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The Time of the Androgyne

Posted on 12 Oct 2017

Fashion and pop culture are rife with androgynous imagery but, look carefully, and it was there all along…

Botticelli's 'Portrait of a Youth' exemplifies the Renaissance blending of masculine and feminine traits

Androgyny was once a supremely edgy business. From notorious courtier and spy the Chevalier D’Eon shocking polite society in the 18th century to Marlene Dietrich in top hat and tails creating outrage in the 20th, androgyny has long been capable of causing a stir. However, in the last couple of decades things have changed. In 2017 tween daughters are coming home from school and keeping their parents updated on the latest parameters regarding ‘gender non-binary’ issues. It’s become a central issue for pupils understanding awareness about their identity. Gender is now a key strand in society’s cultural dialogue.

Fashion, as ever, is partly responsible for pushing such parameters. In recent times, models such as Casey Legler, Alex Wetter and Erika Linder have defined the zeitgeist of catwalks and photo shoots. The death of David Bowie spotlit the effect the glam boom of the early 1970s had on images of masculinity, and for pop stars of the present day, from Lady Gaga to Dua Lipa, androgyny is simply another tool in the dressing-up box. In other words, the imagery and personalities that confront us every day show an increasing awareness of androgyny.

As far back as 1993, in her occasionally frivolous essay ‘The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough’, the American academic Anne Fausto-Sterling suggested that we need a serious rethink of the way we approach gender. However, the truth is that, while fashion is currently rife with androgyny, the subject has been innately connected with fine art for centuries. Indeed, if we choose to dig, fashion regularly borrows from art from centuries earlier.

The Chevalier d'Éon's ability to pass as a woman scandalized 18th century high society in both Britain and France

As far back as the fourth century BC, the playwright Aristophanes suggested that alongside man and woman was a third sex, the androgyne. Roman poet Ovid took this ball and ran with it when he described the deity Hermaphroditus who, melded with the water nymph Salmacis, became ‘not wholly male, but only half’. This homo-erotic ideal went on to permeate art for centuries. Great artists, from the Renaissance onwards, da Vinci, Botticelli and many others, drew influence from this classical perspective. Androgynous figures, sometimes rendered with barely disguised erotic intent, crop up in paintings that are otherwise filled with passionate religious symbolism.

Silent star Louise Brooks, in the 1928 film Beggars of Life (actually an early talkie), foreshadows the rise of mass media androgyny in the 20th century

When mass media developed in the early 20th century, these ideas had been stewing in art for hundreds of years. The influence of movements such as the Pre-Raphaelites and those that came after, alongside the wild freedom of surrealism and modern art, let the cat out of the bag and photographers such as Cecil Beaton and Claude Cahun celebrated androgyny more openly than ever, watching as it bled into the mainstream via silent cinema and the likes of Rudolf Valentino and Louise Brooks. As the century progressed, those involved in fashion, from Coco Chanel to Yves Saint Laurent, adopted and adapted what had been innate in art circles. Finally, now, we see all that came before come to lively fruition. The high time of the Androgyne is upon us. It is right now.

Thomas H Green


Fashion and Gender Patrick Mauriès