When drab grays and minimalist attire flood contemporary men’s fashion, Harry Styles wearing a dress on the cover of Vogue falsely appears as an unprecedented, revolutionary denunciation of gender norms. While Styles’ authenticity and rejection of toxic masculinity are commendable, his outfits are merely a small-scale revival of male rockstar fashions from the 1960s-1970s.
The guise of electric guitars, promiscuity, and male dominance provides rock music with its reputation as a bastion of heterosexuality and masculinity; yet, a strong presence of androgyny within the genre persisted. From Mick Jagger to Freddie Mercury to David Bowie, women’s and gender-neutral pieces were integral to on-stage personas and did not wholly discredit the manhood of these musicians.
Even ordinary men were encouraged to experiment with clothing — sporting funky fabrics and bold prints — back then. So, how could we have devolved in the past few decades?
Fashion is but a product of its time. Examining the diversion from eccentrics and gender fluidity in men’s fashion over the past 50 years requires comprehension and analysis of social, political, and economic shifts throughout the 60s-80s.
The 60s were a hub of evergrowing opposition to social and political conventions and institutions. A streak of radicalism led to the abundance of bright colors and fixated the presence of gender-neutrality in fashion.
In 1954, the Civil Rights Movement acquired prominence amid the Supreme Court overturning Plessy v. Ferguson (the 1896 court case that deemed segregation as constitutional if facilities were “separate but equal”) and maintained momentum throughout the 60s. Ultimately, the Black Power Movement — characterized by black pride, black liberation, and revolutionary determinism — emerged from the Civil Rights Movement during the mid-1960s. In contrast to the Civil Rights Movement’s emphasis on nonviolent protests and desegregation, the Black Power Movement — encompassing the Black Panther Party, the Black Women’s United Front, and the Nation of Islam — called for dismantling white power structures as a means of eradicating racism and building collective, black political power.
The U.S feminist movement conceived a similar strand of radicalism modeled by Black Power.
Initially, the 60s-70s feminist movement focused on eliminating workplace inequality. In 1964, Congressman Howard Smith of Virginia proposed to implement a ban on gender discrimination within the Civil Rights Act but was unsuccessful in his attempt. To further assure that political representatives would enforce legal protection of women, Betty Friedan, alongside other feminists, established the National Organization of Women in 1966. However, many (predominantly young) feminists rejected the liberal premises of Friedan’s feminism that sought out gender equality through legislative reforms — shifting focus towards sexual and emotional liberation. Radical feminists argued that male supremacy transcended misogynistic attitudes — manifesting in material and institutionalized relations. According to the radical feminist view, these connections incentivize men — even on the political left — to cling to their privilege; thus, radical feminists devised an autonomous movement rooted in distinctive theory and values.
60s mod style’s rejection of arbitrary fashion rules paralleled the increasing rejection of social and political institutions. In comparison to the 50s’ attentiveness towards modesty, 60s women exposed more skin in everyday wear — rocking mini skirts or shift dresses with go-go boots — as a means of reclaiming their sexualities. To complete the look, women often wore glitzy accessories, colored tights, and Twiggy’s signature thick, winged eyeliner with spider lashes.
Men’s fashion was just as bright and fun during this time, as there was a general, widespread interest in mod fashion. Boutiques in London’s Carnaby Street produced clothing more reminiscent of nightclub outfits than traditional male attire; men wore colorful, patterned shirts and ties, and tapered clothing. The mid-60s was the time of the British Invasion (the influx of British bands accumulating chart-topping prowess in the United States) — significantly contributing to an international fascination with British style.
Vibrancy persevered within fashion as the 60s continued to foresee social and political shifts.
Protests against the Vietnam War lured vast numbers of students, leftists, and moderates in opposition throughout the mid-late 60s. Martin Luther King Jr.’s initiation into the antiwar movement only enhanced the cause’s strength, as he called on members of the Spring Mobilization Committee to help lead a march of 300,000 antiwar protesters in New York City. By the fall of 1967, only 35 percent of Americans favored U.S intervention in Vietnam.
Rising resistance against the U.S regime enabled styles to become increasingly playful and clothing silhouettes to become increasingly gender-neutral. Many young men and women who opposed U.S imperialism, capitalism, and the military turned to hippie subculture — signified by free love, sexual liberation, flower power, and communal living. Hippie fashions co-opted bright colors, loose fabrics, paisley prints, and beads to physically embody their values of peace and love and connecting with nature (ironically appropriating bohemian aesthetics from indigenous and eastern cultures in the process of doing so). Both men and women opted for long, unkempt hair — illustrating that men and women were beginning to resemble one another.
Numerous bands also capitalized on hippie culture. For instance, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience incorporated psychedelia within their sound and album visuals. As prominent voices within pop culture, these artists provide a guideline for what society deems cool. The widespread nature of whimsical colors, patterns, and styles in rock music signified that extravagance was not only normal but encouraged in men’s fashion.
As the Vietnam War protruded into the early 70s and the 60s were coming to a close, the Stonewall Riots — in response to police raids on the Stonewall Inn — took place in 1969. Patrons fought back at police by throwing rocks and bottles; this sparked a new, militant strategy towards acquiring gay liberation. Unlike the predecessor Homophile Movement (which sought out social acceptance through formal organizing), The Gay Liberation Movement took on militant tactics to combat LGBTQ+ discrimination and maintained momentum throughout the new decade.
The Gay Liberation Movement’s contributions instilled power within queer voices that would later inspire mainstream fashion’s rejection of gender divisions.
The Cockettes (an experimental theatre group consisting of drag queens from San Francisco) migrated to New York during the 70s where they stumbled upon fashion photographer Peter Hujar. Hujar photographed some of the group’s members and possessed a deep interest in blurring the lines of gender within his work; he photographed bearded men in lipstick — introducing cross-dressing into the fashion world. Additionally, Hujar photographed transgender model and artist Greek Lanton for a black and white photo series.
Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent also democratized fashion during this time — reconstructing what it meant to dress like a man or a woman. Saint Laurent introduced pieces such as the tuxedo and the blazer and often mixed feminine and masculine elements within designs. By 1978, Saint Laurent selected model Mounia as his muse — making her the first black woman in history to walk a haute couture show.
Across various levels, fashion was more accessible than it ever had been. The fashion industry profited from queer culture, clothing options for men and women became identical, and designers were more welcoming of people of color.
It was only natural for numerous subcultures to fully embrace individuality and self-expression during this era.
Early 70s glam rock musicians (Bowie, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, etc.) wore women’s makeup and clothing onstage, constructed flamboyant personas, and threw lavish musical performances.
However, androgyny transcended the glam rock scene. Despite Queen not falling under the glam rock genre, Mercury was inspired by outrageous glam rock styles — wearing glittery leotards and angel-wing cloaks.
Jagger is another musician outside the glam rock scene who concurrently embodied masculinity and femininity — dressing in white frocks with Renaissance-style collars, pencil skirts over jeans, jewelry, and velvet coats.
Even Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant took part in gender-bending. Older generations generally like to point to Led Zeppelin as a paradigm of masculinity: Plant’s skin-tight jeans, open chest, and firm stances while performing instinctively exude male dominance. Simultaneously, Plant often wore women’s blouses in the process of showing off his male assets. His ability to cross-dress without sparking doubts surrounding his sexuality epitomizes the co-existence of androgyny and masculinity during this period.
The late seventies disco scene embraced the decade’s normalization of self-expression and gender experimentation to the fullest extent. Disco originated in black, gay neighborhoods and celebrated sex positivity and creativity. New York City nightclub Studio 54 exemplified the disco scene. Studio 54 was a haven in which drag queens, gay people, and the transgender community could fully embrace their identities through metallics, leather, sequins, and glitter. Staple disco fashion encompassed skin-tight bell-bottoms and low-neck jumpsuits for men and women.
Overall, the stagnant influence of the Gay Liberation Movement and queer culture provided androgyny with a solidified presence spanning most of the decade.
A newfound sense of American pessimism characterized the 1980s; the radicalism and focus on self-expression that defined the 60s and 70s were beginning to disintegrate.
Even though figures like Mercury and Prince continued to blur gender lines in the 80s, a declining economy in combination with the rise of conservatism and neoconservatism obstructed the existence of another wave of androgyny in men’s fashion.
In January 1980, the U.S entered its most devastating recession since the Great Depression; that same year, Ronald Reagan was elected president — thanks to the disapproval of Jimmy Carter’s administration, low voter turnout, and the growth of the New Right: a conservative movement that strongly opposed the legalization of abortion, feminism, and sex education in public schools. Reagan also lured neoconservatives: a group (primarily consisting of middle-class and working-class people) that would not have previously voted for the same candidates as conservatives, but highly favored tax cuts and divestment from social programs.
The first year Reagan stepped into office, he implemented the Recovery Tax Act of 1981: the largest tax cut in American history and reduced federal spending by $44 billion (with the most affected sectors being income security and education, training, employment, and social services) while skyrocketing defense expenses. The U.S allocated $162 billion to the military in the 1981 fiscal year (in comparison to President Jimmy Carter’s proposed military budget of $138.6 billion for 1980) and Reagan planned to increase defense spending to $343 billion by 1986.
Despite the U.S recovering from the recession in 1982, numerous Americans were still struggling. Its end brought about an all-time high unemployment rate of 10.8 percent — indicating that 2.9 million jobs had been lost since January 1980.
Simultaneously, the economic policies from the early Reagan years disproportionately affected black and low-income communities. The protruding effects of slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc. bolstered wealth disparities between black and white communities (and continue to perpetuate income inequality today); this racial wealth gap made black Americans more vulnerable to Reagan’s reduction of funding for social programs. As a general statement, low-income households had less disposable income amidst the federal budget cuts — as they had to invest more of their earnings in what had previously been covered by social programs.
The economic situation incentivized Americans to adhere to the concept of power dressing, which was initially introduced by John T. Molloy in his 1975 bestselling book Dress For Success. Dress For Success advised men to wear tailored suits to increase their chances of getting a job; it was also highly misogynistic, as Molloy affirmed that men “dressed for failure” by allowing their girlfriends and wives to determine their clothing.
The minimization of women’s comprehension of fashion upheld masculinity as a standard and Molloy’s release of Women’s Dress For Success in 1977 dictated that women needed to assimilate to masculinity to be taken seriously in the workforce; the book advised women to opt for neutral-colored, two-piece suits: the equivalent of men’s business suits for women.
Despite Molloy’s ideas originating in the 70s, they did not fully translate in the fashion industry until the 80s: when designers were beginning to recognize that women needed practical attire for office work. Giorgi Armani and Calvin Klein’s luxurious pantsuits popularized the power suit and its knockoffs. The power suit even appeared in the 1988 film Staten Island, which helped solidify the suit as an unofficial work uniform and even an 80s fashion staple.
The popularity surrounding the power suit indicated that brands no longer designed clothing to cater to both men and women; instead, practical men’s attire became a model for women’s work clothing. While women were encouraged to be masculine (to an extent), the prevalence surrounding Molloy’s fashion advice — rooted in misogyny — placed men into a restrictive box of practicality to uphold their manhood.
As Molloy’s ideas became increasingly popular, he released a follow-up book in 1988: New Dress for Success. The updated edition was more specific — advising men to wear “an upper-middle-class conservative suit, shirt, and tie, traditional in pattern and design, conservative in cut and American in look.” The overwhelming acceptance of Molloy’s “practical” fashion advice was the final nail in the coffin for the former camp essence of men’s fashion of the 60s and 70s.
The persistent influence of the Reagan era on American politics further explains the polarization of men’s and women’s fashion that continues today. Since then, the U.S budget continues to allocate outrageous amounts of funding towards the military and experience ever-increasing wealth inequality today. As long as many working-class Americans are unable to satiate their needs, they will continue to comply with the construct of professionalism as a means of securing survival. Meanwhile, rich people will also uphold professionalism to revel in their wealth and status.
Concurrently, a political climate hyperfocused on bipartisanship impedes strains of radicalism that enable gender fluidity and campy elements in contemporary, mainstream men’s fashion. This, in combination with the silencing of queer voices, goes to show that it’s no wonder people mistakenly interpret a cisgender, white male celebrity wearing skirts or nail polish as the pinnacle of gender nonconformity.