Iconic German actress Marlene Dietrich in a white suit
A Greek word meaning the combination of masculine and feminine, visually, androgyny can mean anything from David Bowie in a spangled catsuit, to Patti Smith in weathered jeans, to Placebo’s Brian Molko in eyeliner and an ill-fitting sweater. In fashion however, it’s what happens when womenswear embraces menswear.
So many significant entries into the style history books involve androgyny – Yves Saint Laurent
’s Le Smoking for one, and the Japanese label Comme des Garçons
, which translates from French as ‘as boys’. But the way for girls dressing like guys was paved by two ground-breaking actresses – Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich. The former exhibited a sort of androgyny-light, her penchant for wide-legged trousers helped popularise them as a women’s garment, but other elements of her look, fitted sweaters and blouses, were pretty popular feminine fare. Dietrich on the other hand embraced masculine tailoring and turned it into her signature look, with the German born star frequently pictured wearing suits as intricately cut and smart as anything on Savile Row, often accessorised with a fedora.
American actress Katharine Hepburn in her trademark wide trousers
As the 20th century progressed, this style was picked up by the likes of Annie Lennox, with the Eurythmics front-woman sporting a close-cropped hair style along with her sharp, androgynous shirts and trousers. With the rise of power dressing and a surge of Japanese labels that rejected the established female beauty ideals, the Eighties saw androgyny fully establish itself as a fashion-industry go-to.
Marlene Dietrich and Annie Lennox
It’s appeared on the catwalks solidly ever since, with upcoming Autumn/Winter 12 no exception. Masculine tailoring in womenswear tends to work better for the Winter collections because the heavy fabrics often involved, and the use of layering make it better suited to the cold weather.
This Autumn we can look forward to seeing lots of oversized, but not exaggerated, suits, with wide trousers and calf-sweeping coats two of the runway’s most ubiquitous pieces. At Hermès
, Christophe Lemaire
went for the full Dietrich, with intricate charcoal suits teamed with crisp white shirts and silk ties, topped up with rakish looking hats, whereas Junya Watanabe
took a simpler, more minimal approach with neat, boyish suits cut sharply, and worn with brogues and buttoned up collars.
Hermès A/W 12 and Junya Watanabe A/W 12
At Maison Martin Margiela
the take was bold and confident in its masculinity. With sweeping coats and knife-pleat trousers in the house’s signature black, the cuts and details were more feminine that others in this trend, but the overall look was resolutely alpha-male. Paul Smith
made his name as a tailor, so it should come as no surprise that his womenswear also borrows heavily from that background, experimenting with tweed, and rich chocolate shades on his loose, robe-like coats and mannish trousers.
Maison Martin Margiela A/W 12 and Paul Smith A/W 12
But before we all jump head first into next season’s androgynous pieces, let’s remind ourselves of the dos and don’ts…
make sure your clothes fit you properly, otherwise you’ll just look like you’re in drag
wear a suit with nothing underneath. This is not 2000 and you are not Angelina Jolie
be careful when experimenting with texture and fabrics – these pieces tend to cover a lot of the body so have the potential to be visually overwhelming
think sticking to the traditional masculine palette of navy, grey and black is boring – they’re used so often because they work so well, and are timeless and flattering
keep accessories feminine, remember that androgyny is a mixture of men’s and women’s attire
stray away from tailoring when it comes to mannish pieces. A man’s t-shirt and jeans is only going to make you look like you’re about to embark on some painting and decorating.