From the moment we are born, the question is “blue or pink?” Depending on our gender, it is decided whether we will wear trousers or a skirt as a uniform on our first day of school. Preconceived notions are passed on from generation to generation, becoming ingrained all over again. When a girl defies pink she is called a tomboy, if a boy dons a dress it is a cause for concern.
Yet of recent we have witnessed society slowly coming around to a more gender neutral attitude towards dressing. The shift has been reflected throughout pop culture. In music, like Bowie and Annie Lennox before her, the gender bending, suit-clad Christine and the Queens is changing our perceptions of what it means to be a pop star. Influenced by fearlessness of drag queens she encountered in London, she is androgynous in both her style, dance moves and lyrics, singing about the dick she never had on iT “I’ve got iT / I’m a man now / And I won’t let you steal iT / I bought it for myself / I’m a man now.” Similarly, the fashion industry has been turned on its head since the arrival of Alessandro Michele as Creative Director at Gucci with his opulent and effeminate aesthetic inclusive to any and all of the sexes. Historically women’s and men’s collections have been shown at different times in the year, however several houses including Gucci, Burberry and Tom Ford have begun to merge the two. 17-year old Jaden Smith was controversially cast as the new face of Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2016 womenswear collection, and other teen stars such as Amandla Stenberg, Tavi Gavenson and Willow Smith have been vocal about their views on the subject, showing the buddings of a woke generation to come.
History would suggest that gender-prescribed wardrobes weren’t so set to begin with. Some of the most traditionally feminine clothes were initially worn by both sexes. So it seems we have a genderless past and, hopefully, a genderless future, but what happened in between and how far have we to go?
Le Rose est-il une Couleur de Luxe? (Is Pink a Luxury Colour)
The blue-pink gender divide is a surprisingly recent phenomena for something so enmeshed in society. According to historian Jo B. Paoletti’s, author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys, in the 1800s gender neutral clothing was actually the norm. All young children wore white for one very practical reason: bleaching. It was only recently, just before World War One, that pink and blue became specifically gendered. The main cause being the same one that has us label many things: commercialism. “The more you individualize clothing, the more you can sell.” says Paoletti.
First off, the codes were the opposite way around. It was pink for the boys and blue for the girls. Pink, a derivative of red, was seen as a more vivid colour and therefore stronger and more suited to boys as opposed to the softer blue hue. In her book Paoletti quotes an article published in 1918 by the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants Department which read “The generally accepted rule of pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, prettier for the girl.”
Though a study published by Time magazine in 1927 which charts the perceptions of sex-appropriate colour coding according to leading US stores in different states, would suggest that pink and blue were still not concrete gender signifiers across the board. It would also appear that in fact it was retailers who were defining these gender roles, not consumers.
By the 1940s the meaning of pink and blue were solidified. Everything from balloons to baby grows and soothers were coloured accordingly. While this colour delineation may be more prominent in the marketing of children’s products, it is still prevalent in adulthood. Many products such as ear plugs, razors, stationary , sun cream and chocolate (that is “not for girls”) are bizarrely gendered.
This gendering of the everyday has had more sinister, insidious ramifications. Women are subjected to what is known as “Pink Tax” or “Women’s Tax”. In a 1995 California study, it was found that on average women pay $1,351 more annually than men for the same products. Subsequently California became the first state to ban gender-discriminatory pricing. Yet Pink Tax is still rife on an international scale today. In 2014 French feminist collective Georgette Sands shone a light on sexist pricing policies, examples of which are posted on their blog Woman Tax. The group filed a petition with over 40,000 signatures accusing Monoprix supermarket chain of overcharging on female products. Pascale Boistard, France’s secretary of state for women’s rights, Pascale Boistard tweeted in support “Le rose est-il une couleur de luxe?” and as a result of the activations the Finance Ministry ordered an inquiry into the country’s retailers.
Women are not just effected financially, both sexes are psychologically influenced by confined expectations from an early age. One study has shown that adults treat babies differently depending on whether they are dressed in pink or blue. Those dressed in blue are assumed to be male and therefore receive more physical play while the baby dressed in pink is held delicately and soothed. The supposed boy is encouraged to play with a hammer and the girl with a doll. No doubt the enforcement of such roles from an early age has lasting affects on the way we view ourselves as we grow up. As Youtube sensation Riley says when she calls out marketers in a toy shop: “Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses! Some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses! So why do all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different-coloured stuff?”
Backwards in High Heels
In the 1600s high heels were worn by European aristocracy as a sign of status – one of great lineage and higher birth was above the need to run, or indeed comfortably walk anywhere. In a BBC article Elizabeth Semmelhack, author of Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe said “One of the best ways that status can be conveyed is through impracticality.” See King Louis XIV of France sporting a pair of red high heels and a wandering limb. I dare you not to think of Angelina Jolie’s famous Oscar leg.
The trend eventually began to filter down through to the lower echelons of society, including women. Semmelhack explains the trend of mannish dressing which developed amongst women of the time:
“In the 1630s you had women cutting their hair, adding epaulettes to their outfits…They would smoke pipes, they would wear hats that were very masculine. And this is why women adopted the heel – it was in an effort to masculinise their outfits.”
The response of the elite men was first to wear even higher heels (that would put Christian Louboutin to shame) in order to distinguish themselves, but soon the men kicked off their heels for good when they realised their growing association with women.
Apart from the odd cowboy boot, heels have been absent from the male wardrobe ever since. Semmelhack believes there is no reason that high heels may come back into fashion, except she makes the valid point that this would require complete equality of the sexes. “If it becomes a signifier of actual power, then men will be as willing to wear it as women.”
The Skirt: Science Fiction & Feminism
The mini skirt was once a garment reserved for film, mainly science-fiction to be worn by “women from the future”. George Orwell may have prophesied the panopticonic digital age in 1984, but films like Flight to Mars and Forbidden Planet foretold the future of mini skirts. It wasn’t until the 60s however, during the women’s liberation movement, that the mini skirt was revolutionised and began to enter the mainstream thanks to designer and owner of cult boutique Bizarre, Mary Quant. “Middle aged business men would bang on the window and say it’s obscene, it’s disgusting” Quant told British Vogue.
As feminism garnered ever more traction in the mainstream, wearing a skirt became more than a mere fashion choice, it was a political statement. The protest for the freedom of choice to wear a skirt as short as desired was symbolic of the fight for women’s choices in general – reproductive and otherwise. Eventually, mini skirts became emblematic of the feminist. Longer skirts grew more fashionable in the 1970s but women like Gloria Steinem proudly wore their hemlines short to rallies and speeches, showing they weren’t afraid or ashamed of their femininity. A Vanity Fair article from this period described Steinem in “A miniskirt outrageously high over those spectacular racehorse legs, a glittering gold tunic that made her stand out instantly in a crowded room”, while the Washington Post said she was “the miniskirted pinup girl of intelligentsia.”
Miniskirts soon lost their shock factor and became a staple in women’s wardrobes and yet the sight of one can still attract negative reactions. The city council of Dadeville, Alabama tried to ban them because, as they saw it, God would disapprove. Elsewhere in Kansas, a legislator apologised following the implementation of a ban on women wearing plunging necklines and short skirts when testifying before his committee. “My failure to clearly specify that all conferees, regardless of gender, should strive to present themselves professionally is unacceptable” he said. Earlier this year Amsterdam’s city office in Nieuw-West also promptly withdrew its no-short skirts policy following a media backlash.
Skirts still maintain an underlying proclivity with erotica and female rebellion that unsettles people, even more so when worn by a man. Yet, long before Mary Quant, the youth-quakers and feminists, men wore skirts too – surprise, surprise. From the Romans in their togas to Scotsmen in patterned kilts and the robes worn by Asian emperors. “Men and women both wore skirts in ancient times. Once you had the initial idea of weaving a rectangle and tying it around yourself, you had basically the skirt. And if you look at say ancient, Egyptian paintings, you see men and women both wearing what’s in effect a skirt,” says Valerie Steel, director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
Women have been wearing men’s clothes since the 20s when they adopted trousers as their own, but men in women’s clobber seems a more contentious topic. The day that a man wears a skirt and nobody bats an eye lid, is the day fashion becomes truly gender equal. There have been efforts to break down these gender binaries and success is evident in the increasing visibility and growing acceptance of transgender individuals. Recently we have had watermark moments. In 2015 Caitlyn Jenner stole Kim K’s thunder (and column inches) when she publicly came out as transgender, while The Danish Girl, a Tom Hopper film about the life of transgender artist Lili Elbe scored 4 Academy Award nominations. The previously mentioned Jaden Smith is optimistic about the future, telling NYLON magazine “It just doesn’t matter. I’m taking the brunt of it so that later on, my kids and the next generations of kids will all think that certain things are normal that weren’t expected before my time.” All of this signifies that society is shifting and that we are due to arrive at a desirable, egalitarian place – where we can wear whatever we want no matter our gender, if the shoe fits.
Illustration: Sarah Moloney