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Fashion may be said to be inherently genderless. But for centuries, traditional conventions for men have barred them from many aspects of fashion. 

Even today, men’s sections in clothing stores often pale in comparison to their female-targeted counterparts. However, there has been a growing market for men in one of the tiniest accessories anyone can wear: earrings. 

From Underdog to Mainstream

In the past, earrings on men were associated with effeminacy under traditional gender norms. More recently, however, this perception has begun to change across the globe.

Earrings for men have become a key symbol of the hip-hop subculture. While the hip-hop movement originated in the US, its influence has since spread beyond its borders. Cultural variations of hip-hop from Nigeria to Korea have inspired local men to adopt earrings too. As hip-hop culture is strongly associated with ideas of masculinity, earrings on men too gained masculine connotations in this context.

In contrast, earrings on men are associated with the archetype of  “herbivore men” in Japan – a term which, while not necessarily derogative, describes men who engage in traditionally feminine practices.

Regardless of the reasons for wearing them, one thing’s for sure – earrings for men have become a mainstream trend. Today, international superstars like David Beckham, Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman proudly adorn their ears with shining studs.  

Backlash

As with most forms of change, there is pushback against the growing trend of normalising male ear accessorising. Recently, iQiyi – a popular streaming platform in China – censored the earlobes of male artists who appeared on their shows while wearing earrings. 

Similarly, in other parts of the world, those who stand by traditional norms of dressing according to gender continue to protest the wearing of earrings and other jewellery by men, citing reasons which range from religion to conservatism. 

Historical Origins

But the origins of earrings for men may date back far longer than popular consciousness remembers.

Archaeological evidence suggests that men from the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) and England during the Renaissance period (1500s-1600s AD) accessorised with earrings. Up to the late 19th century, the Ainu men of Japan wore earrings too.  

The gender-bound conventions of accessorising which we call traditional today were therefore not always the norm in the distant past.

Indeed, history tells us that men may have adorned their lobes with earrings for as long as women have.

Here to Stay?

Earrings remain an increasingly popular accessory for men internationally. Established brands such as Asos and Farfetch have listings for male earrings on their website catalogues. Multiple fashion magazines, ranging from The Trend Spotter to Esquire, have also published articles on earring recommendations for men in the past year alone.

Even with continuing backlash against this form of accessorising, it appears that earrings for men will not be disappearing anytime soon in the foreseeable future.

Which will ultimately win in the debate for and against earrings for men: trends or tradition? Only time will tell.

Girls in pink, boys in blue; it’s hard to believe that these dated notions were once deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. But as time evolves, so does fashion.

A look back in time

Gender fluidity and its expression through clothing is not all that new. Research claims that the earliest cultures simply regarded cross-dressing as one variation in human behaviour, whereas men and women belonging to indigenous tribes often dressed the same.

Throughout history, menswear exhibited heavy hints of femininity while women only cross-dressed under disguise until they publicly began embracing androgyny in the 20th century. During the early 1700s, it was normal for men to wear high-heeled shoes with silk stockings, while long-haired wigs were customary among wealthy men. 

Before the 20th century, women were shamed for cross-dressing in men’s outfits. It wasn’t until the 1920s that women’s clothing finally gained liberation and did away with tightly laced corsets, bustled skirts and puffy sleeves. Women began embracing the androgynous look, also known as ‘La garçonne’, revolutionised by Coco Chanel who paved the way for women’s trousers through her masculine-feminine aesthetic. In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent furthered the cause by introducing ‘Le Smoking’, a tuxedo look for women that became an embodiment of sexual empowerment

Thereafter, women weren’t questioned or penalised for wearing trousers again. Women are now revered as ‘power dressers’ for donning sharp suits and enjoy the freedom of easily switching between both masculine and feminine styles. However, men haven’t enjoyed the same level of acceptance and freedom for embracing femininity.

Tipping the gender balance

Alok Vaid-Menon

The gender non-conforming writer and performance artist is often trolled for their feminine fashion on social media. In their pursuit to #DeGenderFashion they stated that: “Moving beyond the gender binary means that we appreciate how everyone — regardless of their identity — is hurt by gender norms that value people for an ideal of what they ‘should be’ not for who they ‘actually are’.” 

Billy Porter

The American actor dubs himself as a “walking piece of political art”, shares a similar sentiment. He wishes to break the narrative that finds femininely styled men to be repulsive. He rested his case by adding: “I’m a man in a dress and if I feel like wearing a dress, I’m going to wear one.”  

Is the idea of gender non-conformity really that far-fetched? Studies of the collective unconscious, theorise that either sex is inhabited by the opposite sex up to a point. For a man, this represents the female personification of his unconscious and for the woman, a male one. Suggesting that these qualities don’t just exist innately but extend to our outward projections as well.

Fashioning fluidity 

Today, the dated heteronormative approach to fashion is slowly changing and a more inclusive, gender-fluid ideology is taking its place. Brands like Telfar, Gucci, Harris Reed, Nicopanda and Rad Hourani are already making non-conformist fashion mainstream. While fashion weeks are also playing catch-up as they slowly adapt to showing a gender-fluid format. 

Last year, Harry Styles graced the cover of Vogue in a Gucci jacket and dress that garnered mixed reviews. As a reaction, Vaid-Menon took to their social media to state that trans folk of colour don’t receive praise for doing the same thing every day, but they were equally appreciative of the cover being “a sign of progress of society’s evolution away from binary gender.” 

The Gender Fluid Fashion Report states that there has been a massive uptick in search interest for fashion items that have been mainly spotted on both men and women in the past year. The interest in these items spiked due to pop-culture phenomena, including celebrities like Styles.

Gender is no longer just limited to male and female — or pink and blue — but is now a spectrum of non-conforming identities and fashion is beginning to reflect that.  

As fashion trends get increasingly laid-back to suit our isolated way of life, unisex styles have found the perfect opportunity to make a comeback.

Men and women have probably shared a fragrance, moisturiser or hair product more than once during their lifetime. But why should finding common ground be limited to the beauty cabinet alone, when it can easily extend to our wardrobes as well? 

 The middle ground

A bunch of brands set out to answer this very question when they launched a series of matching unisex loungewear late last year. Brands like ASOS, Ace and Prince and Les Girls Les Boys, were quick to offer an array of colour co-ordinated genderless styles during stay at home orders that didn’t take long to start trending on social media. 

Although it could be tempting to view the conscious coupling of matching loungewear sets through a heteronormative lens, unisex fashion speaks to a larger movement at hand — a younger generation who are actively ripping up the gender binary.

 Addressing the de-gendered generation

A study found that Gen-Zers aren’t keen on defining themselves through a single stereotype but rather as individuals who experiment with different ways of being themselves. Retail insights echo this as 56% of Gen-Z consumers are reportedly shopping outside of their assigned gendered area. But unisex fashion hasn’t exactly been all-inclusive.

Most genderless styles today are largely skewed towards men’s clothing styles. As demonstrated with the matching loungewear sets, oversized shapes and boxy silhouettes have become a low-risk choice for fashion brands to place their bets on. 

Designers Stella McCartney and Regina Pyo have also introduced unisex capsules on their online retail platforms, but are playing it safe with masculine separates. Feminine styles like skirts and dresses or even details like frills and ruffles have yet to become commonplace in unisex representation. Even today, most fashion e-commerce sites continue to divide their merchandise under the binaries of men and women.

 The promising road ahead

But fashion weeks have never been one to turn down an opportunity to break gender-norms. The Autumn/Winter 2020 menswear shows were full of effeminate looks. Designers like Gucci, Loewe and Ludovic de Saint Sernine chose to dress their male models in frocks, metallic gowns, skirts and diaphanous tops

As the pandemic brought to light how outdated the old format of fashion shows were, a group of independent designers, executives and retailers from around the world teamed up with The Business of Fashion to put forth a proposal for #rewiringfashion. The proposal included a plea to combine men’s and women’s fashion weeks and de-gender them. With over 2,000 signatories, changes were immediately afoot at London Fashion Week when the British Fashion Council announced that they would merge womenswear and menswear into one gender-neutral platform. 

Across Europe, brands like Prada, Peter Pilotto and Gucci have independently opted to go gender-neutral as well. 

As fashion progressively blurs the lines between male and female, it begs the question: Whether the future of fashion will be separated by gender at all.