The concept of agender fashion has recently gotten a lot of ink. But in a trend-driven industry, are issues of gender truly being addressed, or simply given lip service? Refinery29 hosted a discussion on this topic this week as part of its F*ck The Fashion Rules initiative. Moderated by writer Katherine Bernard, the panel consisted of model agent (and former model herself) Jenny Shimizu, Grace Dunham; Kristiina Wilson, photographer and EIC of You Do You, a genderless fashion site; Anita Dolce Vita, editor-in-chief of the site Dapper Q, and performance artist and community organizer Alok Vaid-Menon.
The discussion, “Peopleswear: The Changing State of Gender in Fashion,” touched on trans issues in fashion, the transphobic connotations of “natural beauty,” and whether the fashion industry cares more about representation or capitalism. Here are some of the highlights from what everyone had to say.
Katherine Bernard: ”I think that part of the reason we’re assembled is because there is something ‘trendy’ about androgyny or trans identity. These are things that are being discussed in the media, and put together, and in trend pieces. And so I kind of wanted to talk about gender as trend in here and know what you’re thinking about that. Using the word ‘genderless’ is something that reinforces the gender binary — so if you’re genderless it’s because you are not male or female and so this is genderless, and so much of what we describe as genderless clothing is … these baggy things that sort of take the body outside of the sight line or remove body parts from any part of identity, and I don’t know if that feels true to me.”
Kristiina Wilson: “Now there are some designers out there just making collections. Instead of thinking, I’m making a men’s collection or I’m making a women’s collection, they’re just thinking of a collection. But I think the fashion system has been in a really rigid binary for so long that it’s only now we’ve sort of started to push that, and it’s that we don’t necessarily have to adhere to these things, and it doesn’t have to be such a big deal what any of us are wearing.”
Alok Vaid-Menon: “I get told a lot of times that I’m ‘brave’ for dressing the way that I am … Actually, that’s the logic that kills trans women and trans-feminine people because it makes the onus of being brave upon us and not the society to redefine your gender mark. How peculiar a world is it that what we wear has such politics that it could mean that you could be killed for what you’re wearing? … I want to talk about that as a fashion issue because trans women are being murdered because they don’t fit into your conventional idea of what a dress looks like.”
Grace Dunham: “We’re here on this panel, you’re here in this audience, this event was organized because people are beginning to recognize trans identity as something lucrative. So when people say to me, ‘Is “trans” trending?’ it’s like the public political voice wants to say, ‘“Trans” isn’t trending because trans people have been around as long as a gender binary has been enforced, and people have been policed and killed for not fitting into that.’ But, is it trending in a sense that capitalism is recognizing it as a lucrative marketplace? It’s certainly trending. Trans people have always been here, we will always be here, but then also we are watching dominant popular markets recognize the money that ‘trans’ has to offer them. [But] just because certain trans experiences and trans bodies are moving into the public eye, moving into pop culture, that doesn’t mean that other types of exclusion and other types of prejudice aren’t being reproduced at the same time. I’d argue that white androgyny isn’t naturally that radical when it comes to the way that it’s depicted in popular culture.”
Anita Dolce Vita: “I think it’s always a very interesting moment because we also see other minority communities where this is happening. For example, everybody loves hip-hop, everybody loves black culture, but black people are still being killed in the streets. And so it’s interesting because we have an opportunity to kind of leverage music and art and fashion to build bridges. There’s an opportunity there, and it is helpful but it’s also very dangerous, too.”
Jenny Shimizu: “I think visibility is key. I think if they have a trans person or if they have somebody who is not the popular choice [in a campaign], they’re reaching millions of people. And when I see a black model in a major campaign, it doesn’t matter where she’s from or anything like that, just having color, a girl with her natural hair, that’s enough. There’s things that they offer that are not deep, but at the same time it reaches out to so many people. When I look back [at her 1990s Calvin Klein ad campaigns] I’m like, oh my God, thank you, Calvin Klein, thank you Fabien Baron, because [they] had enough knowledge or whatever, trend following, to put a Japanese, short, tattooed dyke in his campaign. I realize now because people come up to me, younger people, and say … I helped them get through some stuff.”
Vaid-Menon: “I think we keep on telling trans people, ‘Just be yourself, be yourself,’ but then we get misgendered. So I think of fashion not as a liberatory space, for me, as a space of incredible violence. I had to be not just fabulous, but quirky, cutting-edge, interesting, because it was about survival.”
Dunham: “Something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, is what it’s done to people’s understanding of womanhood for there to be this movement around ‘natural’ womanhood, and natural beauty, women not wearing makeup, women not shaving their body hair, women just ‘being who they are,’ and it’s a really transphobic discourse, because it says to be beautiful is to not work for how you look.”
Shimizu: “Yes, [the fashion industry] is 99 percent bad, but the few instances in which it is uplifting and inspirational, that’s what I take from it. As the great Katie Ford said, we will all burn in hell. I know this business I’m in is not the most positive, but the only thing I can do is be responsible to [the models] as myself.”