Gender and fashion - An evolving relationship

by Nosipho Mathaba

Fashion is denoted as any form of clothing, accessories and/or furniture. However, fashion cannot be reduced to just that one definition. Whenever fashion is spoken about, I get frustrated when it is reduced to just clothes on your body. I see the world through a fashion lens. I believe that fashion is deeper than fabric sewed together. You can get a glimpse of what someone is trying to say about themselves and the world around them without them uttering a single word. There is an undeniable relationship between gender and fashion. It is evidently seen in how gender stereotypes are formed and fragmented through fashion itself.

The concept of Gender has been constructed and reconstructed for centuries.

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Traditionally, fashion stems from differing female/male roles. In modern society, it has been concluded that gender itself is a social construct. A concept which tries to intertwine itself in the biological makeup of a human being. When in actual fact, they are not related at all. Masculinity and femininity are not characteristics that one possesses but terms which society attaches to males and females based on expectations.

These expectations are of how a male and female should exist. The term gender is constructed by the interactions of a man and woman. The interactions that a man and woman have with social environments. Fashion is a huge contributor to these interactions because it is the main indicator of body appearance, involving things such as shoes, jewelry, hairstyles and even cosmetics. Thus, society attaches this social construction of gender to fashion.

According to the Construction of Gender through Fashion and Dressing by Zoi Arvanitidou and Maria Gasouka, dress and fashion are two major socio-cultural contributors to the shaping of gender. In the Construction of Gender through Fashion and Dressing, the explicit relationship between fashion and gender is explained. Fashion influences and shapes our appearance and has an impact on the construction of social and self-identity. This identity assigns others with the economic and social situation of the wearer’s profession, nationality and ultimately, their gender.

“Fashion meets people’s lives and infuses them” and the daily choice of what to wear affects the way other people perceive them. Simultaneously defining the expectations others have for a man or woman. Fashion makes the man or the woman. The roles of men and women have influenced fashion decade after decade. For example, female fashion was strictly limited to the social role women played. In the 19th century, unemployed women wore clothes that represented the economic situation of her husband. The husband, who acted as the provider of the family. This influence of fashion is heavily shaped through historical factors and, casually, in an individual’s everyday life.

Fashion has not always been gendered, this only started after the 18th century. Men and women’s clothing did not have a significant difference. Fashion was differentiated through the social order. Fashion was a signifier of social class and the more extravagant the dress, the higher the social class. For example, aristocrats and bourgeois superiors who wore a pink, silk suit with elaborate decorations were seen entirely masculine.

It was only in the 19th century where fashion was feminised. The sexual differences became more important than the social order. The aristocrats and bourgeois men refrained from all forms of jewelry and elaborate clothing and left it to the women. While men competed hard in business and politics, it gave women access to the more decorative part to “reflect the social statues via their dresses and appearance”. Men changed their dress code to merge narcissistic and superficial elements. Men started becoming objects in the female gaze.

Fashion garments are made specifically to translate differences between men and women which are socially constructed. Gender differences are the things which are socially constructed. Fashion, because it heavily influences the formation of body, it allows for the different positions of identity, sometimes with aggravation. It may seem like fashion is trivial but it a major contributor to the formation of gender.

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