Während meines letzten Uni Projektes musste ich ebenfalls ein Essay schreiben, auf dessen 3000 Wörter ich sehr stolz bin. Ich habe mich dazu entschieden, es hier zu teilen, allerdings da ich mein Vorstudium in England mache, ist das Essay ebenfalls in englisch – hoffe das ist nicht weiter schlimm…
Essay: Theory into Practice: genderfluidity in fashion
“Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed.” This is one of the key theories of the second chapter of Judith Butler’s essay Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory which was published in the Theater Journal in 1988. In this chapter, she questions the origin of the binary gender system – that you can either be female or male without any in between – and its currency. These topics also concern the Korean designer Juun.J who founded his gender fluid menswear label (“Lone costume” which nowadays runs under the name “Juun.J”) in 1999.
In the context of the essay the terms “gender fluid” and “unisex” should be defined. According to the Oxford Dictionary gender fluid describes “Denoting or relating to a person who does not identify themselves as having a fixed gender.” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2018) and “unisex” means “(especially of clothing or hairstyles) designed to be suitable for both sexes.” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2018).
The core purpose of Butler’s essay is to prove her theory that gender is a social construct. Butler begins by explaining that the binary gender system seems to be necessary for the heteronormative system to work, so that humankind can be reproduced since two individuals feel attracted to each other. She then defines “acts” as “a shared experience and ‘collective action’” (Butler, 2018, p.525). Gender is not only a public act, it rather needs to be public to maintain this idea of the binary system and its link to particular social rules. And thus, this publicity is the reason why “gender is not a rational choice” (Butler, 2018, p.526) and rather an individual interpretation of the same social rules (Butler, 2018, p.526). Nevertheless, these social concepts can punish. Moreover, Butler explains the difference of gender acts in a socially appropriate situation (e.g. an actor on a stage) and those in everyday life hence when a gender performance might become dangerous since it is real and inconsistent with the by society determined reality (Butler, 2018, p.527). Furthermore, Butler detects that performance and life are intertwined, it cannot be separated since everything is an act and therefore real (Butler, 2018, p.527).
This performative element is reiterated through Butlers further exploration that “gender itself is prior to the various acts” (Butler, 2018, p. 528), it is a “spiritual […] correlation of the biological sex” (Butler, 2018, p.528). Moreover, there is a certain difference between somebody who performs one’s gender and somebody who expresses it (Butler, 2018, p.528). Butler denies the existence of a true gender identity since the “true [..] masculinity or femininity” are socially constructed too (Butler, 2018, p.528).
Her final theory or rather conclusion is that “gender cannot be understood as a role” (Butler, 2018, p.528) since it cannot be changed. The possible punishment of the wrong performance is an indication that the gender identity is a social construct (Butler, 2018, p.528).
I, personally, agree with Butler on this point. I believe that the binary gender system is a social construct as well as the “true masculinity and femininity”. Still, it makes sense to me that it has been necessary for the act of reproduction, because it publically shows one sex which can speed up the process of mutual attraction. Nevertheless, I ask myself whether it is still current, since attraction does not always have to apply towards the opposite gender. The contemporary spectrum of love and attraction is broader than ever. This is the reason why I believe that in this modern enlightened age we live in, it definitely can be possible to strip away from these social gender rules and define our gender and sex in a different social context.
Breaking apart from this binary system, I believe that gender can be fluid. Through this statement the question evokes if there is a third gender and how it might look like. This questions and challenges everything we knew before, especially since there is only a small percentage of the human kind that identifies as non-binary. I doubt Butler’s theory that “gender cannot be understood as a role” (Butler,2018, p.528). According to the fluidity of gender, it can be a role to a certain point. Moreover, I believe that you can switch between the binary gender categories, an example for this might be drag queens who occasionally dress up as the opposite gender.
Looking at the practice of this gender fluidity, the Korean menswear designer Juun.J proves that gender can be a role that you put on and that clothes play an important role in this greyscale between the genders. It seems like the Korean menswear designer Juun.J sussed this theory “Having both the masculine and feminine is a part of Juun.J’s aesthetic. I use some women’s wear details and fabrics in my collections to break the border between genders.”, (de la Morandière, 2018)
By creating gender neutral and unisex clothes, he attempts to stretch and even break the boundaries of the binary gender system. He questions its truthfulness and rather uses it as a playful tool.
Most of Juun.J’s work can be translated into Butler’s language, who often uses the theatre as a comparison to illustrate her theory. Speaking in this language, one can compare the act of a fashion show to a performance, which are both clearly constructed. The models would be actors while the runway imitates a stage. Moreover, Juun.J’s designs are not specifically made for the everyday and therefore can be compared to the actor’s costumes. Usually the costumes are more extravagant and can be quite complicated in its structure which would be inconvenient for the everyday life. Also, the fabrics will not suit the demands of daily use. As an example, just imagine a housewife wearing an opera costume out of satin and taffeta while doing the dishes. In general, formal attire, which is often used on stage, is performative. Especially on formal events like holidays, weddings or formal dances like prom, everyone picks up a certain role and acts in a way they might not usually do.
Moreover, the context of both the stage and the runway, with its intention to display and culling audience, it is clearly marked as a safe environment. Nothing seems to be real, the performance is obvious in this arena-including clothing which challenges the binary norms – which can be depicted as art and therefore is socially accepted.
Juun.J, also challenges the rules of the binary gender system by his choice of models by intentionally choosing men with long hair and women with short hair. Juun.J is exploring normative expectation through body shape which is androgynous. This genderfluid body image is problematic in its cultural perception as idealistic. It is an unnatural and even anorexic image with little to no equality at all. For men it seems easier to look thinner by not putting on any muscles while it is nearly impossible for women, because their body develops more curved and full forms during puberty. This choice of models questions whether there could be a gender freed from the social rules and explores the possibility of what it could look like.
Nevertheless, this choice of models indicates that gender expresses itself through clothing. I, personally, think that it is rather the other way around: Clothing expresses gender. Clothes are made to define who you are. When talking about the act of clothing, one should define that it is very close knit with the act of choice and decision making. We choose our clothes every day, we decide what we like and don’t like, therefore we subconsciously decide what the clothes should reveal about ourselves, e.g. our gender.
Through deconstructed pattern cutting Juun.J tries to break the rules of the binary gender system. By stripping away from the body, Juun.J intends to let clothes just simply be what they are and refers back to their original intention: to protect and cover the body.
When it comes to colour, Juun.J tries to be gender neutral, by not using any typical gender associated colours. He uses neutral tones like black and white as well as graduations of brown since they work for both gender and beyond. Besides, this idea might work in theory, but as soon as you dig deeper, one realizes that the neutral tones are occupied by gender stereotypes too.
The colour scheme of some of his summer collection are rather white which can be associated with women, because it resembles light and purity, therefore it fits to society’s concept of the pure female virgin. However, apart from this single collection Juun.J usually uses dark colours and tones like black which absorb light, display power and according to the heteronormative society are associated with the male. “In color psychology, black means power and control, hanging on to information and things rather than giving out to others. Black is intimidating, unfriendly and unapproachable because of the power it exudes. It can prevent two-way communication because of its intimidation. The salesman wearing all black will make a lot of sales, but no friends! It radiates authority, but creates fear in the process.“ (empower yourself with color psychology, 2018). It is a link to the people in charge and hence in power, since a lot of politicians and bankers wear black suits as their workwear.
Nevertheless, black “always implies a new beginning. When the light appears, black becomes white, the color of new beginnings (empower yourself with color psychology, 2018). Juun.J might also use dark tones to display the new beginning and revolution of the binary gender system apart from concentrating on “male” associated colours and “female” associated patterns such as long garments which remind one of dresses and skirts.
He uses long asymmetrical patterns (either long coats or garments tied around the waist) as well as lots of layers to conceal the original form of the body. He combines elements of menswear and womenswear to create a balance between both genders. This technique is highly influenced by his Korean heritage – “Korean men started to take in the idea of ‘masculine’ with more flexibility”. During the last few years, the ideal of the asian man has changed through the popularity of K-pop (Korean pop music) to a more softer image (Elizabeth Dori Tunstall, 2018). This development can be observed all over Asia. In Korea there is the “soft masculinity” “is masculinity is a hybrid product constructed through the amalgamation of South Korea’s traditional seonbi masculinity (which is influenced by Chinese Confucian wen masculinity), Japan’s bishonen (pretty boy) masculinity, and global metrosexual masculinity.)” (Elizabeth Dori Tunstall, 2018.). In Japan the “pretty boy” ideal gets more popular “, which is mostly consumed by women, enables a play of gender possibilities by erasing the lines between male and female. Metrosexual grooming frees men to care about their physical appearance through the consumption of clothes, cosmetics and accessories.” These “warm men” seem to understand the female feelings, it comes across as if there is a new form of communication between the genders which causes mutual understanding and more harmony. They are breaking apart from the binary gender stereotypes.
This transition and gender fluidity seems to be more approved, too. For example, transgender people are socially more accepted than in western countries (“Kathoeys are more visible and more accepted in Thai culture than transgender people are in other countries in the world. “ (Wikipedia, 2018). In brief, this shifting of the Asian’s mindset and their culture results into an influence on Juun.J’s designs.
Nevertheless, he seems to not have found the “break point” (Suzy Menkes, 2018 ) between both genders. Juun.J stays in the safe area or intentionally plays to the stereotype without losing sight of the commercial area of fashion business. He still creates male and female versions of particular outfits which simply differ in their leg wear (skirts for women, pants for men). However, this is not gender fluid at all, but rather gender normative.
The same goes for his pattern cutting, Juun.J stays in the safe area: He mostly uses male patterns since it is socially accepted for women to wear men’s clothes. This development has various reasons, but the most common one is, that due to the consequences of the war, women had to fill the gaps in the industry that the soldier left. To do that, a shift in women’s clothing was necessary, because all the skirts and corsets were really impractical, therefore women started to wear men’s clothes. ( see When the World Wars happened, men-folk were away fighting for so long, that women had to step out to work in the fields and industries. And the gowns, bonnets, corsets and dresses got replaced by more practical items of clothing (fit for working in industries/fields), ie. pants, shirts, knee-length skirts (much later). Divya Rai, 2018).
Moreover, Gender could be considered as an act and everything we put on could be constructed to obey these rules. Even the wearing of a garment is as an act as we wear it publicly. Despite this, it is still uncommon to see unisex clothes in commercial high street stores. They do not fit to the common image of gender and thus to this constructed reality, so people get often punished by the society for wearing this type of clothes. Of course, again, there is a distinction to make between the more accepted types of clothes like as earlier stated, women are accepted to wear men’s clothes (like Boyfriend jeans), but men mostly get ostracized for wearing dresses or skirts in our western society.
Juun.J’s designs are his own individual interpretation of the social gender rules. He tries to find his own definition of gender fluid and experiments with the boundaries of the binary gender system which supports the development of my own project “clothing as gender identity”. The project “clothing as gender identity” will explore androgynous and genderfluid clothes and question how non-binary clothes might look like.
Juun.Js technique of layers, female associated fabrics, the combination of male and female patterns as well as the choice of neutral colors are some of the aspects that will be taken forward into the development of the project “Clothing as gender identity”. Nevertheless, in the end, Juun.J rather stays what he is: a menswear designer with a female influence who advertises his creations also for women.
Through Butler’s theories, I have come to understand that the topic of gender incredibly complex and how hard it is to define it. Her work is more relevant than ever, especially since the overall tailoring trend is developing towards an oversized unisex silhouette.
To conclude, I don’t really believe in true gender neutrality in fashion, but I believe in gender fluidity as a clothing style. Also, I think unisex clothing is the first step into the direction of non-binary clothes, it refers to a third gender whose appearance still only consists of speculation. Is it a transition out of male and female? Would it include a mixture of male and female elements or would it completely strip away from it? However, I believe to be able to create clothes that express a non-binary gender identity, we need to define the term “non-binary” first. This should be the next step towards a future without binary gender conventions.
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