With major designers such as Thom Browne, Alessandro Michele, Marc Jacobs, Shayne Oliver, as well as indie designers Clemens Telfar, Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne putting men in skirts, women in tuxedos, and making unisex clothing the trend du jour, fashion embraces the notion of gender fluidity, or a flexible and mercurial range of gender expression.
From a market perspective, gender fluidity and unisex dressing creates a more robust clientele, because as a designer, you’re selling to all people, not exclusively to women, not exclusively to men. Still, the fashion industry has a legacy of tolerance when it comes to freedom of expression. Steven Kolb, president and chief executive officer of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), told the Business of Fashion website: “Fashion has a powerful voice and I know that as an industry, we stand on the side of tolerance, acceptance and diversity.”
But how do notions of the fashion elite and curators of some of the world’s most revered runways trickle down to people who identify as gender fluid? And how does that impact their style of dress? The answer might not be what you expect.
Ariele Max, photographer, curator and New York City DJ, says, “I spent weeks looking for a queer therapist who took my insurance. I finally found someone who had Monday evenings available and we decided to start sessions. I was given a form to fill out, and on the top of the page somewhere was the section to fill in—‘preferred pronouns ______.’ I felt a wave of relief just to see that. ‘They/She,’ I wrote.”
Max, who identifies as gender fluid, and is a part of New York’s fashion, art, and nightlife scene, mingles with some of the city’s most prolific designers, and is often photographed herself, for pulling a look.
“As far back as my childhood, the idea of being a ‘girl’ felt alien to me,” Max says. “It still does. I don’t feel like I was ‘born in the wrong body’ as some might project. I was born into the wrong society. I winced and cringed the first time I heard the term, ‘act like a lady.’ It’s not that I am not a woman. I’m not saying I identify as male, either. I feel like I am both and neither at the same time.”
Max shot an editorial with artist Chris Luttrell, which captures her/their fluidity to move between genders, and seemed to embrace the aesthetic of rugged femininity or soft-masc expressions. And though Max “enjoys exploring both femme and soft-masc expressions,” she/they don’t rely on fashion to convey this notion of selfhood.
“Gender identity is not something I always express through fashion. It’s more of a feeling than anything else. I could be pulling the most high-femme look imaginable and it wouldn’t change how I feel.”
Is it fashion’s fault for not being able to serve as a vehicle of the unsayable? Or does fashion simply have limitations when it comes to determining selfhood like any other industry?
“The way I feel about being gender-fluid can be best seen in my dreams, which I unfortunately can’t take you to. But, it’s there where my self is seen the most; my gender changes moment to moment. I move through my subconscious flaunting all the elements that make up who I am as a person. I am her, I am him.”