Androgynous models and gender non-conformists in fashion

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By Soh-Yeon Lee

The recent prominence of androgyny, possessing both masculine and feminine characteristics, in the fashion industry is reforming gender-normative standards. 

As eminent fashion designers, such as Jean Paul Gaultier and John Galliano, are drawing their attentions to models that highlight gender ambiguity, the realm of high art and culture is becoming a blank canvas to reiterate gendered appearances and a public space to express the self apart from firmly rooted societal standards. 

Casey Legler, 36, the first woman to sign exclusively as a male model, shows nothing short of displaying her individuality in her photographs. She is acutely self-aware and confident. “Being the first woman on a men’s board is the least surprising bit to me. It’s me,” Legler said. “I walk in”•it seems so obvious. I have the vocabulary,” she added. 

The way she defies gender biased portrayals, in her short hair and clean-cut blazer, creates new outlets for everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality, to freely seek their own interpretation of gender identity. 

“We have very strict ways in which we identify ourselves as men or women, and I think that can sometimes be limiting. Seeing me on the men’s board speaks to a notion of freedom,” said Legler. 

Legler’s contract to be a male model is an encouraging and a symbolic gesture for breaking gender barriers, more precisely because she declares, “I’m not androgynous. There is no ambiguity with me.” She is not disguising to fit a visual idea of being a male model. She is merely projecting her authenticity. 

Furthermore, Legler reassures that what we look like is just what we look like and it’s not appropriate information for differentiation. Her statement underscores a person’s right to be as they wish and the impossibility to be judged based on appearance. 

Andrej Pejic, biologically male, who became the first transgender model to appear on the cover of Serbia Elle earlier this year, seems to understand this idea. “My gender is open to artistic interpretation,” Pejic clarified. “I don’t really have that sort of strong gender identity”•I identify as what I am. The fact that people are using it for creative or marketing purposes is just kind of like having a skill and using it to earn money,” he added.

Van Burnham, an androgynous model signed with an agency in Netherlands, is another model of many to challenge the gender curriculum. Burnham is cognizant of her role and the industry’s blind fascination that can easily turn her into a simple spectacle. “It seems a lot of photographers get excited about the idea of shooting an androgynous model, but when it comes time to developing a concept, they are clueless,” said Burnham. 

“I also run into the problem of photographers wanting to capture me as an extreme on either gender side,” she added. 

The photographers are not all to blame. Her convincing transformations, as a male or a female model, induce a postmodern-istic visual skepticism. And appropriately, her purpose is to trigger the audiences to become disillusioned by the preconceived notion of gendered expectations.

“My specialty lies in capturing the ambiguity in gender, not the extremes. In other words, make me look like a woman who is trying to look like a boy, or a boy with a woman’s face– that’s where my strong points are,” she stated. 

Each model, who distinctly stages the idea of femininity and masculinity with varying stances, presents gender as a subject of performance, liberating normative restrictions under imaginative impressions. “I propose that in the future we will see a large shift towards androgyny, both physically and mentally,” said Burnham. 

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