(Not) Breaking out of the Norm

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When I attended the second night of Fashfest – Canberra’s largest fashion show that ran from September 29th to October the 1st – I clearly stood out. It was probably because I was wearing a white Andrew Crews SS16 crop top with black tights under high waisted, gold satin, Vfiles Sport Plus bell-bottom shorts – the colours stood out amongst a largely black, grey and occasional non-shade colour crowd.

“I love your style. I wish more guys dressed like that”, a young woman sitting next to me in the media booth said to me as we waited for the show to begin.

What had she meant by wishing ‘more guys dressed like me’? Did she want more men to wear high waisted shorts, tights and crop tops? Was she talking about my hair – straightened and half tucked, half long fringe and screaming androgyny? Androgyny might have actually been it. I did ask her what she meant by style. She’d replied, “You know. Masc but fem.”

Besides being an abbreviation for ‘masculine but feminine’, I suspected the term might have meant more than just a compliment.

When you looked out from our media stage and into the crowd, you could see rows of well-dressed people. Well-dressed and, by and large, conventional. Normative. Women wore dresses, or shapely blouses and slim pants. Men wore button down dress shirts, blazers, suit pants and jeans.

People tend to associate androgynous looks to be the norm for high fashion shows of London, Milan, New York and Seoul. Yet androgyny itself is not considered ‘normal’.

Androgyny, while serving to be far beyond simple fashion sense, is one of many concepts breaking the boundaries of the binary classifications of identity still prevalent in our 21st century. It blurs the line between ‘male’ and ‘female’ and instead, represents a fluidity – almost a harmony – within today’s gender binary.

Fashfest, while a night of good spirit for the cause of good fashion, did not break boundaries. Instead, it adhered to the trend amongst most fashion industries to cast models based on normative (and problematic) conceptions of gender and sexuality.

Canberra’s fashion industry is akin to most fashion markets; it caters more for women than it does for men. Plus, it uses female models for what it assumes, or even deems exclusively to be ‘feminine’.

The most notable example of this was in the finale showcases of Braddon Tailors. You might think that having women model suits would suggest a certain breaking of gender boundaries – except, it doesn’t quite. Women have been wearing suits for decades now, with some companies even preferring their female employees to come to work schmick and spiffy in nicely fitted female suit pieces.

‘Female’ suit pieces. There is no denying that the shape, fit and skin exposure in suits designed for females differs from that of males. Feminine suit pieces are shapely, and cut in specific ways to enhance an ‘hour-glass line.’ Often the collar line is low-cut so as to draw attention to the ‘curve’ of the woman’s body.

Braddon Tailors dressed all their male models in traditional suits that made them look like they were suave, while all the females were dressed in suit pieces that made them look sultry. This is not to say there is something inherently wrong with this…

One of my favourite stylings from the finale night was a model who strutted the stage in only a blazer, high heels, long slicked back hair and red lipstick. I thought she looked phenomenal and full of power. At the same time, however, I actually found it quite… normal. Just a bit boring. Lazy. Having women wear blazers with no shirts and pants, or no pants with high heels, is what Canberra’s fashion industry idealises for a ‘working woman’.

The problem is that ‘sexy and sultry’ is what mainstream fashion almost exclusively provides for women. To the smaller sect of men’s fashion, it offers ‘suave and sophistication’.

Fashion spaces like Canberra are stuck in traditional conceptions of ‘sexuality’ as inherently a feminine form of expression. They do not break out of the box of conservative Western society’s notions of socially acceptable dress codes, and they do not encourage all genders to experiment with clothing irrespective of gendered labels.

In a contemporary global society, where youth are increasingly embracing notions of fluidity in gender and sexual identity, Canberra’s fashion industry – or at least Fashfest – to its own detriment, seems lax on keeping up to trend with a modern fashion scene.