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Taking Gender Out of Fashion

What it means to wear clothing that’s not meant for you.
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A selection from Veer's debut lookbook. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF VEER)

A selection from Veer's debut lookbook. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF VEER)

Jenny McClary and Allie Leepson, a pair of slight young women dressed in severe black T-shirts and thin-framed glasses, don’t look like your average men’s clothing customers, but they fell in love with the burgeoning menswear trend when they noticed its structured designs, sharp tailoring, and contrasting textures start to hit stores. “We saw tons of stuff that we wanted,” McClary explained. But their gender provided for a rather uncomfortable shopping experience. “When we would go into menswear sections or stores, staff would be like ‘You know this is menswear right? Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’”

On September 5, McClary, whose background is in luxury fashion marketing, and Leepson, a fashion photographer, are breaking down that barrier by launching Veer, an online store and clothing brand devoted to fashion that’s neither male nor female. “We’re trying to take the gender out of clothing,” McClary told me.

In their debut lookbook, Veer presents a style that’s angular and monochromatic with pieces like camouflage pants, suspenders, and tops with geometric black leather patches. The store’s stock will stretch from iconic high-end brands like Alexander Wang to smaller, less recognizable labels like Canadian Collar Clothing, whose founder knew his designs were being worn by women, but didn’t know how to access them. Androgyny is “still fresh as a sellable industry,” McClary explained.

A tomboy is “carefree and adventurous and positive, you don’t take yourself too seriously—it’s a girl who likes to play with the boys, a girl you want to go have beers with.”

Going genderless has become popular of late in the fashion world. The Bosnian male model Andrej Pejic used his slim frame and feminine face to model women’s clothing for Jean-Paul Gaultier (a topless photo of Pejic on the cover of Dossier magazine was even censored by bookstores for being too explicit). Female models Casey Legler and Saskia De Brauw have modeled menswear for the likes of Yves Saint Laurent. There’s an androgynous photo shoot in the August issue of Teen Vogue. And actress Chloe Sevigne donned a heavily masculine suit for an Absolute Vodka campaign.

There’s a fight, however, over what androgyny actually means. We use clothing as a visual language to communicate our ideas about our bodies, personalities, and gender identities. Androgyny can apply to any or none of those categories—Pejic often identifies as a woman, while Veer chooses to separate itself from any specific sexuality or gender. Some brands, the Japanese Uniqlo, for example, embrace the dryly democratic label of “unisex;” others “tomboy,” with its connotation of transgression.

Through contesting these terms, designers and retailers are developing a new answer to the age-old question of what it means to wear clothing that’s not meant for you.

THE TERM “ANDROGYNY” COMES from the Latin “androgyne,” a combination of the ancient Greek word-stem for man, andr-, and gyne, meaning woman. An early symbol of this collision was Hermaphroditos, the son of Aphrodite and Hermes in Greek mythology. As a handsome, masculine boy, he attracted the attention of the nymph Salmacis, who jumped him and prayed to the gods that they be united forever. The two became one—“a single body with a double sex,” in Ovid’s telling (see this Roman sculpture of Hermaphroditos for an illustration). The Roman historian Livy wrote that true hermaphrodites “were looked upon as of especially evil omen and were ordered to be at once carried out to sea.”

These days, androgyny isn’t associated with physical hermaphroditism as much as it is playing with sartorial codes and cross-dressing, disrupting the boundaries between genders that clothing created and reinforced. After the second century BCE, Roman men alone wore togas while women donned long, pleated dresses called stolae. The only females to wear togas were prostitutes and adulterers.

In Deuteronomy 22.5, the Bible explicitly forbids cross-dressing: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, nether shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abominations unto the Lord thy God.” The latter part of that dictum was fiercely obeyed.

A London legal record from 1395 tells the story of John Rykener, who was found lying by a stall in Soper’s Lane dressed in women’s clothing calling himself Eleanor. One John Britby happened upon “Eleanor” and asked him “as he would a woman if he could commit a libidinous act with her.” Rykener consented (for a small fee) and began the act before the pair were apprehended in their “detestable wrongdoings” (homosexual intercourse) and taken to jail. In his guise as Eleanor, Rykener had even previously worked as an embroideress, he confessed to the authorities. Perhaps he made his own dresses.

For medieval women, however, cross-dressing sometimes became a symbol of an individual’s divine ability to transcend her physical body.

Several women famously masqueraded as male monks in order to escape distasteful suitors and went on to become saints. St. Margaret was to be married, but the night before the wedding she thought of “the recompense of her virginity, and the sorrows that follow of marriage” and decided to bail. At midnight, she commended herself to God, “cut off her hair, and clad her in the habit of a man, and fled from thence to a monastery of monks, and did do call her brother Pelagien,” recounts the mid-13th-century Golden Legend, a text of saints’ lives. “Brother Pelagien” was so convincing as a man that she was accused of fathering a child with a virgin dwelling outside the gates of the monastery. St. Margaret was thrown into a stone pit by the cruelest of the monks, her true gender only revealed in a letter she wrote just before death. She was posthumously exonerated and buried honorably as a virgin. (Note the inherent misogyny: Aspiring to be like a man is seen as a much better, more devout goal than being like a woman.)

Today, St. Margaret’s transvestite cause has been taken up by Wildfang, a Portland-based gender-ambiguous clothing brand and store launched online in March 2013 by Emma Mcilroy and Julia Parsley. The store appropriates clothing originally designed for men, like oxford shoes, fedoras, bowties, and blazers, and adapts them for a woman’s fit. As opposed to the careful androgyny of Veer, Wildfang’s manifesto proclaims them to be a “band of thieves, modern-day, female Robin Hoods raiding men’s closets ... we are tomboys.”

When I asked Mcilroy, who speaks forcefully with a graveled Irish accent, how she defines a tomboy, she explained that it’s grounded in an attitude. A tomboy is “carefree and adventurous and positive, you don’t take yourself too seriously—it’s a girl who likes to play with the boys, a girl you want to go have beers with,” she said.

Coined in the mid-16th century, “tomboy” never had such a positive connotation. “Tom,” from the common name Thom, was synonymous with maleness and formed the earlier phrase “tom-fool,” a buffoon. “Tomboy,” meaning a girl who inappropriately looks or acts like a boisterous boy, first appeared in print in Midas, a 1592 comedy by John Lyly, according to John Horlivy. In the play, a maid, Pipenetta, comes upon two young men, Lido and Petulus, and preemptively shoots down any ideas of potential conquest: “I would not be in your coats for any thing,” she says. “Indeed if thou shouldest rigge vp and downe in our jackets, thou wouldst be thought a very tomboy,” Lido puns, taking her euphemism literally. Pipenetta rejects them again, so Petulus calls her fat and ugly, retorting that the men’s clothes are “too little for thy bodie, and then too faire to pull ouer so fowle a skinne.”

The joke’s on Petulus and Lido. Around half of the pieces Wildfang stocks are from menswear brands like Pointer and Redwing, and men shop there as well. Their aesthetic has proven so popular that Wildfang opened its first physical store months ahead of schedule and is soon launching a house-branded product line with the help of designer Adelle Renaud, who also identifies as a tomboy and founded a brand under the apropos Peau de Loup, short for “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

The tomboy label doesn’t suit everyone. “Androgyny is like the grown-up tomboy who stopped playing in the sandbox,” Veer’s Allie Leepson said. Jenny McClary added: “The only time in my life I felt like I was a tomboy was when I played sports in middle school with my hair pulled back. It takes the fashion out of it.” Veer aims for a loftier sensibility, the edgy, challenging formal quality of high fashion.

Coco Chanel, the highest of fashion icons, famously wore heavy tweed coats belonging to her lover the Duke of Westminster, and Diane Keaton’s obsession with vintage menswear leaked into Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Patti Smith, who once said, “As far as I'm concerned, being any gender is a drag,” dressed in an oversized men’s white shirt with a dark jacket draped over her shoulder for her debut album Horses. They could all be considered tomboys, or androgynous. Each challenged the established codes of clothing to express something unique.

The aim of the androgynous clothing movement is to prove that fashion doesn’t need to be separated by gender. It’s about fighting simplistic labels rather than creating them, just as John Rykener and St. Margaret did. No matter what name you call it, that spirit of struggle persists. “What’s so special about tomboy is it’s not a trend,” Mcilroy said. “Other things come in and out of fashion; she’s always been with us, and always will be with us.”