One of the things that got me really interested in fashion, from a younger age than high fashion and contemporary fashion did, was gender. And costume. And how you can dress not just for a role, but for a gender.
When I first got my hair cut off into a boyish crop, at the age of 11, I remember the scandalised reaction (this was long before the Deyn and no-one remembered Twiggy). My favourite was one of the bigger girls (and weirdly, I ran into the same girl at university and I am now taller and...well...more solid than her. She'd gone from burly teen to anorexic twentysomething) asking me out, as in 'ha ha you're a boy now' not 'I go to an all girls' school, I'm a lesbian'. Oh the wit of the teenaged bully. How I miss it.
I may have mentioned before that one of my favourite films is Stage Beauty. Not solely because of the beautiful Billy Crudup, but mainly because of Billy Crudup in drag. The film, set in seventeenth-century England when women were allowed on the stage again, stars Billy as Ned, the most celebrated actor in female roles of the day, and Claire Daines as Maria, his dresser and soon-to-be-rival. Throughout the film and the flirtation the two engage in, the pair are challenged by their own gender. Ned, educated in the ways of the theatrical woman from youth, admits his love of women comes largely from the way they are always beautiful, in everything they do, while Maria berates him for his lack of understanding of the feelings of both women, and men. When required to act a scene demonstrating true masculinity, after claiming that there's no artistry or talent required to act your own gender, Ned falls flat, having been solely educated in how to act as a woman, while when required to perform for an audition, Maria impersonates Ned's hammy style of portraying women - falsettos, over-theatrical hand gestures and forced intonation. It is only at the end, when the tension between the two has peaked into a full argument, that they can truly force across their own point of view, and accept themselves, gender or otherwise. At the end of the film, Maria asks Ned 'so who are you now?' to which he replies 'I don't know'. Having been both man and woman over the course of the film, defining himself by his gender is completely inadequate.
(Image from here)
As it should be for us all.
A pretentious artist character in Sex and the City said 'gender is an illusion'. Aside from biology, the confines that brings in terms of employment and advancement, and sexuality, the powers in every individual are not defined by gender. Defining yourself as man or woman isn't enough any more, and judging by the complex themes beneath the surface of what seems to be a light and simple film, it has never been. And it will not satisfy.
I have always loved the trend for androgyny, but the difference between true and fashion androgyny means that the former has often been ignored. Current toast of the town Freja Beha (featured in three magazines this week, all of which have run a 'models of the future' section) is praised for her androgynous look. Her face can vary for undeniably feminine to gamine, almost masculine. Her long, lithe body is almost completely devoid of femininity, next to the undeniably womanly shape of her contemporary Lara Stone. While those of us with faces undeniably confined to one gender or another can embrace it, some stuck in the middle can exploit this. Harness a dual power.
I have never been a huge fan of having curves. I often think it's because with short hair, a curvy figure is all the more noticeable. I've talked before about how I think long hair makes women look thinner, but with short hair there's little distraction. My shape is at odds with a plain face and boyish hair. There's very little disguising that can be done. But there is the delight of being able to assume a role, just for a moment. I've always been drawn to the male voice, the male roles in plays, the capabilities of men. I was thoroughly confused and intrigued by Orlando.
Sometimes it is intriguing to be able to exist just as a person. Not a man or a woman, and revel in the power of just being an individual, undefined by gender and the restrictions and challenges that brings. How we relate to each other, and how we are expected or not expected to live. Maria berates Ned for not understanding how to suffer like a woman, and how a real woman would fight. As someone stuck between girlhood and womanhood, growing into your gender is a challenge.
It's also surprisingly hard to be convincingly feminine. I find it hard. To be gracefully, sweetly, convincingly, positively feminine, as opposed to irritatingly girly. Girls can be bitches. Women can be too, but there's a self-assuredness that comes from being a woman that a girl hasn't mastered. I'm unsure when the magical jump from one to the other occurs, if it does at all. More definitions.
This does actually stem back to something that is appropriate for this blog; I've discovered hair straighteners. Or rather, I've discovered how to use them for curling poker-straight hair, like mine. Ever since I watched Legend and Dirty Dancing, I've equated curly hair to being incredibly feminine. It's no surprise that all the hair (wigs and otherwise) in Stage Beauty is in beautiful ringlets. Of course, it's just fashion, but Baby wouldn't have been the same without her curly hair.
So who are you now?