This year, fashion goes back toward Victor/Victoria

BY CAROLINE HARTMANN

Published October 18, 2006

Androgyny: partly male, partly female, wholly indeterminate. Fashion today recalls the gender-bending fads of the past: Ditching corsets in the '20s, the sexual revolution and "mod" of the '60s and the hyper-masculine power suit of the '80s. The concept is an old one, but this generation lacks the political circumstances that have driven fashion to masculine extremes in the past. If the feminist struggle to gain equal recognition isn't the goal this time, then what is?

Steven Neff
John Varvatos fall 2006 runway show
Steven Neff
androgynous style icon Katharine Hepburn
Steven Neff
John Varvatos fall 2006 runway show
Steven Neff
Chloe tote, unisex.

At birth we all possess the mental capacity to learn any language, so do we also embody all aspects of gender before society has its way with us? Fashion easily puts personal identity on an all-too-visible stage, making the manifestation of our inner selves not only possible, but essential. What we wear is the silent version of a soapbox sermon, the loudest statement that requires no words at all. Our gender is as malleable as our wardrobes, even though society treats it as a given fact of life.

The tailored dress suit, pushed to the back of the closet for years, is making its comeback. Designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Paul Smith are reacting under pressure to refit their men's collections for women, and Brooks Brothers has never seen so much business. Sleek legs, trouser legs, cropped jackets, draping jackets - the options are endless and none are any less fashionable than the next. Women are also borrowing men's accessories, adorning outfits with plaid patterns, neckties and newsboy hats.

But androgyny goes both ways. As women flock to the men's section and demand designer suitware, their male counterparts are buying shirts one size smaller and reveling in their ability to wear slim-waisted jeans. David Beckham may have ignited the flame of the contemporary metrosexual movement, but he's just one of many to embrace his feminine side. (See David Bowie, Gerard Way.)

Women are reasserting their masculinity, men are working to suppress it.

But other forms of androgynous dressing find a stylish middle ground. Dr. Marten's footwear was on to something when it introduced countless lines of unisex shoes; instead of extrapolating certain styles and transplanting them onto the opposite gender, some fashion attempts to blur the boundary itself.

Designer Helmut Lang is famous for uniting his men and women's collections with common elements such as shape and color, abandoning gender conventions of both sexes. In his spring 2007 collection, Lang's runway alternated male and female models, all wearing squared-off looks in the same white, taupe and gray color scheme. His designs focus more on sleek, minimalist silhouettes than on highlight typical feminine or masculine features. Though his clothes aren't meant to be universally worn, he downplays gender influences in favor of structure and clean lines.

Erotic fashion - though usually relegated to avant-garde editorial spreads and fringe markets - is parading sexual ambiguity with both campy humor and burlesque ferocity. In October's issue of Flaunt Magazine, Scarlett Johansson and Dita Von Teese pose as kinky sex objects, alternating roles of male dominators and female seducers. The costume mask worn by Von Teese suggests the mystery and playful rebellion of gender mix-ups.

Mass-produced clothing design is playing the same gender games as the high fashion industry, and the public is responding with open arms. Gap now offers structured trenches and leather utility jackets for women, fur-trimmed coats for men and has revived chic skinny pants for both.

This generation is notoriously silent when it comes to political expression - most of us spend more time worrying about personal style. It's become trendy to focus on identity issues and reject society's confining expectations of gender and sexuality.

Our obsession with distinctly personalized ensembles isn't fading into the background anytime soon. We seek unique and one-of-a-kind pieces with an ardent drive that far surpasses the energy we devote to mass movements and social reform. Androgynous fashion embodies decades of radical dress. It provides this generation with an individualistic mode of expression to keep pushing the envelope on gender without being chained to society's limiting definitions.