On Teaching Fashion: Gender Identities

We are each born with one body, but through a lifetime, clothing helps us to construct multiple identities.  Therefore it’s virtually impossible to teach fashion without exploring how fashion constructs and deconstructs gender identities.  Historically, garments and colors identified gender.  Gender identity is a psychological part of development that determines whether a person self-identifies as being a girl or a boy.  This identity takes shape within the first year or two of development, and is heavily influenced by society’s views on how a person of each gender should look and behave.

Historically, gender identities have been extremely codified.  Garments and colors were divided into gendered categories.  But in our postmodern world, there are no longer strict codes about what is masculine or feminine.  In my fashion seminar class, I liked to base a discussion around this question: What happens when gender identity is blurred through clothing?

Image courtesy of disaboom.com

To engage my students in a successful discussion, I like to review the following gendered fashion trends and theories:

Dandies and Macaronis:  A dandy is a man that is particularly concerned with his physically appearance and is unduly devoted to style, neatness, and fashion in dress.  Dandyism was a trend in late 18th- and early 19th-century England, and became synonymus with Beau Brummell and Oscar Wilde.  Macaronis were similar in their attention to dress, but the styles were more effeminate.  Both sought to assert a worldliness and sophistication through their dress.  How can we compare this to the contemporary “metrosexual”?

Beau Brummell




Androgyny: This fashion trend seeks to obscure the gender of the wearer completely.  Women adopt menswear, men adopt more feminine styles, with a result of the two appearing almost identical.  This trend appears over and over again: Le Smoking by Yve Saint Laurent in 1966, the Heroine Chic of the 1990s.  But does this trend really “go both ways”?  Androgyny is supposed to be a blurring of the sexes, but is it is more ascetically  pleasing (or socially acceptable) when this trend is adopted by women?


Alexander McQueen Men's Spring 2009 Collection. Image courtesy of fashionfronteer.wordpress.com


CK One ad, c. 1995.

Le Smoking by Yves Saint Laurent, c. 1966. Photographed by Helmut Newton.



Color semiotics:  Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior.  This includes language, gestures, color, and fashion.  Color semiotics is the study of how individuals emotionally respond to color.  This response is usually learned.  For instance, we know that a green tomato is not ripe.  But how might we apply color choices to gender identity in fashion? How much of color choices in fashion are influenced by cultural color semiotics?  (ex How do we respond when a man wears pink?)

Gendered Color. Photography by Jeong Mee Yoon.


Through these classroom discussions, I learned a lot about the experience of my students. Hearing one student’s experience of not allowing their identity to be defined by gender was enlightening.  They explained:

Once I embraced the idea that I was attracted to the same sex, I felt a total freedom to dress differently.  Suddenly, every garment was now accessible to me.  Waking up everyday became exciting!  So many choices!  How I dress still reflects my identity, but less of how society sees me and more of how I feel on a day-to-day basis.  Some days it is more masculine, and some days it is more feminine.


The consensus in my classrooms was that freedom increases when gender identities are blurred.  I’d love to hear what your classroom decides.





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1 Comment

  • Eleanor (undeadgoat) March 11, 2012 02.44 pm

    One thing you’ve completely overlooked here is the Eddie Izzard/my ex-boyfriend side of things–also butch lesbians maybe–people who cannot (or choose not to be) androgynous based on body type, grooming choices & body attitudes but still choose to wear clothes associated with the opposite gender.


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