Oxnard teen, slain in shooting, was allowed to wear women’s accessories to school, official testifies. This was the headline of the Local section of the Los Angeles Times on July 12, 2011 describing the first-degree murder trial taking place in the San Fernando Courthouse in which Brandon McInerney was accused of shooting gay bi-racial classmate Lawrence King. Tried as an adult and charged additionally with a hate crime since white supremacist materials were found in his belongings, McInerney, now 17, shot King twice in the head at point blank range in front of a full science class of 30 students in February 2008 at the E.O. Green Junior High School. Reportedly, he was upset that King had supposedly made sexual advances in the hallways the previous day, prompting McInerney to vow he would kill King the next day.
It was the 14-year-old’s embrace of “feminine” attire and accessories like high heel boots that was the root of his eventual demise. In “Young, Gay and Murdered,” the July 2008 Newsweek cover story focused on how King would use his newfound personal expressions in unbridled manners—he excoriated girls who teased him about wearing high heels, criticized other girls’ clothes, and wanted his teachers to call him Leticia instead of Larry, to which they steadfastly refused.
Joy Epstein—an assistant principal—testified in court that, after consulting with the administrator of the school district, she determined there was nothing the school could do about King’s attire, because as long as King was wearing the school’s uniforms, he could add his own make-up, earrings, bracelets, even items of women’s clothing like a camisole. “We could not discriminate between a boy or a girl wearing those items to school,” Epstein attested to the jury.
Hard to imagine that a 15-year-old boy’s choice of feminine garments and accessories in junior high school would result in his death. Such is the power of fashion to transform—in this case how inanimate objects identified as feminine, such as earrings or a dress, could turn a young boy into an effeminate male and a threat to others like his supposedly white supremacist classmate.
While this brutal killing is one of the many possible real world consequences of “cross-dressing,” gender-bending is the latest rage in the world of high fashion. Now this once underground subculture of gender negotiations has promptly displaced the recently red-hot “fat-mania” as the mother of all fashion trends.
“The First Transversal Style Magazine” states the motto for Candy, a Madrid-based bi-annual launched in the Fall of 2009. It is “the first fashion magazine ever completely dedicated to celebrating transvestism, transsexuality, cross dressing and androgyny, in all its manifestations.” On the magazine’s launch cover, male model Luke Worrall appeared fully made up, dressed in a pink silk spaghetti strap dress, his right hand clasping a pearl Chanel necklace. Inside the issue, Worrall posed—as a male—semi-nude, showing the tattoos on his shoulders while rolling on the grass.
The hysteria began to bubble to the surface in 2007, when nightclub impersario Andre J. was shot by Bruce Weber for the cover of Vogue Paris. It simmered over two years ago, when cross-dressing and androgyny hit runway shows and ad campaigns. By June 2011, the frenzy boiled over when Barnes & Noble asked Dossier Journal to polybag its magazine in opaque plastic to hide the black-and-white cover picture of Mr. Andrej Pejić, a blond Australian twink with a slim Serbian-Croatian face. The cover depicts Pejić’s hair rolled in curlers, and he is wearing a white cotton shirt pulled behind his skinny arms to display his open torso. The bookseller feared that customers would think it was a bare-breasted woman on the cover.
When was the last time a guy with a naked chest on a magazine cover was censored? I can’t imagine that this pale-chested male would threaten the hyperbole of maleness exhibited by the pictures of enormous body builders on the covers of Muscle & Fitness and Men’s Health stocked just down the shelf.
And so fashion’s newest set of androgynous stars have risen. The ubiquitous Lea T, a transsexual Brazilian model and former assistant to Riccardo Tisci (who cast her for the Fall 2010 Givenchy advertising campaign), is the reigning queen of gender-bending. She French-kissed Kate Moss for the cover of LOVE magazine’s “The Androgyny Issue” this spring. Mr. Pejic, now dubbed the “genderless superstar,” appeared in a long blond wig alongside Karolina Kurkova in Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring 2011 campaign, both dressed in identical cotton-silk side-pleated khaki trenches, hers open slightly to show the white lace bra and underwear and his belted closed. Early this July, Mr. Pejic demonstrated his extreme versatility, wearing a black suit and tie as well as a pleated silk dress for Lino Villaventura’s show at São Paulo fashion week. Earlier in January, Mr. Pejic walked Gaultier’s men and couture catwalks.
Do these hyped moments of cross-dressing and gender-bending really change fashion in any way? Trends and fads rarely have any implications over the long-term evolution of fashion: innovative design techniques and materials do. Fashion’s cross-dressings are mere switches of clothes—you wear mine, I wear yours—and nothing more.
Decades before the current crop, androgyny professionals and she-male models aimed for their transient moment of fashion fame, there were fashion designers—namely Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent—who made clothes that crossed the gender barrier in meaningful ways that altered the cultural, social, and economic powers of their times. Together their work changed how we and thereby society view our sexuality.
Starting her fashion career just before the first World War, Chanel aimed to set women on a modern path away from cumbersome clothes with her practical designs often inspired by menswear and military uniforms. She used wool and cotton jersey, then the primary fabric for men’s underwear, as they were cheaper than silk or cashmere.
In a photograph of her being carried atop a man’s shoulders, Ms. Chanel wore a black turtleneck, flared white pants, and workers’ sandals—basically a men’s look—that she accessorized with strands of pearl necklace and giant brass cuff bracelets. Chanel’s personal style revolutionized not only how women dress today but how women could overcome the conventions that trapped their lives and the emancipation her fashions offered as an exit route.
Similarly, Yves Saint Laurent understood that fashion is not simply clothes, but clothes vested with the value system of a specific socio-economic order. For instance, woman deputies elected to French Parliament were not allowed to wear pants in the Assemblée Nationale until 1980. Against the grain of France’s patriarchal society in the mid-1960s, YSL appropriated and transformed the tuxedo and the pantsuit into a garment of utmost glamour for conventional daywear, knowing that this symbolism would give women power equal to men.
Throughout his career, Jean-Paul Gaultier knew that today’s multi-cultural world meant dispensing traditional sartorial codes, particularly the notion that any item of clothing is neither intrinsically male nor female, save for maybe the bra. With “Et Dieu créa L’Homme” (“And God Created Man”), the designer launched his menswear line with the now classic skirt-pant—a pant with a frontal flap—and various pinstriped suits with skirts. He proved his point with Spring 1985’s “Une garde-robe pour deux” (“A Wardrobe for Two”), where male and female models wore identical clothes on the runway and in the campaign images.
Assigning gender to clothes is plain silly. The Vietnamese language, my native tongue, prescribes no masculine or feminine characteristic to any nouns. As such the national Vietnamese garment áo dài (“long dress”)—a tunic with loose pants—is for both men and women. In a wedding, the bride and groom wear identical áo dài in red and blue, respectively.
What’s really silly about fashion’s current infatuation with cross-dressing (and its identical twin androgyny) is that the idea merely appertains to the surface and not the depth of a human. It is about looking trendy rather than a real attempt to foster changes in ideals and perceptions. Worse, an androgynous male model wearing a women’s outfit for a magazine cover may receive hype, but a teenage boy sporting feminine garments in real life got him killed.