Dressing Up – Fashion and the Bounds of Gender


“Fashion queers.” On the basis of her own childhood and adolescence, which she humorously described as a field of fashionary tension between “soccer and glitter tutu,” Prof. Dr. Barbara Vinken explained the principle of cross-dressing. She does not understand this as an individual phenomenon such as “men in women’s clothes,” but rather sees cross-dressing as the fundamental structure of fashion in the modern era. Barbara Vinken, who lectures in Romance philology and general literature at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, is known to a wide audience for her research on the cultural theory of fashion.

“For at least 150 years, fashion has fostered confrontation between gender-political stereotypes and sexual desire,” Vinken emphasized at the beginning of her lecture. “Clichés of femininity and masculinity are not cemented in this process, but are ironically played off against each other.” For this “queering,” fashion has been not only loved and celebrated, but also insulted, rejected, and despised, for example, as “subversive for an order.”

In fashionary “queering,” gender and class markers are not put aside to make way for new ones. “But they are recomposed and cross-cited; this is the essence of their wit,” said Vinken. “Their space is the in-between, the unsettling dissonance.” This dislocation, distortion, hyperbole, and exaggeration of one’s identity as a man or a woman, she said, fosters an eroticization taken to extremes, a heightening of allure. “With the 20th century, cross-dressing became the norm in fashion: We are all cross-dressers.”

Vinken argues that the history of modernist fashion began toward the end of the 18th century, with the French Revolution. Up until then, she said, the difference between the social estates constituted the defining opposition to fashion: “Dress conventions separated the nobility and the clergy from the third estate, and the third estate from the peasants.” After the Revolution, this estate-based society was transformed into a class-based society, with the consequence that fashion likewise made distinctions not so much between estates or classes as between the sexes: “The male/female distinction acquired a significance that it had not previously had to such an absolute degree.” Men and women not only dressed differently after the Revolution (“skirts for her, trousers for him”), but they also dressed differently in terms of gender – and this was new. “After the Revolution, ‘male’ meant unmarked and neutral; ‘female’ meant marked. Women were then not only the beautiful, but also the fashionable gender,” Vinken said.

In contrast to men’s gender-neutral attire following the Revolution, the focus beforehand had been much more on an ostentatious display of masculinity: “For pre-Revolutionary men, it wasn’t just their legs that were showpieces; they also knew how to adroitly stage the most useful member of human society.” Barbara Vinken summed up the gender order apparent in modernist fashion as follows: “In fashion after the Revolution – bourgeois fashion – male spirit stood against female flesh, superficial female dress against profound male character, reality against appearance.”

However, fashion of the 20th and 21st centuries wittily decomposes the bourgeois gender order and dress code that presuppose it and on which it plays. Through travesty, fashion shows that gender is a role. Fashion creates the conventions that define the feminine and the masculine, while making them readable as being construed rather than naturally authentic. It demonstrates that male/female is not a biological constant that can be identically expressed. Fashion thus deconstructs the foundation of post-Revolutionary bourgeois society: “For this reason, it came into conflict not only with morals, but often with the law. The gender order of these societies of ours is as little universal as it is natural.”

Vinken reasserted her negation of the notion that there was such a thing as gender-neutral fashion or that trends were heading in this direction. Rather, dresses that neutralize all body contours in this sense correspond precisely to the masculine principle of fashion in the modern era: “The bourgeois, male body does not flaunt itself; it is neutralized in favor of personality.” The epitome of this new, unmarked masculinity is the classic suit, celebrated by Nietzsche, which dresses what he called the “man of the mind” – the progressive European – by renouncing all ostentatious display of splendid masculinity. Vinken called into question yet another theorem of fashionary discussion: “I disagree with the assertion that men’s fashion of the 19th century up to the 1980s did not structurally differ from women’s fashion – that men also had the privilege of being fashionable. This seems incorrect to me, because at the turn of the 19th century fashionable men were liable to be deemed effeminate.”

Barbara Vinken then mentioned examples of how mainstream feminine fashion attempted to discard the stigma of femininity: “It did so by appropriating masculine attire. This gave rise to the garçonne as a fashion stereotype. The ‘new woman’ sported a ‘bob’ hairstyle, wore trousers, and had a cigarette in the corner of her mouth just like the boys.” This history of feminine fashion tells the success story of becoming a subject after the male model, she continued; it is about emancipation and gender equality.

Vinken cited the Chanel costume and the “little black dress” as successful examples of the transfer of the suit to women’s fashion. “So in fact, with this cross-dressing, women are not emancipating themselves into gender-neutral gray manikins, but into phallic displays of pseudo-male bodies that have now become female,” she emphasized. An example of this form of eroticization is the crêpe de chine blouse from Yves Saint Laurent, worn under a tuxedo, which allows the bust to shimmer through. Vinken also mentioned the micro miniskirt presented by Miu Miu in 2022 as a “fabulously successful, instantly sold-out tribute to this story of rebellious female liberation from all prudery, toward full freedom for the legs.”

Around 40 years ago, she continued, men’s fashion set about reclaiming the privilege – or burden – of femininity, of marked sexuality, for men. This was achieved by deconstructing the ideology of the suit, the male-neutral norm, as presented for example by dandies or by fashion brands such as Gucci or Vuitton. Colors and patterns, velvet and silk: These are now all playing a role once more for the suit. Barbara Vinken concluded by looking to the future: “Fashion can draw on its centuries-old crisscrossing, its queering, with a certain je ne sais quoi for the future.”

Barbara Vinken studied literature and earned doctorates in Konstanz and at Yale. She lectures in Romance Philology and General Literary Studies at LMU Munich. Her visiting professorships take her to numerous universities worldwide. In addition to her work in literary studies, she also investigates issues in the field of cultural studies.

Dialog in the Museum
October 12, 2023
Mercedes-Benz Museum
70372 Stuttgart

Prof. Dr. Barbara Vinken, Ph.D.
University of Munich