Exploring Gender Expression Through Fashion & Beauty

Exploring Gender Expression Through Fashion & Beauty

by Nikola Marković - April 2023

Just as our understanding of gender expression, fashion & beauty’s visual signifiers that reflect cultural standards on what is considered feminine, masculine, androgynous, and undifferentiated are constantly changing. In this article, we explore the term ‘gender expression’ in relation to other terms like sex and gender identity, examine different types of gender expression conveyed in contemporary culture, and unpack how fashion and beauty have been a primary gateway to express gender, historically and still today.

Three dimensions of gender: sex, gender identity, and gender expression

Gender is often described as having three dimensions. First refers to the biological or physical dimension – a person’s sex and body. Sex is the anatomical classification of people usually assigned at birth. Besides the binary of males and females, there is a vibrant spectrum of intersex people with different atypical variations of chromosomes, gonads, hormones, primary and secondary sexual characteristics. Second is a person's gender identity, which is each person’s internal and individual experience of gender. As a set of deeply held inner feelings, gender identity isn’t seen by others. Finally, the social dimension refers to gender expression, which is how a person publicly expresses, presents, and communicates their gender within a cultural context via chosen name and pronouns, behavior, voice, body language, and outward appearances such as dress, hair, and make-up.

For the longest time, there has been an assumption that these three dimensions causally align and are inextricably entwined and fixed. However, today it is understood that this is not the case. Gender identity may fluctuate and may be congruent or incongruent with birth-assigned sex. Gender expression may or may not reflect or align with either person’s biological sex or gender identity. Many people express themselves in ways aligned with social stereotypes related to their sex or gender identity, while others choose expressions that are different than what people may expect of their gender identity or sex. As it is influenced by societal roles and cultural stereotypes which change over time, gender expression is, too, not static and may be fluid. So, it is important to note that none of the gender expressions can be understood as a fixed set of essential traits reserved for any particular sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

Gender expression conveyed today: feminine, masculine, androgynous, undifferentiated

Much like sex and gender identity, gender expressions have historically been rooted in a binary system. This means that gender expression has been explored in terms of the two opposites: masculinity and femininity. However, in between the opposites stands a whole spectrum that combines both masculine and feminine characteristics and traits –androgyny; or indicates low levels of both masculine and feminine – undifferentiated expression (agender, gender-neutral, etc.) All four concepts carry diverse meanings and numerous interpretations. The four-category gender schema originates from psychologist Sandra Bem’s Sex Role Inventory (BSRI). It was developed to research gender roles and measure the masculinity/femininity of an individual regardless of their gender. It was also intended to provide empirical evidence for the advantage of a shared masculine and feminine personality (psychological androgyny) versus a sex-typed categorization. Bem is also credited for coining the term ‘undifferentiated’, and making a great contribution to expanding the narrow readings of gender expressions.

Person applying bright makeup in dark room

For much of recorded human history, the concept of ‘gender expression’ was an unknown term. Nonetheless, many societies had normative (usually binary) conceptions of what it means to be a gendered person. Femininity was equated with being a ‘woman,’ and masculinity with being a ‘man’. These conceptions were perceived as intrinsic and were prescribing ways in which men and women should act, look, or communicate. In patriarchal societies including Western ones, these conventional binary attitudes to gender expressions have contributed to the subordination of women and gender-diverse people. In many cultures, men who display qualities considered feminine, as well as women with atypically masculine ’tomboyish’ expressions, have often been stigmatized and labeled as weak. Additionally, because of how they perform their gender, feminine men and masculine women have often been assumed to be gay or queer, although neither femininity in men nor masculinity in women cannot necessarily be related to sexual orientation. In LGBTQIA+ communities masculine and feminine expressions are respectively known as ‘butch’ and ‘femme’.

Role of fashion and beauty in gender expression

Despite the significance of the behavioral aspects of gender expression, fashion & beauty are the most obvious, instantaneous ways to present and communicate gender to the world. Fashion also provides an easily accessible opportunity for playing with the boundaries of gender, traditional gender roles, and social norms. Since fashion and beauty often express social and cultural standards on what is considered feminine, masculine, androgynous, and undifferentiated, they are constantly changing. Thus, it is very important to underline that what particularly masculine, feminine, androgynous, or undifferentiated attire or makeup looks like is contextual, varying across cultures and throughout different historical periods. Therefore, following theorist Raewyn Connell’s remarks, it is more appropriate to discuss ‘masculinities’ ‘femininities’, ‘androgynies’, and undifferentiated expressions’ in the plural, than as singular concepts.

1. Feminine gender expressions through beauty & fashion

Since its first mention around 1380, in the medieval period, femininity underwent a massive change. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein writes how in Western cultures, the ideal of feminine appearance has traditionally included long, flowing hair, clear skin, and little or no body hair or facial hair. However, omissions to this rule can be encountered repeatedly. For example, in the Renaissance, the typical feminine aristocratic beauty included a plucked forehead and a beehive hairdo. Meanwhile, in many Muslim countries, a symbol of feminine modesty and morality was embodied in covering heads and hair with a hijab. In some cultures, underarm hair has not been considered unfeminine. This was also introduced in the Western world in the hippie era and the sexual revolution in the 1960s.

Portrait of a Woman, 1638-39 by Guido Reni.

When it comes to fashion, in the 20th century, certain garments being worn by the other genders entered the realm of ‘androgyny’. Since the days of the suffragettes, women’s clothing has gradually included more masculine garments. Today, however, it is hardly possible for a woman wearing pants/trousers, a blazer or a suit, a T-shirt, or cowboy boots to be deemed particularly androgynous or masculine. 

2. Masculine gender expression through beauty & fashion

There has been a similar process on the other part of the spectrum. However, men’s wardrobes were more resilient to replenishment with garments such as dresses, skirts, bodysuits, or high heels, even though a lot of these items were considered masculine for much of human history. For example, in the cradle of Western civilization – Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome – all genders wore garments that resemble contemporary dresses. In Ancient Egypt, wraparound dresses, perfumes, cosmetics, and elaborate jewelry were considered equally feminine and masculine. High heels, too, were considered a distinctly masculine type of shoe in 16th-century France.

Today, Western beauty standards rooted in heteronormative beliefs about hypermasculinity, and colonialism are finally shifting. White, blue-eyed men epitomized in the screen stars like Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio are no longer the beauty ideal for Generation Z who champions androgyny. This shift is also mirrored in other parts of the world. For instance, in South Korea, use of makeup and vibrant hair styles as often seen in K-Pop stars is part of today’s masculine beauty ideals.

3. Androgynous gender expression through beauty & fashion

‘Androgyny’, too, fluctuated in popularity and changed throughout history in different cultures. It was attested as early as ancient times, in Sumerian, Judeo-Christian, and ancient Greek traditions. As androgyny denotes the possession of both masculine and feminine characteristics, it depended on what was deemed masculine and feminine in particular moments. For instance, Sumerian Gala priests were depicted in societally defined male dress but were beardless, which was not common for males at the time. The androgynous ‘macaronis’ of mid-1700s England, the precursors to the dandies of the Regency and Victorian eras, wore lavish high fashion with large, powdered wigs with chapeau-bras hats on top.

Androgyny took off during the 20th century when it marked a transition in standardization and neutralization of certain garments, and peaked in the 21st century with the ‘gender fluid’ movement. On one hand, the fashion industry has accepted, coveted, and popularized androgyny, with designers like Telfar Clemens, Rick Ownes, Eckhaus Latta, or Harris Reed. On the other, celebrities like Harry Styles, Billy Porter, Janelle Monae, Billie Eilish, and K-Pop stars have contributed to the presence of androgyny in popular culture. If you want to read about this in more detail, visit our article on Androgyny.

4. Undifferentiated gender expression through beauty & fashion

A type of expression that is perceived as neither typically feminine nor masculine can be described as ‘undifferentiated’, ‘gender-neutral’, or ‘agender’, and anthropologists have attested it across various cultures around the world. Along with ‘androgyny’, ’undifferentiated expressions were historically subdued to the ‘gender non-conforming’ category which is used to describe a person whose gender expression differs from binary gender stereotypes, and norms in a particular historical period/culture. Although ‘androgynous’ and ‘undifferentiated expressions’ seem to be opposites, in practice, it is hard to differentiate them as they both embody a sort of dialectic of masculine and feminine. Many sources use them interchangeably and there is a lack of literature, especially in the context of fashion & beauty.

​Ideally, ‘undifferentiated’ or ‘gender-neutral’ clothing allows the wearer to communicate themselves without socially imposed gender markers being attributed through their clothing. In a study by Maxine Britt that seeks to define gender-neutral design, 64% and 56% of participants preferred angular shape and asymmetrical balance respectively. The emphasis on the waist was preferred by 57% of participants, while de-emphasis on the arms and/or legs was preferred by 60% of participants. Essentially, it is evident that people have different needs, expectations, and imaginations of what ‘gender-neutral’ or ‘undifferentiated’ fashion should be.  

What does ‘gender expression’ mean to people today? Results from our interviews:

Today, the dialogues surrounding the complexities of ’gender expression’ have become a pertinent part of both mainstream culture and research. In 2023, there is a more fluid understanding of gender as well as fashion & beauty that expresses gender. So, it is hard to come up with a definitive meaning of gender expression and the role of fashion & beauty. They are to be defined by each person individually. For exactly these reasons, I thought that the best way to get a sense of what ‘masculinity’, ‘femininity’, ‘androgyny’, and ‘undifferentiated expression’ mean today was to ask the LGBTQAI+ community and allies around me. Here is what they told me:

*Pseudonyms that participants chose themselves were used in this section. 

Two people: One in Red Shirt, Other in Tank Top

1. Gender expressions are heavily influenced by social norms

Most interviewees agreed that gender expressions have been heavily dependent on normative social expectations.  Dilir, a pedagogist, says that most of the gendered traits contributed to people are artificial, created due to social norms.

"I see it all the time in working with children. When they are very young, there are not many differences in their behavior and interests. But as they grow up and go to school, boys stop making crafts and paying attention to detail, don’t hug their friends, often fight, and are interested in sports and less in school. Girls are quiet, they don’t run around, they listen to their teachers and try to be good."

Similarly, Christi, a poet and a defectologist, exclaims:

"I hate when my family tells me to be more feminine, thinking I should wear a skirt or do make-up. Nobody is feminine by default."

2. Gender expression does not equal gender

Most participants seem to be aware that we should not jump to the conclusion that gender expression equals gender. Vanja, who is a fashion designer, finds that every person should feel free to define their gender expression based on their perception, values, and sensibility and not by cultural/social norms:

"As femininity and masculinity are social constructs, we are running into danger of perpetuating the stereotypes and norms, and in that way, we are restricting people from expressing themselves authentically. Therefore, femininity/masculinity/androgyny/undifferentiated expressions are not the concepts I would use to describe my identity."

3. There are no fixed signifiers of any gender expression

In today’s post-gender world, all diverse identities, including the binary, are encouraged to express themselves with the utmost freedom. Visual signifiers of femininity/masculinity/androgyny/undifferentiated are consequently not stable or fixed, and mean different things to different people. For Christi, thick leather belts and big palms are masculine, certain gestures, tall stockings, and earrings are feminine:

"When I hear ‘androgyne’, I think of Patti Smith and the book ‘Just Kids’."

On the other hand, Ginna, who is a transmedia artist, associates gender expressions with natural qualities rather than identities:

"I think about waves and nature as something that represents more feminine aspects. When I think of masculine I think about rocks or someplace very cold. "

Ginna explains that if gender expressions were flowers, femininity would be a daisy, masculinity would be a gerbera, androgyny would be an orchid, while undifferentiated expression would be a lily.

4. People should be seen neutrally

Seeing people neutrally would mean that people’s gender expression should not define who they are. Some participants favored ‘androgynous’ and ‘undifferentiated expressions’ as they don’t comply with normative expectations. For example, Lui, an art director and photographer, favors undifferentiated expressions and adds:

"We should try to see people neutrally. Some characters are liked more, some less - regardless of gender."

Diir, too, states that, if femininity and masculinity are socially constructed categories, identifying with both or neither (androgyny and undifferentiated expressions) seems the most natural, in the sense that it is not socially inflicted:

"Of course, real experience is different given the stigma and discrimination you can face if you do not possess explicitly feminine or masculine traits and behavior, not to mention confusion regarding identity and sense of belonging."

5. It is all a spectrum

What seems to be the most prevailing concept today is that there is a whole spectrum between masculinity and femininity. Rushka, a visual artist, states:

"For me, as a queer person, everything is on a spectrum, a cacophony happening all at once and not at all. To be a woman is to perform, to be a man is to perform. The term ‘non-binary’ has been a buzzword for the past few years, but for some of us, it has been the reality since the day we were born."

This article offered a perspective on what gender expression is, and the role of fashion and beauty in expressing different types of gender expressions including masculine, feminine, androgynous, and undifferentiated. Even though these constructs are still evolving, there seems to be a consensus that the current culture is steadily loosening the grip of the gender binary. Thus, the very categories and ideas of ‘gender expression’ are being re-evaluated and broadened. Through the process of sensitization to the uniqueness of every person’s experience of self, society is slowly allowing all individuals to fully explore and express who they are.


Bem, Sandra (1981). Gender schema theory; A cognitive account of sex typing, Psychological Review, 88(4), 354-364.

Lesnik-Oberstein, Karín (2010). The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair (Paperback ed.). Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-8323-5.

Myra, Ali (2021) What does the 'perfect man' look like now? In BBC Style. Available online: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20210707-what-does-the-perfect-man-look-like-now (accessed: 3.2.2023)

Williams, Tara (2011). Inventing Womanhood: Gender and Language in Later Middle English Writing (PDF). Ohio State University Press. ISBN 978-0814211519.

Britt, Maxine (2018) Defining Gender Neutral Fashion, University of Minnesota: Twin Cities. Available online: https://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/11299/206490 (accessed: 3.2.2023)

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.