Friday 8 March 2013

Clothes, identity and gender

Further to thoughts on Information and Gender Identity (ahead of Session 3 at DTMD 2013 next month), a friend pointed me to this article about the model Casey Legler
Model Casey Legler: is she the perfect man?

The first woman to be signed exclusively as a male model, ex-Olympian Casey Legler is not just a pretty face. She's smart, creative and says exciting things about the way we portray gender

[...] Legler is 6ft 2in, 35 years old, and the first woman to sign exclusively as a male model. She is muscular and cheery, with the awkward swagger of a rock star. Her voice is soft and earnest, and when she talks, she holds unblinking eye contact. In front of the camera, edges appear. Spikes. She juts her chin; she becomes a boy.

Fashion has always played with gender, from 18th century men in their wigs and make-up, to Patti Smith and David Bowie, through to the recent success of Andrej Peji'c, the male model who FHM named as the 98th "sexiest woman in the world". Maison Martin Margiela and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons have long manipulated gender codes with their designs, and this year JW Anderson's menswear collection featured halternecks and knee-length gowns. The most exciting designers today are the ones who cheat gender, who affect our ideas about what makes a man. And while much has been written about 21-year-old Peji´c (who models both menswear and womenswear), he enjoys, he says, a "level of mystery", and rarely rises to the debate. Which is why Casey Legler, who, at 35, sees modelling menswear as part of her work as an artist, is so refreshing. She talks. She has the vocabulary to describe what she's doing, why she's doing it and what impact that might have on the world outside fashion.

[...] This conversation is about gender, about reading a woman as a boy. "I am the person who has to introduce this. They want to shoot me because I have a narrative, and implicit in that is a conversation," she explains. "I'm not androgynous," she stresses, holding her drink with tattooed fingers. "There is no ambiguity with me." [...]

I wonder where our gender resides?  Not, it seems, the clothes we wear, not the body parts we have or our X-Y chromosomes, not our sexuality. I was at an "all-male" school for much of my childhood. I remember we referred to some boys by the female pronoun "she ...". At first this was certainly a form of teasing, the usual cruelty of children. But later and for some it seemed natural. We thought of them as (maybe relatively) feminine. Not as a criticism: it was just what they were.  I don't think it was exclusively those who were gay, nor were all who (later turned out to be) gay talked about in those terms, though there was an overlap.  It was more to do with behaviour. Not quite that they were camp.  And it wasn't about not being tough and into rugby.  (I was most definitely not tough nor into rugby, and I came in for my fair share of teasing because of it, but I was never addressed as feminine.)

It is peeling the onion again.  I don't think there is an 'essence' of gender that we'll find if we dig deep enough. I think gender is 'all of the above' and certainly some more, but no one of them can trump the others.

I also think our gender is provisional. But then I think all information is provisional, which is the subject of the paper I'm presenting at DTMD 2013.

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