The Use of Androgyny Model in Fashion Campaign

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Gender has been a topic of great concern since late-19th century. The gender liberation movement one after another drove the reform and development of people’s ideas towards masculinity and femininity. From then on, the new idea of breaking the gender barriers and the traditional consciousness to maintain the patriarchal gender balance has become a main conflict. After a bumpy confrontation process, according to Jo B. Paoletti in the book Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution,

Today’s more accepting climate has made it possible for them to be much more open personally and creatively, which in turn has brought discussions of gender expression to the forefront once more. Whether it is transgender runway models or lines of ready-to-wear clothing expressly for butch lesbians and androgynous straight women, the market is responding to the demand for options. (Paoletti, 2015, p.165)

Androgyny style, which is appreciated by more and more brands and designers, has become a representative that confronts traditional gender binaries. In the meantime, androgynous model, who is the best candidate of presenting androgyny style, becoming the darling of fashion market. However, look across the campaign which androgynous model participates in, always makes me feel confused. The fact is, if I had not known the models before, I can hardly tell they are androgynous models, because they performed so convincingly a particular gender, and no sign of gender dissidence. It was not often to see the model in campaign showed both masculinity and femininity at the same time. Usually, they seem to be required to perform a role of specific gender (especially the opposite gender). If so, how can they be called androgynous models? Why advertisers did not directly use heterosexual models to play cross-dressing? This phenomenon makes me think of marketing strategy, which is the gender-washing of androgyny.

Androgyny has appeared as a phenomenon in Western culture for some time. Famous artist Marcel Duchamp collaborated with photographer Man Ray, constructed a female character Rrose Sélavy, which was also a feminine ego portrait of Duchamp himself. Although Rrose always wore feminine fur coat and velvet hat in the photograph, Man Ray still let Rrose retain the masculine facial feature such as long nose and angled jawline, which highlighted the characteristic of androgyny visually. Amelia Jones noticed that it was interesting to note that in the parallel time Rrose was firstly created, women activities fighting for social, economic, and political rights were in intense moments (Jones, 1995).

Moreover, as Dr. Nihan Akdemir said in the article Deconstruction of Gender Stereotypes Through Fahion, the 1960s and 1970s are a time when feminism and gay rights movements were fighting for a voice, also the era of gender stereotypes were questioned and dispelled, and at the same time, ‘the fashion industry reacted to these movements’ (Akdemir, 2018, p.186). It is hard to assert that these sexual revolutions directly promoted the emergence of androgyny style in modern Western society, but as the female liberation movement broke the gender stereotype, the gender boundaries gradually blurred in many senses. There is no doubt that women have gained more freedom to dress androgynously or show the androgyny in their character since then. Women started to wear trousers and cut their hair short, which took the first step to androgyny style in female fashion. With the passage of time and the combination with the development of fashion industry, unisex style was born.

In 1965 Vogue reported that the basic master patterns (caked “slopers”) for the trendiest designers had also changed. Not only was “the look” slimly androgynous, but so was the body for which it was designed. The new ideal body had a small, high, wide-set bosom and slender, almost preadolescent hips. (Paoletti, 2015, p.43)

In this way, traditional hourglass female figure was no longer as popular as before in the fashion industry. Correspondingly, models who have androgynous appearance were increasingly began to be selected to enter the fashion market. According to Paoletti, ‘unisex fashion were most effective on androgynous bodies’ (Paoletti, 2015, p.44). Their flattened body figure and neutral face become the perfect showcase of garments. Besides, their unique and captivating temperament attracted a lot of attention, as well as aroused people’s curiosity when they first appeared. It seems that the appearance of androgynous model represents the breakdown of gender boundaries in fashion market and established the new values of gender fluidity.

However, today’s society is still under the control of the patriarchal system. According to Judith Butler, ‘Gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceede; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts’ (Butler, 1988, p.519). In her theory, ‘gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender creates the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all’ (Butler, 1988, p.522). During the development of human patriarchal society, the repeated acts of being female or male, has laid a solid foundation for the binary system of gender after hundreds of years. Even if gender is not innate but acquired, it has gradually become the instinct of people in the accumulation over time and the inheritance of culture.

Suppose that gender is being performed and people regard these performances as codes of conduct, everyone is taught to act their gender according to the standard from birth, then the person who does not act out will likely to be treated as an outcast. As one of the basic notions of human society, the binary system of gender has invisibly assigned respective roles and responsibilities to men and women from the beginning, and constrains people like a law. ‘Hence, as a strategy of survival, gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences’ (Butler, 1988, p.522). Those who violate the gender rules will be punished, and over time people will subconsciously believe that these people should be punished. In real life, the punishment is manifested as being marginalized and excluded by the masses. Although more and more people are protesting against the traditional gender schema due to the freedom of society and the improvement of personal consciousness, it is impossible to completely subvert or broke down the gender binaries in today.

Popular as a fashion style in Western society, the new trend of androgyny only affect a small percentage of people compared to the whole population of society. After all, androgyny is out of the gender binaries and challenges the stability of society which brought about by the gender binaries. As June Singer mentioned, androgyny is a state of consciousness far from ordinary, which therefore threatens many people’s state of equilibrium. ‘Androgyny threatens many presuppositions about individual’s identity as men or as women, and hence threatens the security of those people, including most of us, who have vested interests in the conventional attitudes toward sex (maleness and femaleness) and gender (masculinity and femininity)’ (Singer, 2000).

Obviously, androgyny is not commonly accepted by the mainstream. The emergence of androgyny broke the conventional norms in society and brought uneasiness to the mass. Thus, is using androgynous model in fashion campaign just a capitalistic strategy to take advantage of people’s pursuit of novelty in order to gain more profits? Is there any brand and campaign that really wants to break the gender barriers by showing androgynous models? In my opinion, the answers to the question are depends at different times. In general, I am afraid that most of the androgynous models are playing the role of marketing tool. In this article, I want to have a discussion about it and take the cases of female androgynous model particularly, because female model still account for the vast majority of the whole modelling market.

In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent was influenced by the current social environment, designed the Le Smoking tuxedo suit, which sparked a lot of controversy (see fig. 1&2). Then this suit was restyled and photographed by Helmut Newton in 1975, turning into one of the most classic androgynous fashion image. In the photograph, there was an androgynous model with slicked-back hair, wearing high heels under the suit pants. The tailoring of the blazer and the style of shirt neckline hinted the feminine feature of the model. People can recognize at a glance that this was a female model wearing masculine clothes, which showing an androgynous temperament. ‘Le Smoking was a controversial statement of femininity – a sexuality that did not rely on ruffles or exposed skin, but instead smouldered beneath the sharp contours of a perfectly cut jacket and trouser’ (Wrigley, 2012).

Obviously, Le Smoking suit was designed for revolutionizing the way women dressing, it took the form of men’s tuxedo but was tailored to born as a new kind of style for women. Although it came from masculinity, I consider the designer still wanted to show the feature and sexiness of women. Combined with the masculine characteristic and different from the traditional sense of female seduction, this style of sexiness was self-reliant, ascetic and even unapproachable. All reveries were hidden under the neat tuxedo suits. It was very avant-garde and enlightened, which broke the dressing stereotype of gender and created a new sexiness of androgyny that applied on female body.

The model did not give viewer the feeling of performing a male role in this series of photographs. She had her left hand in her pocket and a cigarette in her right hand. The posture was moderate, with both a little toughness of male and the elegance of female. These pictures first show the viewer a classic image that a model wearing the le smoking suit, which looks androgynous, and then may motivate people to think about the gender information that the pictures want to convey. The model shows a mixed feature of femininity and masculinity, but never let the viewers feel confused about her own biological sex, which means she was not guided to perform as a man.

Even this androgynous model was shot with a naked female model in another photograph of the same series, she still did not play the role of a male. The atmosphere may be ambiguous between the two roles in the picture, however, since the androgynous model is androgynous rather than masculine, the relationship between the two roles was not a binary sex relationship. It is not like the campaigns and publicity photographs we usually see which materialize female’s nudity or emphasize the relationship between male and female. The nude female model seems to be the foil to the masculinity of the androgynous model. Whereas, it also seems to imply that the nude female model will become the androgynous model when she puts on the le smoking suit, or that the body under the appearance of androgyny is a female. The image of the two models suggests the relationship between androgyny and femininity, which is closely linked.

In 2013, Yves Saint Laurent Spring Summer menswear collection campaign was modeled by a female model, Saskia de Brauw. Compared to the photography by Newton in 1975, people can hardly find out that this was a female model in the picture. One side of Saskia’s face was hidden in the shadows and she just looks like a young man, thin and a little decadent, which is typical of modern youth. It is worth noting that she mimicked the posture and gesture of men we often see in daily life. Whether she was spontaneous or being guided, it could not be said that this is an unintentional behavior. If viewers already knew she was a female model, then what she was performing, or what the picture is showing, is that a woman convincingly imitated a man.

Trendland Magazine editor Katrina Tan described that ‘The unexpected model choice is nonetheless brilliant and even brings another deft dimension to the pieces, as yes, menswear has been a domain the most fashionable women have been flirting with for centuries’ (Tan, 2013). However, as a viewer, it is confusing that if people do not even know that this is a female model, how can the campaign be brilliant? The ordinary viewer is unlikely to think about androgyny, not to mention whether the use of model brought another dimension to the pieces or not. Because the androgynous model here completely performs as a man. The gender information in the campaign is only promoted through the media such as Internet or magazine, and viewers can only know about the fact by doing research. For this reason, the use of female model showing menswear visually does not convey androgyny at all.

But on the other hand, as Francette Pacteau said, androgynous figure ‘can only exist in the shadow area of the image; once unveiled, once we throw a light on it, it becomes a woman or man’ (Pacteau, 1986 cited in McCartney, 2018). It seems to assent the gender disguised and believe that once androgyny is exposed to the public, it tends to show one of the genders in gender binaries. It emphasizes the ‘drag’ of gender, but actually further separating the gender binaries and limiting the categories of gender. Pacteau’s theory suggested that, visually there must be boundary between male and female, and no transition between these two genders, also no categories out of them. I think one of the reasons for the formation of Pacteau’s theory is that people usually only see one side of the androgyny. Androgyny is a relatively three-dimensional figure, a single layer may not interpret it well.

From this point of view, modern campaign is actually able to make androgyny step out of the shadows. The widespread application of electronic media has led to the rise of campaign in the form of video and short films. Dynamic campaign can show the model in all directions, so that their image is no longer static and single-sided, which can explain androgyny and the gender fluidity to the viewer better. Even for static advertising photography, more advanced shooting techniques and methods can better display the androgynous model than before. Therefore, whether androgynous model can be fairly represented remains as an artificial problem, which depends on the control by advertisers.

In today, androgynous female model generally play a role of male, and their own biological gender seems to be another disguise. Swedish label Crocker let the female model Erika Linder play both female and male role simultaneously in their SS14 campaign (see fig.5). Erika Linder, is famous as acting as masculine figure in campaigns and has always performed a male role in the public eye. In this campaign video, a young man walked into the photography studio, and a pretty woman leaned against the wall and watched the young man walked in. Then the young man sit down and disrobed, with the help of hair and makeup team, transformed into the woman who just appeared. At the end of the video come the campaign slogan “Come as you are, whatever you are”.

The video shows the whole process of Erika Linder changing from a male to a female to the viewer. The word “whatever” was written in lipstick on her chest, then smudged and rubbed out by her hands casually. The campaign conveys an attitude that young people should not be afraid to be themselves. ‘“By starring Erika as the model for both male and female styles, we want this collection to inspire creativity and confidence as we set out to break new boundaries within the fashion industry,” the brand says’ (Bazilian, 2014). Undoubtedly, the video as a means of publicity has achieved great success, the gender transformation was so compelling and left a deep impression on viewer. However, the reason why I mention “disguise” at the beginning of this paragraph is that the male role played by the androgynous model in the campaign is too convincing.

Because Erika Linder has a great appearance as playing a male, she is always arranged to cast as a man in all kind of advertising. So when people see her female figure, they may feel like she is acting as a female. After all, her male image is more impressive and persuasive to the viewers because not only her face but also her body looks masculine. Although physiologically her body is female, being known as a male image does not fit the definition of an androgynous model. The absence of femininity makes androgyny identity incomplete and untenable. ‘In the theological discourse femininity is fake. It is duplicitous. In the psychoanalytic discourse femininity is masquerade. It is socially constructed. Implicit in both approaches is the issue of authenticity, or the relationship between appearance and essence.’ (Tseëlon, 1995, p.34) Whether femininity is masquerade or not, it is part of the inseparable essence of androgyny.

The authenticity of androgyny is the combination, and the fluidity between masculinity and femininity. When the concept of androgyny is applied to the fashion advertising, its authenticity is reflected through appearance, which means the viewers are able to see the essential elements of androgyny. Even though the viewers do not know the biological gender of the model, they can see the androgyny from her/his appearance. In Crocker’s campaign, the two genders being performed were so convincing, because these are the traits that Erika Linder already has as her androgyny. However, the campaign made her femininity and masculinity, which were supposed to be integrated, were separated.

In this respect, the display of androgyny in this advertisement is a failure. On the other hand, the gender transforming in the campaign video was absolutely unusual. To sum up, it was more like a means of attracting people’s attention with doing unconventional. People can accept the idea of being themselves easily, but it is hard to say the brand really convince their customers with the new values of gender fluidity which conveyed in the campaign. Linder once talked about her experience during a shooting with Urban Outfitter:

I did this shoot where I was a girl and a boy in the same one. And when I saw the pictures I was like, ‘oh my god.’ I’m used to seeing myself as both a guy and girl but both in one frame…I don’t get it. It was weird. ……I actually saw it for the first time when I was at a theatre waiting for a movie to start. It’s playing and I hear this dude behind me say, ‘You can totally tell that’s a guy.’ (Linder, n.d.)

The record did not mention which shoot it was, but it exposed a general problem that if viewer could not see the process of transforming, the dressing and makeup made it impossible for them to distinguish the original gender of model. And when the model dresses in masculinity, in most of these cases, people tend to believe that the model is a man in itself. For the viewers, it was unusual to see Linder having a female figure in the public eye. Because Linder was casted as a male model since the beginning of her modeling career, played a female role looks like ‘his’ drag in front of the camera.

In 2016, Linder admitted in an interview that she did not want to be a guy, and looked forward to do something more feminine stuff. But it was hard, according to Linder, ‘People want to put a label on to me to make themselves feel safe in their own gender roles’ (Linder, 2017). People just saw Linder as a guy after few years she shooting as a guy (Petrarca, 2016). Even though Linder enjoys both girly and mannish shooting, most viewers will probably accept only one of her gender images. In my opinion, people may more accepting for her male look because she will become a threat when her own biological gender is revealed. It challenges the gender roles in traditional patriarchy, enables female to have the male appearance and play the male role.

Let alone the cross-dressing she performed in Crocker’s campaign, which further disrupts the gender binaries. ‘The theory of psychological androgyny assumes that an androgynous person is not locked into rigid sex-role standards of behavior and can behave in a flexible manner according to the needs of a specific situation’ (Hall & Taylor, 1985; Locksley & Colten, 1979 cited in Jaffe, 1994, p.469). In this way, what Erika Linder presented in the Crocker campaign seems to convey the definition of androgyny. However, it is tricky that the campaign still emphasizes a female and a male image in the end. Although viewers know the two roles both played by the same person, in the final analysis, they were limited to the gender binaries by the campaign.

The company may realize the importance of breaking gender boundaries, as well as the trend of showing gender fluidity, while in the market it did not work that well because most of the customers still conform to the traditional gender roles. Whether it is cisgender male or female customers, who are still the main customer groups in the market, the scene such as cross-dressing more or less alienates them. It is hard to immersing them in the theme deeply, which may leave the campaign only a surface of novelty and lose its essence. But with the liberation of people’s minds, the appearance of this campaign is still meaningful. It provides further inspiration to viewers and increase their acceptance of gender fluidity or gender queer, which is unique and thought-provoking.

In addition, another female model Rain Dove, who is also active in casting as a male model because of her extreme masculine face, seems more controversial to the viewer. Dove claimed herself as a gender activist and committed to challenge gender stereotypes. She walked the runway in both womenswear and menswear, posted comparison photographs on the social media as she dressed in male and female clothing separately in the same scene. Her masculine face and 36DD breasts formed a strong visual contrast, which often shocked people at the first sight. Compared to her female figure, people seem much more acceptable for her male figure, which is similar to Erika Linder who has been mentioned in the previous paragraph.

In spite of Dove feels empowered with wearing womenswear, she knows it is a form of activism when she walks down the street and wearing the dress (Dove, 2015). Dove want to draw people to think, and there were indeed many people who responded to her and supported her on social media. However, as Dove said, it was hard for fashion industry changing to ‘accommodate gender’ because there were still some people and designer persist in believing it was just a fad (Dove, 2017). Besides, the “genderless” that many designers and brands boasted are actually shinny cover of marketing strategy. The patriarchal society today will not fully tolerate or accept the existence that threatening their interests.

As a result, fashion businesses find a knack for using illusion of androgyny or gender fluidity to create balance between politics and the market. Even though there are quite a lot popular taglines and slogans which guide and enlighten people, gender remains a complex barrier. And there are still many people think the stereotype is inherent. In any cases, the gender binaries still dominates the mainstream. It is difficult to surmount, especially for the commercial market that closely linked to politics and economy, which symbolize the fundamental norms of patriarchy that developed through the ages of human society. The androgynous female models I mentioned above, are working hard to convey and promote their positive attitudes towards gender identities. However, most people don’t have a clear idea of androgyny, and many of them may still simply think that androgyny is just a man who looks like a woman or a woman who looks like a man. Advertisers take advantage of this, blurring the concept and making it attractive in ambiguous ways.

The review articles in various media also like to include words that describing gender binaries in the headlines or the main content to judge androgynous model. In real life, except for gender binaries, there are many other alternatives (Paoletti, 2015). As Paoletti said, ‘Because it still relies on sorting personality traits into “masculine”, “feminine,” or “neutral,” it hangs on a skeleton of binary gender stereotypes. The malleability of these categories reveals their artificiality’ (Paoletti, 2015, p.168). Psychologically speaking, I suppose in the first place androgyny models should be regarded as human, who have both characteristics of masculinity and femininity, rather than classifying and defining them through their biological sex from the very beginning.

Although physically those models should be divided into male and females, if viewers persisted in revealing the original biological sex of model, it is easy to think that the models are acting out the gender, thus being limited in the gender binaries. The publicity in fashion advertisements should probably not overemphasize and guide people to pay attention to the biological sex of models. Many advertisers create personas for androgynous model, use their distinctive traits to create topics, or simply make use of their appearance to play a reversed binary gender role. If gender is performative, then androgyny should has its own set of repetitive acts to be performed, which corroborates the theory of gender is being constituted by Butler. But apparently most of the advertisers do not do that, they are still using androgynous models to perform either male or female.

This phenomenon inevitably raises my doubts about the brand’s true attitude towards gender politics. Whereas, there may have some brands and designers who genuinely make efforts to do something and wish to break the gender binary from the perspective of fashion, which I believe eventually their efforts will not be in vain. Nonetheless, androgyny in all senses, which is mostly represented by androgynous models in fashion industry, probably still has a long way to go.

As I discussed above, using androgynous model in fashion campaign mostly looks like a marketing strategy. Although there may exist some brands really involved in gender politics, generally androgyny is positioned as a trend. In most cases, those androgynous models play the role of marketing tools which attract people’s attention and create a topic over a period of time. Even though from the perspective of model themselves, quite a lot of them are pioneers who break through the gender barriers or fight for gaining gender identity, and creatively active in the androgynous campaign production, ‘models have less control over the terms under which they are represented.’ (Entwistle & Wissinger, 2013).

The information that models want to convey to people through commercial campaign is still very limited. Nevertheless, as Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wissinger summarized in their book Fashioning Models, modelling not only services the capitalist imperative to sell things to customers, its practices also help forming our comprehensions and perspectives that look at identities (Entwistle & Wissinger, 2013). Gender equality and diversity demonstrated by androgynous models may not only encourage people who struggle with breaking traditional gender barriers, but also help ‘a new generation of men and women raised to be unrestricted by gender stereotypes’ (Paoletti, 2015, p.107), because obviously young people are more affected by androgynous models. Moreover, fashion revolutionaries are not interested in male feminization or female emasculation in nowadays, but rather to blur the divide between female and male, and eliminate these labels (Akdemir, 2018), Dr. Nihan Akdemir said, ‘and it means gender fluidity in fashion’ (Akdemir, 2018, p.187).

This may probably support the idea that those androgynous models have been manipulated to form marketing tools in the fashion industry in order to sound out or even challenge the boundaries of gender. ‘The manifestations in contemporary fashion are the most striking and evolved sign of the disruption of the supposedly natural order and opposition of the sexes, as well as of the social changes occurring in its wake’ (Mauries, 2017). Fashion is at the vanguard of promoting gender reform. At this stage, androgyny and unisex are the main trends, which bring out the notion of gender fluidity and non-binaries. Even some fashion companies only take this concept as marketing strategies, the contents related to gender revolution in the campaign inevitably have an impact on viewers and society. That is, whether it is gender-washing or not, as a result people are instilled with some innovative ideas about gender identity. In the long term, ‘agender, genderless, cisgender, transgender, intersex, non-binary, gender fluid, genderqueer, third gender, transmasculine, trasfeminine – the idea of gender, and even more the idea of an identity that is stable, fixed and unchanging, has dissolved in a fluid tide of acronyms and individualities’ (Mauries, 2017).

In January 2017, there was an entire issue about the sociological phenomenon of “gender revolution” devoted to National Geographic magazine, which concluded that ‘People today – especially young people – are questioning not just the gender they were assigned at birth, but also the gender binary itself’ (Mauries, 2017). Half of a thousand of 18 to 34 years old millennials who took part in a recent survey think gender can be likened to a spectrum, with some people going beyond those traditional and conventional categories (Mauries, 2017). It can be seen that there are subtle influences of culture, combined with various media, has a more pronounced impact on the younger generation. As for the dissertation, androgynous models can be described as fine examples.

Their distinctive appearance as a compelling first impression is very likely to attract viewers’ sustained attention or arouse their curiosity of gaining insight. Even if in my point of view, the fashion marketing mostly uses androgynous models in campaign as an advertising strategy for selling, the social influence they bring out intentionally or unintentionally is significant. Joan Riviere considered that ‘Women who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men’ (Riviere, 1929, p.128). Androgyny may also put on a mask of either femininity or masculinity to avert anxiety and the exclusion from patriarchy. In my opinion, androgyny is coming into the public view in a subtle way. Although most of fashion campaigns use androgyny element to attract people’s attention, this concept is gradually seeping into viewers’ consciousness more or less.

Just as I don’t think all of the fashion campaigns positively using androgynous models, I don’t think all of the viewers will understand and accept androgyny as well. But in any case, androgynous models, or people of this kind, can inform the public of their existence through the platform of fashion advertising and show their importance and influence on breaking the gender barriers. From this point of view, the fact that the fashion advertisers choose to let them cast in campaigns has already helped to spread the concept of androgyny. Even if their real purpose may just commodification, it is possible for viewers to gain new insights on their own. The use of androgynous model in fashion campaign has indeed brought impact on society. Fashion industry is the cradle of the gender revolution. I hope that in the future, androgynous models will not be treated as marketing tool because of their non-binaries gender and appearance, what is more, the queers who fall out from the conventional gender categories can be equally regarded as ordinary people in our society.


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Cite this paper

The Use of Androgyny Model in Fashion Campaign. (2022, Mar 11). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-use-of-androgyny-model-in-fashion-campaign/

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