The Sunday Times
Two key moments came together at the J W Anderson spring/summer 2016 menswear collection in London this year. For me, at least. It began with the soundtrack, the one piece of vinyl that remains in my possession in middle age and recorded in 1977: the mesmeric spoken word album ‘Private Parts’ by the avant-garde American composer Robert Ashley. Here it was cut and pasted between the opening sighs from Madonna’s ‘Bedtime Story’ and beginning with the oh-so familiar line - to me, at least: ‘He took himself seriously’. It could be describing Anderson himself, or at least his attitude to fashion, or rather menswear, or rather everything that followed on the runway that provided key moment number two: cropped and cuffed trousers, chiselled court shoes with winged ankle straps in the glossy reds and silvers of enamel paint. The term menswear sells short this approach to design but no more so than the outmoded androgyny and unisex. Both have been bandied about to describe the current catwalk trend for blurring the line between male and female fashion.
It may not be up there with Dior’s New Look, and it's not necessarily new - but it is a touch radical nonetheless. Inspired, even. A welcome departure from the style and heritage brand, the permanently casual, the designer kit of those with the wealth or fame to act on the advice of a payrolled stylist. It's something I’d hoped to see happen since the 1970s when a similar trend was in the air and on the streets; when the platform shoe was the great leveller, and stick-thin boys on high-rise estates were feminised by feather-cut hair and high-waisted flares. That decade is being referenced by the designers leading the pack on gender blurring - Anderson, Thom Browne, Craig Green - along with others keen to appropriate familiar female attire by putting men in skirts, blouses and bustiers.
So this is not the 1990s when Calvin Klein steered jeans, t-shirts, and unisex scent through the great gender divide. It’s not the 1980s when Jean Paul Gaultier debuted the kilt-skirt forboys. That was simply too quirky, too fun. These current designers do take themselves seriously, presenting something of the dandy highwayman, the Bauderlarian flâneur on the runway. A little provocative; a little too pretentious. The latter was evident within the show notes at Prada during Milan Men’s Fashion Week: 'Gender is a context and context is often gendered…These shows are the perfect moment to analyse this subject more deeply to measure what the genders share.’ Thom Browne, the man that re-made and remodelled the modern suit by revealing the ankle and the wrist, has put it more succinctly : 'I want my work to be something that makes people think.’ This is when fashion is at its best, when it makes you do a double take; when it makes you ask Why?; when it takes cut, design and fabric out of its comfort zone and out of context.
These are the themes I wanted menswear to address during my stint as a tailor in the late-1970s at the London College of Fashion, where Jonathan Anderson graduated a few years ago. My best mate there was a titular Muslim from Turkish-Cypriot stock whose parents aversion to the English was outweighed only by a hatred of homosexuality. Before I was banned from the household the pair of us raided the back catalogue of men’s attire taking in knickerbockers, spats and plus-fours on the way. Then later, in 1980 - for one night only - came the skirt. A bid to traverse the limitations of menswear rather than road-test transvestism. It was a box-pleated Jasper Conran half-kilt affair in black watch tartan, accessorsied by buckled quaker shoes from Anello & Davide, white football socks and a Crombie. I knew that nothing I ever said or did after that would match the look of horror, sadness and disgust on my mother’s face - taking heroin, converting to Islam. Nothing. For me, the wearer, it was the vulnerabilty of the experience and the exposure that was alarming. Mastering those billowing pleats under the force of a gusty subway breeze. The greater challenge being the catcalls, the double takes, and the drunken homeless woman clutching a bottle of meths at the exit to the underpass. ‘You dirty bastard! I’m calling the police’, she bellowed as I passed. 'You tried to get my knickers off’. Had the cops arrived, a box-bleated skirt would have been evidence of my innocence, or a clue to a more perverse offence or offensive perversion.
Time and fashion marched on. The male skirt now comes into its own in the margins of the present. Witness it in the wardrobe of crossing-dressing artists and comedians. The musician Ezra Furman sings about it, looking like his wearing his little sister’s clothes when his parents are out : ‘Making the rounds in my five dollar dress/I can’t go home, though I’m not homeless’. All of which lacks the flare of what was showcased at fashion week. The themes echoed the revivalism and modernity evident in the early-1970s, yet without the underlying muscularity of a designer like Anthony Price - a major figure during that heady moment when pop, fashion and androgyny bonded. Despite the glitter and the gaudiness, he’s silhouettes - inspired by the illustrated gay clones of Tom of Finland - were an antidote to the neutral shape of flat chests and skinny hips. He created trousers that highlighted the crotch and lifted the rear. Jonathan Anderson has opted for an emasculating look, cut for women and worn by men. ‘There was no gay fantasy there’, he has said.
The emergence of this current trend begs the question - why now? Some might draw parallels between the wider cultural and social context of the 1970s and the present. Back then, heels were higher than expectations in a time of industrial strife and unrest. Today, we have the imposed austerity and relative poverty that has left society in a worse state, according to the clapped out comedians and washed-up child stars leading the revolt. Others argue that the runway is reflecting the new awakening on sexuality and gender, as the marginalised outlaws of the past hitch their wagons to the mainstream; sisters and brothers under the skin of a rainbow flag. Lest we forget, this is the age of the ‘gender fluid’ Ruby Rose (Orange Is The New Black ) and the canonisation of Caitlyn Jenner.
But as many a cultural historian will confirm, men’s fashion transitions in more muscular moments. For instance, when war and revolution are to the fore. Perhaps this current trend in fashion - insignificant in the greater scheme of things - is a reaction to global unrest, rather than a trans-gender sexagenarian becoming a cover girl. The more immediate question for designers themselves is whether this look will sell. If it does it will be because the major brandsidentified with luxury and status take it on. And they have. The new creative director at Gucci, Alessandro Michele, paraded the male models in pussy bow blouses as part of a recent collection. Burberry took a similar approach. While earlier this year Selfridges launched a temporary space called Agender and did away with male and female mannequins. It’s a development that chimes with the androgynous future anticipated by the revered fashion historian Anne Hollander, author of ’Sex And Suits’, who died last year. And something she would have welcomed. In the essay ‘Girlie Men: Revamping Male Couture’ she wrote: 'For generations (men) had to look tough, modest, honest, and restrained under plain suits or plain sportswear. Masculinity was allowed no erotic range in dress; the phallic necktie, licensed to reflect light and glow with color, was famously men's only hope.'