Written by Hayley Krischer
Anna Kinlock, 17, was at the Brooklyn Museum the other day wearing midcalf black leather platform boots with small silver spikes, buckle straps and 5-inch heels. Fishnet stockings, a mini gray lace dress and a long black wool cardigan completed the look. Anna identifies as queer and nonbinary and uses neutral pronouns.
Winged black eyeliner was precisely drawn past the corner of their eyelid; layers of silver and gold chains draped around their neck. Anna is passionate about androgynous fashion.
They speak about “androgynous ancestors” like the godmother of goth, Siouxsie Sioux; Lydia Lunch; and Peter Murphy, the lead singer of Bauhaus whose look gained cult status in the 1980s.
Fishnet stockings and black platform boots used to mean you were a goth chick. But fashion definitions have changed. So have gendered descriptions. (Just try using “chick” without irony to refer to “woman” in the public square.)
Kinlock, an intern at the Brooklyn Museum’s gender and sexuality teen program, InterseXtions, was at the museum not long ago to prepare for the programs’ sixth annual LGBTQ+ Teen Night. Last year, they put together a talk on androgyny and queer fashion, inviting Chella Man, an activist, actor and artist, as well as handing out a ’zine filled with pictures of singers David Bowie and FKA twigs and self-described “gender-fluid” actor Ezra Miller.
They spoke excitedly about the Bowie exhibit at the museum last year. About the goth and punk movements of the 1980s, and how androgynous fashion has come from a history of people locating themselves outside the mainstream.
Despite stares and catcalls on the street, Anna is excited to use clothes as a method of empowerment. “Androgynous fashion isn’t only about looking boxy, and flow and looking ambiguous,” they said. “The androgynous fashion movement is about expressing yourself without the confines of gender.”
In the beginning of this decade, gender confines felt fixed. Nonbinary was hardly part of the lexicon. Androgyny was reserved for subcultures and didn’t have a place in the teen and tween marketing machine.
The early aughts were focused on hyper-femininity. Very young models walked the runway. A Vogue Paris 2011 photo shoot featured a 10-year-old Thylane Blondeau in heavy makeup, staring at the camera with a come-hither look.
Peggy Orenstein’s book “Cinderella Ate my Daughter,” about raising a girl in a culture of Disney and sparkly, was on The New York Times bestseller list. Kylie Jenner was on her way to creating a newer, hyper-femme version of herself with a little army of Kylies to follow.
Articles and psychological reports called for the media to stop oversexualizing and hyperfeminizing young girls. It was time for girls to go back to being tomboys, many adults felt. But was “tomboy” even the right word anymore?
The word “nonbinary” became something people asked the internet about around 2014, making a steady upward climb to present day. Gender identity has become an international conversation, especially among teenagers. In 2017, a University of California, Los Angeles study found that 27% (796,000) of California youth between the ages of 12-17 believed they were seen by others as gender nonconforming.
More teenagers overall are identifying with nontraditional gender labels, according to a March 2018 study published in the journal Pediatrics. Some progressive synagogues and Jewish communities are holding nonbinary mitzvahs. Nonbinary teenagers are choosing non-gendered for driver’s licenses.
“When we’re looking at trends that we might see in the community of youth who are identifying as nonbinary, what we really are seeing is a community of people who are just accepting the diversity of gender expression,” said Jeremy Wernick, a clinical assistant professor in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone. Wernick’s work focuses on gender-expansive children and adolescents.
“Yes, nonbinary kiddos are sort of leading the way in pushing the boundaries of those binary stereotypes,” Wernick said. “But what they’re really doing is modeling for other young people and adults the reality that gender expression can inevitably have an impact on the rest of the world if things are accepted and celebrated.”
Gender Is Over
Just because a teenager is painting their nails a certain way or trimming a beard a certain way, he added, doesn’t mean they’re going to develop any specific type of gender identity.
But still, clothes, makeup and hair are manifesting this change. Because if people don’t have to exist in a binary, then why should fashion?
One photograph that sums up the nonbinary youth movement can be found on the Instagram account of Lachlan Watson, an 18-year-old actor who stars in “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” and who, in the photo wears a John Lennon- and Yoko Ono-inspired T-shirt that reads: “Gender is over. If you want it.”
Billie Eilish, the 17-year-old whose music has been streamed more than 1 billion times, is a current focus of the teenage gaze. Eilish is the anti-Britney Spears, the anti-Katy Perry. (Though, in a 2017 Vogue article, even Perry announced wanting to transcend “cutesy” and that she was going for more “androgynous, architectural” looks.) Eilish calls gender roles “ancient.”
She is known for wearing baggy, oversize clothing and on the red carpet wears gigantic jackets and big furry pants. Onstage, Eilish is often seen wearing hoodies, large athletic-looking shorts and tube socks.
In a recent Calvin Klein ad campaign, she wore her go-to oversize look. “I never want the world to know everything about me,” she says softly in the video, gazing into the mirror, her green hair matching the color of her eyes, in stark contrast to a teenage Brooke Shields’ ads for the same brand in the 1980s. “That’s why I wear big baggy clothes.”
Eilish’s stylist, Samantha Burkhart, who also dresses Sia in unisex silhouettes and who dressed Kesha in the suit that she wore to the Grammys in 2018, simply doesn’t feel comfortable putting the teenager in a dress or even in women’s clothing. “I think it didn’t feel like who she was,” Burkhart said. “The gender stereotypes of clothing just didn’t seem to encapsulate her.”
Fashion designers, who have resisted sending menswear to some of Burkhart’s other female clients, have had no problem sending selections from their menswear collection to Eilish. “They see she’s the future of things that are going on, and there’s something really nice about it,” Burkhart said.
Fashion for All
For nonbinary teenagers, Eilish is a revelation. Zai Nixon-Reid, 19, a student at the New School, who is female-aligned nonbinary and goes by the pronouns they/them, says people often compared their style to Eilish’s androgynous look.
“It’s definitely why I like her, because everything she wears is really oversized and that’s kind of how I wish my closet was,” they said. To scroll through Nixon-Reid’s Instagram is to see a style that consists of oversize buttoned shirts and chains, but also suits and scarves and fedora hats.
Expressing themselves through fashion is something new for Nixon-Reid. It wasn’t always easy. Their mother is hyper-feminine, so most of their childhood clothes had been traditionally female.
“These days, sort of at the end of 2018, I’ve been able to explore gender through fashion and it’s helped me understand my own gender through clothes,” they said.
The moment now is that mall fixtures like H&M carry unisex lines, but gender nonconforming youth are still at high risk for bullying and suicide, in both cosmopolitan areas and, especially, outside of them. In other words, a goth androgynous person may appear, as the kids say, dope, in Brooklyn, but could easily be a target somewhere else.
Deborah Tolman, a psychology professor at the City University of New York whose work focuses on teenage sexuality, thinks this wider-spread fashion movement is, for many teenagers, about playing with masculinity and femininity “while maintaining it at the same time.” True androgyny, she said, would suggest that the binary goes away. That there is no binary.
Tolman called what is happening now “queering” fashion, because when you “queer” something — fashion, whatever — you’re getting out of those boxes. “And the point of queering things is not to be in those boxes,” she said. “Because if you keep your head in the boxes, you can’t actually think about this.”
Many Gen X parents, raised on “Free to Be You and Me,” were determined to break gender stereotypes. They dressed their baby daughters in black. They rejected pink. They read books like “My Princess Boy” and “Jacob’s New Dress.”
And yet now they are forced to reckon with having become the finger-wagging, clueless adults in DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”
“Now these kids are teenagers and young adults,” said Jo B. Paoletti, an emeritus professor of American studies at the University of Maryland in College Park, who has written extensively on the topic of gender and children’s clothing. She first started seeing pushback against the pink-blue binary (itself historically arbitrary), in the early aughts, around the time she was researching her book “Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America.” “It’s been part of a conversation that’s been going on their whole lives,” she said.
That’s at least how it feels for Isobel Middleton, 14, who wore a forest green baggy camp sweatshirt, a pair of loose jeans, short hair and glasses the other day at her house in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. She has always had an aversion to Daisy Dukes and cold shoulders. “I just couldn’t wear those,” she said.
Last summer she asked her mother, Rebecca, to get her “man pants” for a summer concert and so she did what any mother would do to please her teenage daughter. She shopped for a pair of pants for her daughter in the men’s section. They were a perfect fit.