"Are you sure this guy is gay?" my boyfriend asked during an episode of the rebooted Queer Eye, the more-than-just-a-makeover TV show that's recently nabbed four Emmy nominations. During this scene, three of the Fab Five, Tan France (the fashion expert), Jonathan Van Ness (the beauty guru) and Karamo Brown (the culture pundit/therapist) are working their magic on screen, while Antoni Porowski and Bobby Berk are off-camera, presumably ransacking the kitchen and tearing down ugly decals respectively.
I didn't have to clarify to know he was asking about Karamo Brown. Brown has on a bomber jacket, a T-shirt in an equally muted shade, and dark wash jeans. His 5 o'clock shadow is so sharp, it could assist Jonathan, or JVN as he is affectionately called by his posse, in trimming the show participants' unruly eyebrows into shape. Karamo didn't seem gay to my boyfriend. Karamo probably doesn't seem gay to a lot of people. It may have something to do with the fact that he doesn't fall easily into stale (and harmful) stereotypes of gay men. He doesn't wear an earring on his right ear, nor does he talk about clothes or hair "excessively". He walks with swag, not with a sway.
That's the thing that worries me: my boyfriend, by many accounts, is someone you would call 'woke'. In brief summation, he's a champion of women and speaks about the male aggression; yet, he holds certain archaic assumptions about fashion, specifically in relation to the LGBTQ+ community — and he's far from alone.
I suspect the public's distorted, slightly obdurate impression of gay men and the contents of their closets stem from a common misconception that gay men are more JVN than they are Karamo. JVN, the crop top to Karamo's polo, the stilettos to his sneakers, sass, spirit and snuggles on maximum power. Basically, someone you want to clone for the better of humanity.
To them, what makes Karamo appear heterosexual and JVN homosexual is (yes, their demeanour) but even more so, their fashion choices. Surely Karamo is straight — why, he dresses like a "regular bloke"! Surely JVN swings the other way — he flaunts his abs and gams with mesh tops and skirts. Heels for emphasis. The only sure thing here is the slippery slope that is careless typecasting. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author and modern feminist icon explains it best: "The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."
Ngozi Adichie is right. There is more than one story, or rather, that of Karamo and JVN is a small though crucial chapter in the plight of men's (straight and gay) embrace of gender neutral clothing — clothing that aim to break behavioral expectations stemmed from socially-constructed gender moulds, by bridging what's typically considered masculine and feminine. E.g. bling and frills for men and boxy tailoring for women. Challenging those traditional ethos on even bigger screens than Netflix's are individuals such as Jaden Smith, whose 2016 campaign for Louis Vuitton womenswear saw him donning a skirt among female models. He's hopeful his headlines will turn into headways for the future. "I'm going to take most of the blows so in five years when a kid goes to school wearing a skirt, he won't get beat up and kids won't get mad at him. It just doesn't matter," he said to Nylon about wearing clothing originally designed with women in mind. "I'm taking the brunt of it so that later on, my kids and the next generations of kids will all think that certain things are normal, that weren't expected before my time."
"The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story." — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is not a publicity stunt. And neither is Justin Bieber in pants made for the opposite sex, on which he defended: "I've worn women's jeans before because they fit me. It's not a trend; it's just, whatever works, works." Neither is Harry Styles in a Hillier Bartley suit and Zayn Malik in then-girlfriend Gigi Hadid's Anna Sui T-shirt, among other garments he said he stole from her closet. They contribute to the growing acceptance of the new normal long fought for by the gender fluid community and other heterosexual individuals wishing to live and dress outside the confines of their gender.
It's 2018 — why is this an uphill battle? Our resistance to men's gender fluidity is linked to toxic masculinity and the inherent sexism in clothing. Think about it: when women wear men's clothing, the word used to describe us most often is 'androgynous'. I was told I was "bold" for opting out of a gown at prom. "She's a strong character" is also a common one I've heard over the years whenever I went about my business in a pixie cut and my dad's old jacket. As women gained more agency in the workplace, we have been able, encouraged even, to adopt men's uniform (think pantsuit) whenever we wanted to be taken seriously — a double edge sword, because by no means a lady in a frock should ever get the Elle Woods pre-Harvard treatment. Pink is comparable in power to pinstripe.
While we borrow from the boys, men suffer. Society moves the women willing to play by their rules ahead. Strangely, at the same time, men can't experiment with a floral top or a lace number without garnering looks of astonishment or confusion. They're not enthroned with 'androgynous', their fashion expression is instead met with 'effeminate' — the former meant to be complimentary, the latter a diplomatic insult disguised as a paltry adjective.
"I've worn women's jeans because they fit me. It's not a trend; it's just, whatever works, works." — Justin Bieber
It doesn't help that it is literally easier for women to adopt menswear than for men to adopt womenswear into their repertoire. Many fashion labels identifying themselves as androgynous generally solely offer men's clothing in silhouettes friendly to the female figure. Aside from a handful of luxury labels with an avant-garde slant, I'm hard pressed in finding traditionally-considered-feminine styles adapted onto shapes welcoming to the male body. Available to the masses too? Not actually costumes? Forget about it. Writer Jaimie Wylie of Dazed Magazine penned our point with unflinching precision: "There is little done to acknowledge those born male who do not wish to only wear menswear. Gender neutral does not mean 'without any traditional female signifiers', as most retailers seem to believe. Girls clothes appear exclusively for girls, but boys clothes are for everyone: the silent yet apparent contradiction that undermines fashion fluidity becomes obvious under minor scrutiny. Why can't dresses and skirts be gender neutral too?"
Here's a list of what we need: (a) more options for men, obviously; (b) open-mindedness from everyone. Not just from men, women too because what we deem standard, normal, desirable even, need to grow up; (c) education about the freedom of — and the power that comes with — clothing and how it's often an expression of part of the self, not necessarily the whole self. Maybe Queer Eye, with its wide audience and growing fandom, is the perfect platform to take this on. Maybe Mattel needs to update their Ken dolls again, so we don't automatically think a man wearing a dress is gay, or one in a sloppy suit is undeniably straight. Though it must be said, it's alright if you intend your clothing to reflect your sexual orientation, however simple or complex it may be. Being yourself is not a cliché. These days, it's a privilege.
"Being yourself is not a cliché. These days, it's a privilege."
I don't know if we should shun labels altogether. There is nothing inherently hurtful or alienating in 'gay', 'straight', 'boyish', 'girly'; it is the connotations we apply to them that divide us. I do know we need to re-examine the ones we take for granted, and how they're potentially limiting what ought to be a full expression of emotions, in life and in fashion. Because what does gay look like? What does straight look like? It looks like you. And me. And the kid down the block and the old man next to you. We're quick to rely on labels and seek for identifiers when we are faced with the unknown. I get it. The unknown can be unsettling. But what's even scarier than what we don't know is what we don't wish to understand. Our stereotyping makes the Jaden Smiths and Harry Styles of the world look radical. In reality, they're only doing what women have been doing for decades — fashioning the other gender. Borrowing from the opposite sex. Blurring the lines.
No more skirting the issue; it's the boys' time to shine.