Photographed by Inez and Vinoodh, Vogue, August 2017
Midway through Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, a startling transformation takes place: Our hero, Duke Orlando, awakens from a seven-day slumber to find that he has switched genders. “Orlando had become a woman,” Woolf writes, “but in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.”
He becomes they. The pronouns shift, but the person remains the same. Woolf’s words, written in 1928, could easily be mistaken for a manifesto posted yesterday on Tumblr, the preferred platform for the growing cohort of “fluid” young people who, like Orlando, breezily crisscross the XX/XY divide. Fashion, of course, has taken note of the movement, which is sufficiently evolved to boast its own pinups, including , recently the star of a Louis Vuitton womenswear campaign, and androgynous Chinese pop star (and muse) Chris Lee. But where, exactly, is someone neither entirely he nor she meant to shop? And how, exactly, is such a person to be defined?
“They don’t want to be defined,” says , creative director of Balmain, one of the many designers taking inspiration from the trend. “You see boys wearing makeup, girls buying menswear—they are not afraid to be who they are. This category or that category—who cares? They want to define themselves.”
Watch Gigi Hadid Rank Taylor Swift Songs, Paint, and Play Volleyball:
This gender-bending approach to fashion has begun to achieve critical mass in pop culture and on the catwalk, with dressing his in dandyish suits and his in floral and brocade, actress on the red carpet, gallivanting down the in a tweed blazer and long strings of pearls, and rapper posing on the cover of his mixtape in a long ruffled dress. More broadly, designers such as and are knitting their men’s and women’s collections together, showing them on the same catwalk and twinning certain looks—identical fabrics, identical embellishments, nearly identical silhouettes.
This new blasé attitude toward gender codes marks a radical break. Consider the scene one recent morning out in Montauk, New York, where the photos accompanying this story were shot: and snuggle in interchangeable tracksuits as, nearby, Hadid’s younger brother, Anwar, rocks back and forth on a tire swing, his sheer lace top exposing scattered tattoos. For these millennials, at least, descriptives like boy or girl rank pretty low on the list of important qualities—and the way they dress .
“I shop in your closet all the time, don’t I?” Hadid, 22, flicks a lock of dyed-green hair out of her boyfriend’s eyes as she poses the question.
“Yeah, but same,” replies Malik, 24. “What was that T-shirt I borrowed the other day?”
“The Anna Sui?” asks Hadid.
“Yeah,” Malik says. “I like that shirt. And if it’s tight on me, so what? It doesn’t matter if it was made for a girl.”
Hadid nods vigorously. “Totally. It’s not about gender. It’s about, like, shapes. And what feels good on you that day. And anyway, it’s fun to experiment. . . .”
Anwar, eavesdropping, pipes up. “We’re chill!” he calls out from a picnic table not far away. “People our age, we’re just chill. You can be whoever you want,” he adds, ambling over, “as long as you’re being yourself.”
This is how you can tell a paradigm shift has taken place: when a fresh way of seeing a thing seems like common sense. Once, the Earth was flat; then it was round—at which point, of course it was. Likewise, for eighteen-year-old and many of his peers, gender is a more or less arbitrary distinction, a boundary that can be traversed at will. Maybe that leads you to call yourself agender or bigender or demiboy or mostly girl—or maybe it just means that you and your significant other share a wardrobe. Either way, there’s a terrific opportunity for play.
It’s this space that fashion designers have rushed into. Alessandro Michele, whose recent have been at the epicenter of fashion’s genderquake, says that he treats traditional feminine and masculine wardrobe codes “as if they were a language, a score, a dictionary.
“I use them to rewrite a story,” Michele explains. “I find it fascinating to break and mystify them in order to reinvent them in a different way. I create space for a personal interpretation.”
Watch: Gigi Hadid on the Inspiration Behind Her Met Gala Dress:
Jonathan Anderson, meanwhile, sees his blurring of gender lines in . When he included dresses in his , the aim, he says, was “to play with new moods and silhouettes; to find newness.” Hence his surprise when the U.K. tabloids responded with wrath. “Men in dresses! Shock! Horror!” Anderson says, laughing. “I’m not sure the world was ready for what we were doing.” But he stuck to his guns—and now there’s a whole wave of British menswear designers challenging traditional notions of masculinity, including , who claims fans such as A$AP Rocky and Rihanna, and Grace Wales Bonner, winner of the .
“I’m playing with elements that might be considered feminine, but always in pursuit of an ideal of male beauty,” says. “Are there versions of male beauty that incorporate flamboyance and vulnerability?”
Of course there are: Think and , both of whom scrambled male and female fashion codes in the name of liberation. For more current examples, think of James Charles, the eighteen-year-old makeup fanatic tapped last year as CoverGirl’s first-ever male campaign star—or the gender-blurring members of the art collective House of Ladosha featured in the upcoming New Museum exhibition “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon.” Or check out the Instagram belonging to New York City man-about-town .
“Fashion allows me to break the rules,” says Shazam, 27, who has earned a fervent following for his distinctive his/hers look. “I adorn and embellish myself, play with makeup and jewelry, and just put on clothes that are beautiful. Through fashion, I get to explore my own ideas about what’s manly.”
Women, of course, have been permitted to explore different iterations of femininity for some time—men are merely playing catch-up. But there is something new in the way women now buck social mores: Conventional notions of “sexiness” are being refused point-blank. When model and actor uploaded “Break Free” in 2014, the —which shows Rose transforming from a made-up, minidress-clad, long-locked Barbie into a cropped-cut and tattooed androgyne—went viral, with 28 million viewers and counting. Suddenly the notion that a person could dwell in a state of sexual flux was a trending topic.
“When I came out, I came out as trans,” says Tyler Ford, the agender poet and activist who first found fame as Miley Cyrus’s date to the amfAR gala in 2015. “I felt like you had to choose—that there were only two boxes you could tick, and if I had to pick one, maybe boy felt more right. But it never felt entirely right. Then I read about being non-binary online, and it was, like, Aahhhh. . . .
“I’m a college dropout,” Ford continues. “I’ve never taken a queer-theory course. But the ideas are trickling down via the Internet, and they make intuitive sense to me. I am who I am, and I just want to exist as myself.”
I just want to exist as myself. This is a generation’s cri de coeur, and if technology has enabled its elevation as a rallying cry, technology also accounts for the intensity of millennials’ drive to resist categorization. Social-media natives, they’ve been trained from childhood to maintain profiles on Instagram or Facebook that can reduce a person to a list of biographical data or a face among faces competing for “likes”—or function as platforms to transmit a complex, sui generis identity.
“I have a friend who identifies as ‘all boy, all girl, all male, all female,’” says designer Rio Uribe, who is known for his party-like fashion shows cast with pals from all along the gender spectrum. “It’s like—what is that? But it doesn’t matter what it is.” Eluding the labels, constructing an identity apart—for Uribe, that’s “a clapback to a society that wants to define you.”
For a demographic so keenly attuned to being looked at, style serves as a convenient means of liberation. And so it’s always been, as points out.
“These kids—I’m not sure they’re any different from the people I saw at Danceteria or Mudd Club in the eighties,” Jacobs says. “The difference is that back then, the expression—extreme looks, cross-dressing, what have you—was hidden away in a speakeasy or a club. Today, thanks to the Internet, that culture is widely exposed.”
Young New York–based brands such as Gypsy Sport, , , and are doing the same thing—striking out from the safe space of the club to bring their anything-goes ethos to the runway and the street.
Millennials like Gigi Hadid have taken this new freedom to heart. “One day you can be this,” she says, watching as Malik is buttoned into a bedazzled Gucci blazer, “and another day you can do that.”
Over the course of a few short years, that craving for latitude has manifested a trend that’s electrified fashion, transforming not only the look of clothes but the ways they are presented and sold. Chances are, there’s no going back—though a man in a dress or a woman who doesn’t shave her legs and prefers not to be called “she” is still an affront in many places. But if this month’s cover stars are anything to go by, the momentum is all in the direction of attitude, not gender, as the all-important marker of a human being.
“If Zayn’s wearing a tight shirt and tight jeans and a big, drapey coat,” Hadid says, “I mean—I’d wear that, too. It’s just about, Do the clothes feel right on you?”
Malik shoots Hadid a tender look and joins the conversation.
“With social media, the world’s gotten very small,” he says, “and it can seem like everyone’s doing the same thing. Gender, whatever—you want to make your own statement. You know? You want to feel distinct.”