What is menswear? An essential question in a confused industry
One can suppose menswear means men’s clothing. The history of fashion all over the world shows a clear differentiation between what men wear and what women wear. These differences align with the gender beliefs of the time.
From the practical standpoint of clothing creation, the only clear difference between a man and a woman are physical characteristics. Historically these practical differences in the body were addressed and often emphasised or subverted by fashion through tailoring. Womenswearaccommodated for breasts and hips with things like darting, girdles or other styles of contraptions that cinched and shaped the curves. Men’s tailoring emphasises things like the natural ‘V’ shape of a man’s body with shoulder pads and cinched waist. Women were valued for their beauty and as they were seen as frivolous in patriarchal societies, it meant their clothing was more colourful and extravagantly embellished. Men valued for their strength, physical tenacity and seriousness had more practical garments like pants, often made of structured durable materials with earthy or neutral colours and more subdued embellishments.
This once clear delineation between genders seems to deteriorate with time. From women wearing wigs and heels (fashion originally intended for men) to the once avant-garde YSL smoking suit, women have had a long tradition of adopting men’s clothing. Fashion from all tiers have responded to the shift. Tailoring seems to be losing traction, in favour of casual sportswear-inspired looks, softening the structural aesthetic of menswear. The sizeable population of young women and men shopping garments from all departments in charity shops, spearhead this moment on the street, while the merging of Mens and Womenswear shows by significant brands like Paul Smith, Vetements and Burberry mark the blurring of gender aesthetics in high fashion. The flexibility of style, and the shift in the landscape of fashion further erodes menswear’s status as men-exclusive clothing.
The notion of masculinity is being redefined in line with our generation’s liberal beliefs on identity. The rigid walls of gender normativity are being broken down in favour of fluidity in sexuality, gender and personal expression. Menswear has experienced a significant shift in the last few years largely in response to the changing social environment.
Caring for one’s appearance is not only a subject reserved for the realm of the womanly. In support of the growing market for Menswear labels, NewGen Men was established in 2009 to nurture young talent. In our interview with Course Director for MA Fashion at CSM, Fabio Piras, last year, he admitted to be increasing the numbers of menswear on the MA. “In fact, the applications for menswear this year are beyond anything that one could ever imagine. The energy of London Collections: Men and the fantastic success of Craig Green [who graduated from the MA in 2013] are partly responsible for that.” The last two winners of the L’Oréal Professionnel Creative Award at the CSM MA show, John Skelton and Harry Evans, were both Menswear Designers. This says a lot about the burgeoning creativity and interest towards menswear in response to the growth of the market.
Luxury designers like Jean Paul Gautier, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo have a long tradition of creating long shirts or skirts paired with tailored jackets and other structured pieces in their mens collections. Menswear labels like Hood By Air or Gypsy Sport continue this tradition by pushing skirts and other traditionally female-exclusive clothing to men with more accessible price points and mainstream appeal. Light materials in vibrant colours like pinks, yellows and oranges are spotted down the runway of mens shows, alongside looks embellished with traditionally feminine elements like floral motifs, lace and bows — modelled by a mix of men and women.
While things like strappy six inch stiletto heels may always remain in the realm of the pain tolerant woman, it may be safe to suggest that the relationship between Menswear and Womenwear is no longer expressed as contrasting boundaries, but rather as a gradient.
Words, photography and styling Lydia Chan