Fashioning Gender

As the divisions of gender in the fashion industry continue to erode, how are student designers responding to the new, boundary-less world of clothing?

By Hunter Tanem, University of Texas at Austin

Gender and clothing have long been defining factors in how individuals represent themselves.

As the social construction of gender normativity continues to deteriorate though, the fashion industry has responded by moving in the direction of androgyny: What was once deemed “gendered” can now be worn by anyone. As a result, now more than ever fashion has become a stage for pure self-expression. Individuals can wear what they desire, paying no attention to the archaic connotations of their clothing.

“Clothing today is more open than it ever has been,” says Ockhee Bego, a Department of Textiles and Apparel Professor at the University of Texas and part time fashion designer. After more than thirty years in the industry, Bego has witnessed firsthand the change in the definition of fashion.

The Brave New World of Genderless Fashion

Ockhee Bego (Image via Thea Robinson, UT)

Growing up in her native South Korea, Bego discovered her niche as a clothing designer and took to fashion, leading her to California and New York City at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She recalls men and women adorned in “proper wear,” meaning men donned suits and women wore dresses. Looking back, Bego can more easily chart the evolving notions of gender in the industry.

Now, when it comes to normativity in clothing, Bego makes it clear that of all of her students, “not one is small minded.” Her fashion students rarely delineate certain clothes for certain genders; instead, inspiration drives their production, allowing the clothes to be worn by anyone. Other than tailoring garments differently to account for anatomy, Bego’s students focus on exploring constructions of clothing that, decades earlier, would likely have been deemed either masculine or feminine.

The 2016 UT senior fashion show, “Elements,” showcased several designs that eschewed typical gender conformity. One designer created a streetwear outfit that tied in historically feminine pieces, such as a corset and long train. Although traditionally feminine, the reinterpretation questioned what makes an item unmasculine.

Bego also mentions the curious 2017 Fall/Winter Prada collection, in which women’s button-downs were constructed in the way men’s are, with the buttons on the right of the shirt. Though explanations vary for why button position is gendered at all, Prada’s reversal of the socially ingrained constructions was a deliberate attempt to question the relevance of such distinctions.

In a nod to the Italian house’s departure from gender status quo, a senior designer at the “Elements” show incorporated the same concept into their line, tailoring the garment such that the buttoning detail of the women’s coats were like those of the men’s, making the clothing essentially unisex.

Through the exploration of gender in clothing, Bego sees design evolving in the hands of her students, mirroring the industry at large but also pushing it further. Increasingly, fashion is about self-definition through the clothes you wear. There are no gendered garments; there is just clothing. And as Bego says, “Being a college designer allows you to open doors for society, which is a great power and responsibility.

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