Gender Androgyny as a Postmodern Response to Fashion in the Contemporary Public Sphere


Within this increasingly multicultural society, self-expression is the social mechanism in which individuals reaffirm their sense of uniqueness. Fashion has and continues functioning as an instrument that aids individual expressiveness while redefining pre-established social pillars. Fashion reinvents economics, such as class statues, and morality, such as good taste, by attributing a sense of value to something ‘simple’ as garments or accessories. An example of this value attribution is the social surplus found in expensive Chanel jackets as opposed to LOB sweaters, where the first one is most relevant de facto because important public figures have worn it, such as Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe.

This value ascription, helped by advertisements from the media industry and by exposure across the political arena, consequently defines greater social pillars that resonate in today’s multicultural world. For example, the image of a “hooded Klansman has become a popular hate symbol” (ADL) that highlights ‘racial superiority.’ Similar to the Jewish religious clothing “highly influenced by Biblical commandments” (Atwan), the garments serve the important goal of distinguishing the Jewish community from other religious organizations. Since included in the public agenda as a reformative element in today’s civilization, fashion continues changing fundamental social pillars. This is essentially the reason why fashion is important and why fashion continues resonating in public discourse.

One of the social pillars that have defined societies throughout centuries, perhaps the most important, is the conceptualization of gender norms. The social establishments of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ have been part of western societies’ narrative. From Adam and Eve, to the Sun and Moon, to the King and Queen, determinants of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are constant throughout western history. Additionally, social, economic, and political forces have ensured such determinants remained predominant in the public dialogue through social institutions such as fashion, as private interests are protected. For instance, the male need to control the ‘passionate’ emergence of lesbianism and female masturbation in Eighteenth Century London with ‘antimasturbation literature’. Nonetheless, contrarily to a perpetual evolution of equal gender norms, similar forces have recently made fashion the mechanism through which self-expression overcomes social control. Ergo, I argue that fashion, as a social institution that protects private interests, has radically changed its purpose from serving as a public control mechanism to a private form of encouraging self-expression and detachment from previous gender norms, taking into consideration the emergence of the androgynous trend.

One of the most critical moments in history for gender reinterpretation was the introduction of the ‘passionless woman’ in medical literature: a “complete reversal of pre-1700 views of sex and gender, [which] posits women as essentially different from men in both their biology and their sexual nature” (O’Driscoll, 103). The idea of ‘passionless woman’ was thought to revamp society’s understanding of gender based on scientific premises but far from improving social relations, it derived public bewilderment. After popular medical books brought up the concept to the public discourse, Englishmen’s “anxiety” about women masturbation increased and “fear” about lesbianism propagated. Contextually, English society simultaneously faced the problem of “how a diluted sovereignty following the 1688 Glorious Revolution affected a Londoner’s perception of urban governance” (Bond, 2). Therefore, social institutions played a serious role in reforming norms and values, which consequently shaped social behaviors. While fears about women masturbation were address with ‘antimasturbation’ literature, such as “the anonymous Onania and Samuel Tissot’s Onanism” (O’Driscoll, 104), writers such as Addison, Steele, “Gay, Fielding, and Pope … developed textual techniques to manage or conduct readers and help them relate to a newly conceived post-Fire London” (Bond, 1).

Woman's Mission: Companion of Manhood 1863 by George Elgar Hicks 1824-1914

Historically, Eighteenth Century London situated the propagation of ‘antimasturbation literature’ and the emergence of textual techniques to govern society as public mechanisms to tackle private concerns. Alternatively, fashion helped reforming individual’s private behavior, reinventing a stylish and well-mannered Eighteenth Century London society while collaterally establishing new expectations of gender norms. “Dress and manners, like literature, serve as structures through which gender can be represented as natural and inevitable” (Mackie, 457). Fashion had the strategic advantage – or disadvantage – of restructuring gender expectations while reforming social values based on the new scientifically based belief that men and women are naturally different. Therefore, men and women should inherently act different given that they do not possess the same sex characteristics.

The greater expectation behind fashion within society was the reformation of London social structure. In ‘Anatomy of a Coquet’s Heart’, Joseph Addison criticizes women who have lost themselves to fashion by metaphorically analyzing the content of the physical heart of a ‘Coquet’. Addison says the interior formed by ‘thin reddish liquor’ “rose at the Approach of a Plume of Feathers, an embroidered Coat, or a Pair of fringed Gloves; and fell as soon as an ill-shaped Periwig, a clumsy Pair of Shoes, or an unfashionable Coat” (Addison, 130). The presence of physical belongings in the woman’s cardiovascular structure leads the readers to perceive a sense of disappointment and evokes a feeling of loss in humanity.


“Upon weighing the Heart in my Hand, I found it to be extremely light, and consequently very hollow, which I did not wonder at, when upon looking into the Inside of it, I saw Multitudes of Cells and Cavities running one within another … several of these little Hollows were stuffed with innumerable sorts of Trifles, which I shall forbear giving any particular Account of, and shall therefore only take Notice of what lay first and uppermost, which, upon our unfolding it and applying our Microscopes to it, appeared to be a Flame-coloured Hood” (Addison, 131).

Simultaneously, Addison’s presentation of the ‘Coquet’ heart’s interior as ‘trifled’ purposefully attempts to show what happens if fashion is incoherently followed. Failure to praise value in virtues of moderation and natural beauty opposed to artificial belongings directs the mind to an irrational susceptibility to either good or bad. The “Salamandrine quality that made it [the heart] capable of living in the midst of Fire and Flame, without being consumed, or so much as singed” (Addision, 133) is responsible for choosing emotional impulses over reasonableness.

The lack of women character or inclination towards good or bad in ‘Anatomy of a Coquet’s Heart’ resonates with the concept of ‘passionless woman’ O’Driscoll writes about because a heartless individual, in this case a woman, is a passionless one. Addison indirectly addresses the Englishwoman’s lack of character or impulse by presenting her in domestic and familiar roles. Women domestic value, derived from social ornaments and expected manners, is inherent to Eighteenth Century writing, for instance, in ‘Advise for Choosing the Right Man for Marriage,’ Steele outlines the appropriate characteristics that define the best man for marriage, characteristics that all women should look for when choosing a man.


“The Advantages, as I was going to say, of Sense, Beauty and Riches, are certainly the chief Motives to a prudent young Woman of Fortune for changing her Condition; but as she is to have her Eye upon each of these, she is to ask herself whether the Man who has most of these Recommendations in the Lump is not the most desirable. He that has excellent Talents, with a moderate Estate, and an agreeable Person, is preferable to him who is only rich, if it were only that good Faculties may purchase Riches, but Riches cannot purchase worthy Endowments” (Steele, 193).


Insofar this text serves as a male value regulator; it also functions as a female gender norm modifier. The woman, far from been given a voice as to whether or not she wants a marriage, is assumed to remain in the private sphere by attaching herself to norms of domestic matter. In addition, presumably concerned about the future of London, authors such as Steele refer to marriages that work only within the boundaries of pre-conceived social establishments. In other words, the ‘ideal’ image of a married couple works insofar they follow ‘natural’ gender expectations that discard ‘feminine’ qualities in men and ‘masculine’ qualities in women. A letter from Steele that outlines the characteristics a woman should look for in another woman to engage in lesbian marriage would be unconceivable, as it is imperative that men continue positioning themselves in society’s superior pedestal.

Eighteenth Century’s definition of ‘natural’, as it refers to gender identity, is derived from the scientific literature at the time. The reconceptualization of the body, identified by Thomas Laqueur as “the changeover from the prevailing concept of the one-sex body to a two-sex body theory” (O’Driscoll, 105), and its subsequent effects throughout society are becoming less relevant in today’s world. Similarly, fashion as a control mechanism successfully inserting values of moderation, kindness, and wittiness in Eighteenth Century London, is derived from social, economic, and political forces. Socially, writers such as Armstrong and Tannenhouse “strived to reproduce, if not always to revise, the culturally approved forms of desire” (Bond, 16); namely, change the social behavior upon physical desire, such as fashion ornament acquirement, and upon emotional desire, such as reformation of ‘the good husband’. Economically, the continuous demographic expansion of London led an increase in business transactions, making “Britain the dominant commercial power in the world marketplace. Traders bought brightly colored cotton cloth from Asia. They exchanged the cloth in Africa for slaves and slaves for sugar in America” (Hoppit, 309). Politically, the emergence of a parliament and “the problem of urban authority” (Bond, 24) in post-absolutist Britain led social leaders, amongst writers, to design new forms of social control. “Masculine costumes shed the superfluous ornament and gorgeous fanciness that had been common a century earlier. They [men and women] no longer mirrored one another” (Mackie, 460). Although contemporarily fashion forces seem quite similar to those of Eighteenth Century, today’s fashion interests are far distant from the exclusionary and reductionist standpoints London had at the time.

In the transition from Eighteenth Century London to the contemporary era, major economic advances took place. One of them is The Industrial Revolution in Britain, which brought the uniform. “Standardized clothing performed a role opposite to that of fashionable clothing, with its implication of self-enhancement” (Crane, 89), which understandably limited self-expression and remarked social class differences. The uniform is one of the last traces of fashion ‘as a social control mechanism’ in today’s world: for instance, private schools students, service workers, and police officers wear it on duty. However, contemporary perceptions of the self, generally adopting a postmodern approach to fashion, show how men and women incline themselves to an eclectic experimentation in the vast universe of styles, trying to reaffirm their identities while searching for it. “From the perspective of postmodernist theories of gender, which view gender as constructed through playacting and performance, female gender [as well as male gender], may be performed in different ways” (Crane, 204). This perspective destabilizes traditional gender identities disregarding social constrains imposed by fashion because the social constrains may not apply to all situations.


Simultaneously, the world experienced major political shifts that radically changed the world. The First World War, the Second World War, the Cold War, and so on were just a few of the events that drove social institutions, such as fashion, through an arbitrarily changing pattern, readapted gender expectations, and incentivized the common quest for individuality and self-expression. In Mexico, Frida Kahlo herself, dressed in Tehuana skirt colorfully adorned with a crown of flowers, became the symbol of Mexican surrealist idiosyncrasy based on the political inconsistency with a right-wing government at the time. Joseph Stalin, equally, became the icon of Soviet Union by “promoting charismatic leadership … while aspiring to cultivate a sense of popular legitimacy through the use of militarized uniform and a characteristic mustache” (Brandenberger, 249).

Fashion’s social force also brought new gender expectations throughout the last century. Social mobility and globalization, in addition to the development of new technologies, and the scientific discoveries of today are changing the way social archetypes are constructed. Famous male haircut ‘man bun’ for instance, once thought as a feminine hairstyle, “can be fun to wear and even utilitarian, with men pulling their hair out of their faces to see better” (Barber). Parallel to longhaired men in the 60s in favor of the hippie movement, and to the Mohawk hairstyle in the 80s supporting the Punk stream, “the man bun has the potential to resist conservative values around what bodies should look like” (Ibid). Namely, the ‘man bun’ redefines masculinity, reforms gender expectations of male behavior, and serves as a powerful force of self-expression that overcomes traditional gender norms by providing males an androgynous look.


On the androgynous transformation of the female, “nowadays there seems to be a tendency towards the destruction of the feminine, as androgynous fashion, [which] appearance dominates our culture” (Bonafini and Pozzilli, 62). Famous models such as Willy Cartier and Erika Linder have changed the traditional gender expectations that no longer await for a petticoat or appropriate behavior when looking for a husband, but rather look for the “metamorphosis of the ideal woman, [which] follows the shifting role of women in society from mother and mistress to a career-oriented individual” (Ibid).


Without trivializing gender equality, new forms of self-expression in the fashion arena, such as the ‘men bun’ and female androgenization, situate traditionally private matters into the public debate. “The ambiguous position of the public woman in Eighteenth Century … with the concern that she not be seen to abandon longer established female roles” (Howard, 230) is no longer a public matter. The inclusion of feminity in the construction of male archetypes and vice versa has made the traditional ‘public-domestic’ dichotomy irrelevant. It seems so, that fashion continues systematically working in favor of economic, political, and social interest, which remain to be the recurrent themes in the public sphere. Yet, fashion has recently evolved in a way that gender expectations are no longer supportive of Thomas Laqueur’s bicentennial ‘two-sex body theory.’ Instead, today fashion’s realm seems to favor a ‘one-body type’ model that is acceptant and inclusive.

Conceptualizing fashion within the public sphere is not a new communication practice. The garments and manners old civilizations used to distinguish economic classes and social statuses have always belonged to the public discourse. However, Jürgen Habermas conception of the public sphere as “a space in which citizens deliberate about their common affairs” (Fraser, 57) in a critical discourse, did not emerged until Eighteenth Century. Along the need for rational and widespread dialogue in the construction of democracy, the public redefinition of gender norms emerged. Fashion in the public sphere derived a particular social attention during the advent of feminity and masculinity as new gender standards were constructed. In today’s public sphere, fashion’s dichotomy as a means of social control versus a form of self-expression demonstrates how the dialectic between reason and passion remains to have a perennial seat in the discussion of social affairs. Although fashion constantly modifies gender norms, the contextual situation of the time is the determinant that ultimately redefines the conceptualization of gender norms. From Eighteenth Century’s private fear about lesbianism and female masturbation, public ‘antimasturbation’ and morally reformative literature appeared; similar to public dialogue about women androgenization driven by the private concern about gender equality and physical appearance.

From a postmodern perspective, the redefinition of gender norms through fashion, and their inclusion in the public sphere, is entirely situational. Economic, political, and social interests incorporated gender standards of masculinity and feminity into the public dialogue during Eighteen Century London. Equal forces have driven out such standards from the public sphere in today’s fashion world. Regarding a constantly evolving industry and having in mind the forces that sustain it, perhaps later in this century the public inclusion of gender would be irrelevant at all. Instead, fashion would address other social concerns that will be significant in their own situational frameworks, such as race, which appears to strongly resonate in American society at the moment.


Work Cited

Addison, Joseph and Steele, Richard. Spectator No. 281: Anatomy of a Coquet’s Heart. The Spectator. London: n.i., Vol. 4. Tuesday, January 22nd 1712. Pp. 130-133. Print.

Addison, Joseph and Steele, Richard. Spectator No. 522: Advise on Choosing the Right Man for Marriage. The Spectator. London; n.i., Vol. 7. Wednesday October 29th 1712. Pp. 192-196. Print.

ADL. Anti-Defamation League. Hate Symbols Database: Ku Klux Klan Robes. 2016. Anti-Defamation League, 2016. Web. April 27th 2016.

Atwan, Shachar. When a Tel Aviv Fashion House Meets Women on the Wall. Haaretz Daily Newspaper (Haaretz Daily Newspaper Ltd.), November 08th 2013. Web. April 27th 2016.

Barber, Kristen. Man Buns as Cultural Appropriation. Sociological Image (The Society Pages), December 26th 2015. Web. April 27th 2016.

Bonafini, B. A. and Pozzilli, P. “Body Weight and Beauty: The Changing Face of the Ideal Female Body Weight.” Obesity Reviews Vol. 12. No. 1 (2011): pp. 62-65. Print.

Bond, Erik. “Introduction: Two Cities, One London.” Reading London: Urban Speculation and Imaginative Government in Eighteenth Century Literature. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007. Pp. 1-28. Print.

Brandenberger, David. Stalin: A New History. Edited by Sarah Davies and James R. Harris. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

Cosmo Team. 10 Signs He’s Too Feminine. Cosmopolitan Magazine (Hearst Magazines UK), August 09th 2016. Web. April 27th 2016.

Crane, Diana. Fashion and its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993. Print.

Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text Vol. 1. No. 25/26 (1990): pp. 56-80. Print.

Hoppit, Julian. “The Nation, the State, and the First Industrial Revolution.” Journal of British Studies Vol. 50. No. 2 (2011): pp. 307-331. Print.

Howard, Stephen. “‘A Bright Pattern to All Her Sex’: Representations of Women in Periodical and Newspaper Biography.” Gender in Eighteenth-Century England: Roles, Representations, and Responsibilities. Eds. Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus. London, UK: Longman, 1997. Pp. 230-249. Print.

Mackie, Erin. “Fashioning Gender.” The Commerce of Everyday Life. Ed. Erin Mackie. Bedford Cultural Edition. Boston: Palgrave Macmillan LTD., 1998. Pp. 457-462. Print.

Mikkelson, David. Bluffin’ With her Muffin? 1995-2016. (Urban Legends Reference Pages), February 07th 2016. Web. April 27th 2016

O’Driscoll, Sally. “The Lesbian and the Passionless Woman: Feminity and Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century England.” The Eighteenth Century Vol. 44. No. 2/3 (2003): pp. 103-131. Print.



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