Saturday, February 12, 2011

Suiting Up: The “Boyfriend” Trend in Women’s Wear

Esperanza Spalding
If you have ventured into the ladies section of almost any mainstream boutique lately, you have probably become aware of the “boyfriend” trend in women’s wear. Over the past few years oversized and relaxed fitting jeans, sweaters and watches have invaded the store racks and our closets. More recently, I’ve noticed a few (pleasantly) surprising alterations; our baggy boyfriend items are being phased out by some sleeker and more formal (yet still masculine-inspired) garments. Last holiday season, our unisex options were promoted from relaxed jeans and baggy cardigans to bow ties and tuxedo shirts. Black dresses were substituted for black ties at many holiday parties; magazines also featured glossy spreads of Esperanza Spalding – musician and now Banana Republic model – sporting suspenders and a man’s tie. A feminine style of Oxfords also lined display windows. Apparently we’ve upgraded our boyfriends.

Despite my best efforts to not jump on every fashion bandwagon, I could not resist this look. Recently, my colleagues started to observe "Throwback Thursdays." Every Thursday, our office turns into the set of Mad Men (minus the smoking, drinking and infidelity). The idea is that the gentlemen sport suits, ties, and cuff links; and the ladies, a secretary dress, circa 1960. I, however, take this opportunity to subtly and professionally cross-dress. A uniform consisting of trousers, blouse, suspenders and a tie, is a provocative look without being overt. I do this because, aside from the excitement of dressing up, there was something powerful and sensual about wearing a man’s silk tie (remember a certain scene from Pretty Woman?). While I could drone on about how hot a woman looks with a man’s tie against her skin, for focus sake, I’ll lend some analytically skills to why and how this style emerged. Perhaps an underlying feminist movement, or probably just a little fun, I do suspect that, as with most revolutions, there’s usually a perfect storm of reasons.

Janelle Monae
The first (and most obvious) theory I volunteer is the trickledown effect. A few stars and style icons capture a trend and quickly it ripples through the masses. (A distinct example: during the Hollywood baby boom, I saw a strong co-relation between celebrities in maternity wear and the increasing amount of those flowing peasant style blouses on the market.) I have already noted the rising star Spalding’s androgynous-chic style. Another prominent cross dresser is the powerhouse singer/dancer Janelle Monae. Her trademark tuxedo has not gone unnoticed by the crème de la crème of the fashion business. Before the release of her critically acclaimed ArchAndroid (Suites II and III), she caught the attention of Vogue magazine in August 2008. The focus of the interview was as much about her style as her music. The recent Showtime series The L-Word, a program followed by all orientations, also presents a number of unisex dressers. The influence from the media is definitely an initiator; it cannot be the sole driver behind this movement. While star power can definitely help persuade a few, but I give the masses, especially the female masses, much more credit than that.

The cast of The L Word
Of course, now that I have broached The L-Word, there are some age-old reasons behind cross-dressing: the fun reasons. Whether it is to reflect one’s orientation, fulfill a fetish, or just to get that warm Hallowe’en feeling, there is a thrill behind it. The current style allows many of us, for whatever reason, to blur the lines of style by simply throwing on cufflinks, or sliding into high-heeled Oxfords.

After poking around the Internet, I realized that maybe it’s not a trend at all. (This usually happens whenever I think I’ve made an ingenious revelation.) A current exhibit titled His & Hers, at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, explores the history of gender-bending clothes dating back to the mid 18th century. For example, the website describes items in their exhibit including men’s suits, from the 1780s to the 1970s, embroidered and velvet (enough said). They also point out masculine influences on women’s suits in the 1920s and 1930s, including heavier fabrics and broader shoulders. The trouser would soon follow in the 1940s. Of course, they also mention the 1980s power suit, as women enter professional culture en masse, the masculine look (not to mention the fitness craze, so women hardly needed the shoulder pads to fill out the jackets). Finding this exhibit led me to a list of designers who have become very successful launching androgynous female lines including Thom Browne and Todd Lynn who specialize in men’s suits, tailored for women’s bodies.

While I will not pack away the stilettos and sun dresses, I very much do enjoy being a boy for at least one day of the week. There is something empowering and liberating about suiting it up. Men’s clothes, tailored for a woman’s body, projects a certain strength and independence. Androgynous dressing is something enjoyed on different levels, by different people for different reasons, and (obviously) for centuries. In anticipation of spring, I scanned the Internet and newsstands for some exciting news: the masculine inspired trend is still evident with the (ever returning) military chic and utilitarian trends. Still there, but the sophistication has slightly waned (we’re going back to those boyfriends). But it was a thrill while it lasted.

Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.

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