personal expression. Particularly in that it desexualises the wearer, whereas some find great personal expression through their sexuality, and dress can be to many an extension of this.

An alternate approach is the one adopted by the androgynous style. This contains masculine and feminine elements combined in one to generate a new style which seeks to provide an idealised attractive look which is neither distinctly male or female. This look seeks to achieve its end by focussing on making the wearer approach an adolescent appearance. Secondary sexual characteristics are downplayed, as are broad shoulders, the bust and the hips. The ideal androgynous look is slight of frame, tall, elegant and youthful. Androgynous fashion will have female bodies in tops which visually accentuate the shoulders and narrow the waist while diminishing the impact of the bust. In a male body, androgynous dress seeks to draw attention away from the shoulders, and may incorporate high heels or other conventionally feminine aspects in order to elongate and lengthen the legs.

Drag queens represent an extreme expression of complex and nonstandard gender identity. They over exaggerate female-ness to often massive degrees and as such are not classically regarded in the same was as a transgendered individual (Kim 2011). The crossdressing commonly used by transgender and drag queens is a way of dress which indicates their gender identity is expressed as being at odds with their assigned gender at birth. There are of course however more complex gender identities, and one of the interesting ways this can be explored via fashion is through the androgynous movement. Unlike unisex fashion, androgyny used gender ambiguity as a means to increase sexual interest (Kim 2011). The character of Ziggy-stardust created by David Bowie is a famous and iconic example of the success of androgynous dress. Their thin frame and soft milky white skin acted in contrast with their violently coloured hair but created an image which was acknowledged as a desirable and powerful entity (Kim 2011). Bowie’s expression of their own gender complexity was so successful that it was deemed inspirational for many who had non-binary gender identities, and his death was considered a blow to these communities (Mayer 2016).


There is a complex relationship between gender identity and dress. Dissecting this requires a careful consideration of the social and cultural history of what it has meant to be male and female, and how these contribute to our understanding of these ideas today. A fascinating observation in this dissection is noticing the interplay that fashion has had in redefining these gender roles and conversely, how fashions have evolved in reaction to gender expectations of the time. Dress is an extension of our own unique person expression. Our relationship with ourselves in relation to the complex inner ambiguities which gender labels provide, enables avenues for expression through dress which are both exciting in their possibility, and terrifying in their complexity. Until humans are not considered in the context of labels or genders, these things will forever add complexity to how we consider ourselves as people and how we choose to express our individuality with the world

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