Exploring Androgyny Through Fashion and Beauty

Exploring Androgyny Through Fashion and Beauty

by Nikola Marković - January 2023

Since the beginning of the last decade, pages of fashion magazines have been overwhelmed with the enchantment of androgyny. The decade started with the cover of the March issue of Vogue Germany (2010) shot by Karl Lagerfeld being dedicated to androgynous dandy celebrities, while The September issue of Vogue Paris (2010) was devoted solely to androgyny. Androgyny has thus peaked in mainstream culture, with ‘androgynous dressing’ spreading from TikTok’s creation of the fem-boy, to high-profile celebrities like Harry Styles, Jayden Smith, Ezra Miller, Tilda Swinton, Kristen Stewart, or Billie Eilish who strut down red carpets resisting traditional notions of feminine and masculine. In this article, we explore the meaning and the long history of androgyny mainly in relation to fashion and beauty.

Meaning of Androgyny

To precisely define androgyny is a slippery slope – perhaps because its meaning kept morphing during its long history. Androgyny simultaneously denotes the state of being neither specifically feminine nor masculine, as well as a blend of what is traditionally defined as male and female characteristics. An androgynous person is often defined as someone who does not fit into culturally defined expectations of masculinity and femininity. Historically, the ‘androgyne’ has tended to treat categories of ‘males’ and ‘females’ as social, psychological, or moral constructs. It is important to note that it is not adequate to equate androgyny with any sexual orientation or gender identity.

Online Etymology Dictionary points out that the term androgyny derives from Ancient Greek: ἀνδρόγυνος, from ἀνήρ, stem ἀνδρ- (anér, andro-, meaning man) and γυνή (gunē, gyné, meaning woman), through the Latin: androgynus. According to Marian Rothstein’s book that tackles the history of the androgyne, the word ’androgyne’ itself did some gender switching. It was masculine in Greek, but it was generally feminine in its usage during sixteenth century. Then, it had once again become masculine by the time of the first French dictionary, ‘Dictionnaire de l’Académie française’ (1694).

Early Origins of Androgyny 

The most familiar source of the word ’androgyne’ is Plato’s ’Symposium’. The comic poet Aristophanes recounts that people used to be spherical creatures that were cartwheeled around. There were three sexes and they all had two bodies which were attached back to back. These sexes were: male-male, female-female, and male-female. The male-female represented the androgyne. Eventually, Zeus cut the spherical creatures in half. Funnily, and perhaps paradoxically, it was exactly from the split androgyne that the hetero men and women originated.

Nonetheless, the concept of the androgyne is believed to have even earlier sources in the book of Genesis, thereby giving the androgyne roots in both Judeo-Christian and Greek culture. In ‘Preparation for the Gospel’ (Greek: Εὐαγγελικὴ προπαρασκευή, Euangelikē proparaskeuē), Eusebius suggests that Plato took his Androgyne from Moses, the divine legislator of the Hebrews. At the beginning of Genesis I, Moses recounts the creation of Adam modeled after the masculofeminine divine image.

Furthermore, a lot of interpretations suggest that Christian angels are androgynous, or as Eileen Elias Freeman puts it in ‘Touched by Angels’‘‘ (A)ngelic genders are so totally unlike the two we know on Earth (…)’’ Apparently, angels would choose genders for each mission they make to Earth. For example, Gabriel (or Gabrielle, also called Jibra'il) is portrayed in various sources as either male or female. In the visual representations from Renaissance on, angels’ genders are generally ambiguous. They are dressed in gender-neutral tunics and have androgynous physiques.

Moreover, rendering the earliest accounts of androgyny, historians suggest that in ancient Sumer, androgynous and intersex men were Gala priests involved in the cult of Inanna. In his book ’Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature’, Leick Gwendolyn points out that Gala priests took female names and had feminine behavior. They spoke in the eme-sal dialect, which was traditionally reserved for women, and engaged in sexual acts with men. Many were depicted in societally-defined male dress but were shown beardless (which was not common for males), and cross-dressed during ceremonies. Whereas Greeks defined the corporeal aspects of the androgyne, Christians – the spiritual, Sumerians might have given us the earliest examples of cultural aspects and androgyny in fashion.

Androgyny in Western History: 17th, 18th, and 19th Century

In Western Modern history, ’androgynous fashion’ can be traced back to 17th-century Western Europe where it was initially a form of exclusive and excessive dressing of the aristocratic class. Men were drowning in ruffles and lace, with towering wigs, stockings, and voluminously pleated pants called petticoat breeches, reminiscent of a skirt. However, this was not deemed particularly feminine at the time, as it was perfectly masculine for a man to wear, for instance, pink silk with floral embroidery.

The 18th century gave birth to one of the most famous androgynes – the Chevalier D'Éon – a French diplomat, soldier, and spy, who, for the purpose of their occupations, had androgynous physical characteristics and wore both masculine and feminine clothes.

The 19th century was characterized by the style uniformity between males and females brought by the industrial revolution. There were female spies who had to wear special uniforms consisting of jackets and dresses over trousers and the bourgeois male dandies transgressing their public image through looks. At the turn of the century, androgyny was introduced into the psychiatric and medical discourse with Krafft-Ebing’s ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’. Psychoanalytic theories of Carl Gustav Jung advocated for communication between genders in the existence of masculine archetype ‘animus’ and female ‘anima’ – while all genders possess simultaneously male and female components.

Androgyny in the 1900s

Beginning of the 20th century saw the publishing of a seminal book on androgyny in 1918 by Earl Lind – ‘Autobiography of an Androgyne’. This was one of the earliest instances in American history of someone who is transgender or gender-nonconforming publicizing their own story. Hereby we also encounter how androgyny was a vehicle for non-heterosexual preferences and trans or non-binary gender identities.

This period, similarly, subverted gender boundaries in the evolved image of a dandy – now in the form of a powerful androgynous woman with sex appeal. These striking ’flappers’ of the 1920s wore masculine attire, chic bobbed or short hair and underwear designed to flatten breasts resulting in a tubular silhouette. According to Kristina Gligorovska’s thesis, aformentioned features became signifiers for the visibility of unconventional sexual preferences for women.

Early women's rights advocate, Amelia Bloomer, did promote the bloomers which featured Turkish-style pantaloons as early as the mid-19th century, but it was Coco Chanel that introduced trouser designs for women, such as beach pajamas and horse-riding attire. During the 1930s, the androgynous style highlighted by the trousers or men’s suit with a hat was popularized by glamorous actresses such as Marlene Dietrich, Lauren Bacall, and Katharine Hepburn. They paved the way for a complete democratization of these controversial garments during the 1940s.

In parallel, African American female and queer artists like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Gladys Bentley brought androgynous fashion to music. In an interview for Ebony magazine, Bentley stated she was larger in size and preferred to wear her brother's suits instead of dresses or blouses. Ma Rainey also defied the femininity expected of female artists, exclaiming “it’s true I wear a collar and a tie” in her song ‘Prove It On Me Blues’.

1950-1990: The Rise of Androgyny in Popular Culture

In the 1950s, Elvis Presley introduced the androgynous style and gender-bending to pop culture by wearing makeup and glitzy Las Vegas jumpsuits. He consequently reformed and influenced the image of succeeding rockstars like Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, Mark Bolan, and Michael Stipe.

In an interview for Rolling Stone in 1995, Jagger stated that “Elvis was very androgynous. People in the older generation were afraid of Elvis because of this. (…) They called it effeminate.’’ Influenced by Presley’s imageJagger wore a ‘man’s dress’ designed by the British designer Mr. Fish for the Rolling Stones’ performance in London’s Hyde Park in 1969. Three years after, Yves Saint Laurent designed the ‘Le Smoking’ suit that revolutionized the idea of femininity.

By the 1970s, androgyny was already a part of the mainstream. David Bowie’s alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, was an alien-like flamboyant gender-ambiguous character with strong make-up, body glitter, bright red mullet in an outrageous bodysuits designed by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto. When he presented at Grammy Awards in 1975, Bowie started his speech with “Ladies and gentlemen—and others,” openly addressing the inadequacy of binary labels. Apart from Bowie, Jimi Hendrix was wearing also women’s blouses and high heels.

The ‘androgynous disco times’ brought us into the 1980s with icons like Elton John, Boy George, Prince, Grace Jones, Annie Lenox and John Travolta. In these years, many avant-garde designers like Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Vivienne Westwood started tackling androgyny as part of their essential imagery and design toolkit. “Androgyny is an unbiased way for an individual to identify with one’s self and fashion is the perfect medium to achieve this,” proclaimed Yamamoto, and so did his designs.

In 1990, Kathryn Dawn Land appeared on the cover of Vanity fair dressed in a men’s suit with a tie and shaved by supermodel Cindy Crawford, which started a tradition of androgynous representations in fashion, movies, and the music industry which kept blossoming ever since.

Contemporary Androgyny

This historical overview informs us how androgyny was gradually gaining many new meanings. It was mutating from a signifier of unconventional sexuality or trans, queer, or non-binary identity into the tool for blurring the lines between masculinity and femininity. As Gligorovska puts it: ‘‘androgyny metamorphosed from a ‘hidden’ signifier of unconventional sexuality to a ‘visible’ postmodern teaser for sexual identities.’’

Androgyny has become widely coveted in more recent history. One of the most successful androgynous models, Andreja Pejic, walked both the men's and women's runways. Designers like Telfar Clemens, Harris Reed, Jeremy Scott, J.W. Anderson, Haider Ackermann, Ann Demeulemeester, Rick Ownes, Raf Simmons or Meadham Kirchoff presents androgynous clothes nearly in every collection. Brands like TooGood, Eckhaus Latta, Grace Walles Bonner focus on clothing that allow a natural movement between genders. Celebrities like Harry Styles, Billy Porter, Janelle Monae, Billie Eilishm Young Thug, Lil Nas X or some of the K-Pop idols are gaining media coverage on their play with androgyny.

Despite it being the industry’s fascinating (and trendy) source to draw from, it is fair to conclude that the significance of androgyny in fashion won’t be exhausted. Androgyny and fashion are forever entangled. Fashion and beauty are the main tools of androgyny, and they are perpetually reinvigorating androgyny to challenge and shape norms around gender and sexuality while facilitating the in-betweenness.


Eusebius of Caesarea (1903) Praeparatio Evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel). Translated by E.H. Gifford. (available online: https://www.tertullian.org/fathers/eusebius_pe_01_book1.htm)

Freeman E. Eileen (2001) Touched by Angels: True Cases of Close Encounters of the Celestial Kind. New York: Hachette+ORM. 

Gligorovska, Kristina (2011) Exploration of the Gender Myth Via Fashion Media: Androgyny And Dandyism In Contemporary Fashion Magazines. Stockholm: Centre For Fashion Studies.

Leick, Gwendolyn (2013) [1994]. Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature. New York City, New York: Routledge.

Lind, Earl (1918) Autobiography of an Androgyne. Edited, With Introduction Alfred W. Herzog. New York: The Medico-Legal Journal

Plato (2008) The Symposium. Edited by M. C. Howatson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rothstein, Marian (2015) The Androgyne in Early Modern France: Contextualizing the Power of Gender.  London: PALGRAVE MACMILLAN.

Nikola Marković (they) is a non-binary Serbian artist, researcher, and writer currently based in Vienna. They are about to start their doctoral research at London College of Fashion. Previously they graduated in Fashion under the mentorship of Hussein Chalayan and Grace Wales Bonner. Their artistic practice and research aim at disrupting the binarities/hierarchies of gender, class, ability, and subject-object dualism.