MA Studies > Fashion communication > Fashion communication alumnus > Jiska van Rossum

Jiska van Rossum


Girls will be boys, and boys will be girls,
It's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world,
except for Lola.

(Lola, The Kinks, 1970)

Androgyny is an element that appeared a lot in fashion in the past decades. It's a subject that always had my interest and inspired me a lot. Why is that? Maybe because I think that male fashion has a much stronger design language or is more interesting and chic? Or because I find skirts and dresses not that comfortable? Or does this preference have a deeper social/cultural base?

Mass media have a big influence on the norms and values of our society. They can start important ways of change. Ideas about women as housewives staying at home with the kids and men as a macho without emotions are outmoded. But the binary division between men and women and the gender distinction in male and female stays. Our ideas about gender have changed, looking at the many studies that are even published in the more common women's magazines, but our physical expressions of those ideas have yet to come.

Gender is the social-cultural side of sex; the way society gives meaning and interpretation to the difference between male and female. In our Western Christen culture we give form to our sex difference in a binary oppostional and hierarchic way; men have something that women don't have. They have a penis and they are stronger, bigger, faster, more assertive and they have more testosterone, etc. This way of overvaluing male has let to the fact that women have less power in society and in cultural ways. Men have ruled the outside world and women have ruled the world of family and home. The male has been seen as the active pole and the female as the passive pole. Men take and women seduce. Men look and women are to be looked at and play with the gaze.
This binary and oppositional gender discourse led to a sex inequality and an hierarchy and it caused the women emancipation movement in the 20th century western culture.

Gender therefore always knows a cultural interpretation, but gender is also the idea or image that people have of itself as male/female. This does not have to be the same as someone's biologically determined sex, man/ woman. Moreover gender is not static, it is fluid (variable, changeable), it changes by time, difference in circumstances, by the influence of institutions and media. The way we shape our gender can change during our lives. Our behaviour can change, the patterns on witch we trust can change or disappear. Judith Butler call's this
"performativity of gender ".

"You as a subject do not create or cause institutions, discourses and practices, but they create or cause you by determining your sex, sexuality and gender. "
(Salih, Judith Butler, 2002, Pag. 10)

Judith Butler is an important author when it comes to thinking differently about sex and the genders that comes with it. Her work forms the base for my theoretical and practical research.
She was also someone who doubted the binary, oppositional division in men and women as the one and only true interpretation of sex difference. This meaning of male and female was created and was over and over confirmed by discourses in our society. The institutions you learn from and the media that surround us, give us curtain norms of how men and women should behave, dress and speak. Most people think that this binary, hierarchic notion of sex-roles is the only right one, but forget that in history this meaning of gender, was not so obvious or natural. The separation in two sexes has come into being, was made, a cultural phenomenon and with that no proven fact. But in our contemporary western society it is not possible to think outside the terms male/female.

"Fashion and clothing are instrumental in the process of socialisation into sexual and gender roles; they help sharpen peoples ideas of how men and women should look. It is not the case that fashion and clothing simply reflect an already existing sex and gender identity, but that they are part of the process by witch attitudes to and images of both men and women are created and reproduced. "
(1. Bernard, 1996, pag. 117)

As Bernard quotes fashion is an important medium, which creates signs and messages of how we should look and which clothing you should wear ass a man or a woman. Is it possible to change our ideas about sex and gender, by changing the way we dress and look as men en women? This question leads to my main research question, which is how can androgyny in fashion, be an expression of performativity of gender and blur the boundaries between men and women?
In my research I will give examples of how the fashion world handles the gender differences and what kind of result this has had in the past and nowadays still has. With these examples I want to give an answer to my main question.

"I always found the skirt an intriguing garment. On man it is more than an item of clothing it is a statement. I try to use the skirt in a natural way, not in a transgendered way. When it is properly balanced, a skirt is without gender. If only society was not so conditioned, then a skirt would be an essential item of a men's wardrobe. "
(2. Walter van Beirendonk, 2003)

Men in skirts? Will it ever happen? Almost every garment is wearable for both man and woman, only the skirt is still being seen as a specific female garment. Does it have to do with the specific eroticising of the male body or with the way we look at that body in this time, the joy of looking and being looked at, the gaze. Because with the specific gender roles, came specific tasks; men look at women and women watch how they are being looked at. Is it possible to change this? Can fashion be the answer to that?

I want to create a base for thinking about gender and fashion in a new and open-minded way. There were in history, but also nowadays enough examples of progressive designers as Ann Demeulemeester and Hedi Slimane, but also stylists, photographers and models who cause "gender trouble" by playing with the boundaries of male and female. Other popular examples of "gender trouble " that I will describe are Madonna, David Bowie and the CK-one advertisement campaign. I want to find out if these cases blur the boundaries of our notions of gender division. Or are they only popular because they create a new, hip and different image?

1. Malcolm Bernard quotes on page 117 in Fashion as Communication, Elizabeth Rouse, Understanding Fashion, 1989, Blackwell Science, pag.108
2. Walter van Beirendonk in an interview with Andrew Bolton, author of Men in Skirts, pag. 22