Genderqueer fashion gets political in San Francisco

Bay Area designers combine fashion with political activism

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Tom Betts/Courtesy

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Fashion has always played an important role in the portrayal of gender, particularly the affectation of masculinity and femininity — from the wigs and powder worn by men in the 18th century, to the gender-bending styles of David Bowie and Grace Jones, and now the recent success of androgynous models, such as male model Andrej Peji’c (who models both menswear and womenswear), named the 98th “Sexiest Woman in the World” by FHM. Ford Models announced earlier this year that it had signed its first female menswear model — the 36-year-old, French-born artist and former Olympic swimmer Casey Legler. In the same month, Saint Laurent Paris signed Dutch model Saskia de Brauw as the face of its spring-summer 2013 menswear collection, demonstrating that designers were becoming more and more aware that men’s fashion shouldn’t be restricted to people who are male-born or male-identified. Nicole Farhi showcased some of her 2014 RTW menswear designs on female models, while JW Anderson’s spring-summer menswear collection featured halter-neck blouses and knee-length gowns.

Many of the most fascinating designers today are those who manipulate gender codes and affect our ideas about maleness or femaleness. The instability and shifting nature of gender means our views on what makes a man or woman are constantly evolving. In 1990’s “Gender Trouble,” Judith Butler described gender as the repeated performance of certain behaviors coded as masculine or feminine. Models like Legler and Peji’c bring a political element to fashion by drawing our attention to the ways in which they make us believe in the gender they perform, in effect illustrating that all gender is a performance.

The Bay Area is beginning to emerge as a capital for experimental fashion and creative gender expression. The genderqueer menswear shop Tomboy Tailors first opened in San Francisco on Feb. 2 with the goal of tailoring clothes and supplying shoes and accessories “for people of all genders.” Alex Orozco from Tomboy Tailors told The Daily Californian, “‘Be who you are’ is our unofficial motto. Many people come to our shop excited to find a place that can provide them with a look they’ve always wanted in a comfortable atmosphere.”

Fashion has a long-standing connection with the genderqueer community — the fashion industry stands out as a field in which queer individuals can excel and be respected without encountering the homophobia, sexism and other prejudices often found in more traditionally heteronormative careers. Creativity holds a special place in queer culture, which may be partly due to the fact that the arts were once one of the only spaces in which members of the queer community were welcomed and could still preserve a strong sense of self and a pride in their accomplishments.

When asked about the relationship between politics and fashion, Orozco explained, “Fashion can be a political statement. How you dress can influence both how you feel about yourself and how others view you.” However, the store is also interested in catering to the everyday needs of same-sex and genderqueer couples: “At the same time, we have upcoming fittings for same-sex partners getting married who just want to look good; it isn’t necessarily a political statement for them.”

Now, several Bay Area designers are advancing projects that link fashion with political activism, such as designer and Cal alumnus Jake Wall of couture suit line Artful Gentleman and Berkeley-based designer Cari Borja, who have teamed up with the Human Rights Campaign — the largest civil rights lobbying and LGBT rights organization in San Francisco — to promote marriage equality through funds raised by the San Francisco fashion industry. Wall is currently working with Borja and Heather Freyer from the HRC to plan the charity fashion show “Suit Up for Equality” this August in San Francisco.

Wall noted that San Francisco is a city that is not necessarily known for fashion: “From my point of view, not only as a supporter of the cause, it’s hard to do fashion in San Francisco. In fact, people don’t traditionally do it. They go to New York or Los Angeles for that. It’s exciting to think that together through this partnership, it might be the HRC that helps us take our story national and take a little bit of fashion from San Francisco across the country. It’s amazing that you can see how San Francisco is truly a leader in so many things, particularly because of our plurality, our openness.”

The increased visibility of genderqueer individuals and genderqueer fashion signals a change in the fashion industry and perhaps a fraying of the carefully crafted image of beauty we have been conditioned to accept. Those strict boundaries continue to be broken down, opening up a space to empower and celebrate the beauty in all gender expressions.

Addy Bhasin (Staff) contributed to this report.

Meadhbh McGrath is the arts editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Check her out on Twitter at @MeadhbhMcGrath.