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The History of Androgyny

by Tillie Moore

Androgyny is no longer an unusual or unknown topic. In 2019, Harry Styles flaunted a beautiful blue dress on the cover of Vogue. Lil Nas X often walks the red carpet in double-breasted, shiny jumpsuits. Men wear eyeliner and nail polish and women style cropped hair. But where did this all come from? Androgyny, specifically clothing and appearances that disrupt gendered items, has a deep history that was brought to fruition in the 1970s.

During the 16th century Elizabethian Era, entertainment was found through theater. All female roles were portrayed by men, but William Shakespeare specifically wrote characters that cross-dressed in his plays. In the 17th century, Western society depicted men wearing wigs, tights, and lace. In the 18th century Chevalier d’Eon, a French diplomat, soldier and spy, spent much of their life presenting as both female and male. d’Eon participated in male occupations for 49 years, while infiltrating the Court of Russia as a woman.

Following the Victorian period of the 1800s, women wore baggier silhouettes, often flattening their chests. The First and Second World Wars resulted in women wearing traditionally masculine fabrics, as seen through Rosie the Riveter. Actresses such as Katharine Hepburn donned tailored suits to accompany her independent and outspoken attitude in her 1930s movies.

The 1950s welcomed two leading men: Elvis Presley and James Dean. Presley and Dean had longer, free hair, high cheekbones and expressed emotion. In the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause, Dean wails, revealing his character’s struggles with manhood. This performance opposed his stereotypical heterosexual counterparts.

Little Richard wore eyeliner, quaffed his hair, and fashioned larger-than-life outfits. In 1960, when Vice President Richard Nixon debated Senator John F. Kennedy in the first nationally televised presidential debate, Kennedy wore makeup for the cameras. Nixon looked sickly and tired, while Kennedy was tan and lively, becoming the favorite in the election.

Then, androgyny transformed from moments of boldness into a movement. Glam Rock was inspired by the 1960s psychedelic movement. This 1970s genre of music found a space between masculine and feminine. The two main proponents of this genre were David Bowie and Marc Bolan, the creator of the band T. Rex.

Glam Rockers sported materials associated with femininity such as soft fabrics like velvet and satin. Leather was contrasted with bright colors and glitter. Outfits were often asymmetrical and flamboyant, unlike men’s suits. Heels and extravagant hairstyles completed the look.

Through the 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie rejected all previously accepted opinions of gender by removing himself from the gender norms of the Earth, and creating a truly otherworldly being. He was adorned with bright, red-dyed hair, further contoured his already defined cheekbones, and wore colorful eyeshadow. He was rarely seen without makeup, applying it both by himself and with a makeup artist. His ornate outfits were neither a masculine nor feminine silhouette. Glam Rockers fell into a seamless, androgynous space.

This dramatic movement was only the beginning. Androgyny found a place for itself in music and culture. KISS’s dark, leather outfits were accompanied by omnipresent makeup. Stories depict the New York Dolls passing around lipstick like a joint. Elton John, Alice Cooper, Queen, Prince, Lou Reed, and the Rolling Stones all flourished. Men of the counterculture grew long hair, Mick Jagger was never seen without tight pants, and Robert Plant wore women’s shirts on stage.

Our culture is constantly progressing. We see masculine women, feminine men, and everyone in between. There are many more people I would like to mention, but I hope this brief history gives a new appreciation for the beauty of self expression and challenging societal norms. Current fashion is inspired by patterns, shapes, and silhouettes from the 1970s. There's more reason to it than just looking cool. It was the pinnacle of androgyny in pop culture, and I hope to see even more.

Cool reads to check out!

Shakespeare and crossdressing:

Bolan and Bowie:


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