One of my favorite trends to crop up in recent years is gender-free, all-gender, or gender-neutral clothing. Whatever you choose to call it, this style of clothing is a celebration of freedom, pride, and self-expression that is both inspiring and avant-garde. Throughout runways and red carpets, we are seeing celebrities and designers embrace an adrogynous look and play with traditional ideas of gender. While it seems radical, playing with gender and challenging stereotypes is an idea that has existed since (literally) ancient times. Let’s take a look back at some of the foundations of gender-free fashion as it exists today!
Hatshepsut, Akhenaten and Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt has been one of the most influential eras on mainstream fashion, dating back to the Egyptomania sparked by Napoleon’s conquest in the late 1790’s, as well as the uncovering of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. However, one relatively un-explored aspect of the era is the fluid ways in which gender was depicted throughout art.
While undeniably fascinating, fashion’s fascination with Ancient Egypt is not without controversy. It often sparks conversations about gender, cultural appropriation, and many other hot-button issues.
Have you ever been inspired by Ancient Egypt in your sewing practice? Let us know!
Egyptian gods, particularly Anat, are often depicted wearing the clothes of both men and women. In a similar fashion, both male and female pharaohs used clothing and gender presentation to strengthen their political power. Hatshepsut, one of the few recorded female pharaohs, is seen in sculptures wearing the male-coded regalia of the office, including a false beard and shendyt kilt. Additionally, many statues depict her as androgynous in shape, with a flat chest and without curved hips. While many factors contributed to Hatshepsut’s androgyny (including the later attempts at erasure by subsequent pharaohs), one of the main reasons was her desire to assume male presentation and characteristics to establish power.
In contrast, Akhenaten’s appearances in art history are that of a male figurehead with a female body shape, including wide hips and breasts. A religious reformer, Akhenaten created what is thought to be one of the first monotheistic religions, disregarding the traditional Egyptian deities in favor of sole worship of the sun god, Aten. In accordance with Atenism, all depictions of Akhenaten show him with an androgynous shape, in order to reflect the androgynous nature of his deity, Aten. Some scholars have theorized that this could also have been due to a genetic condition, although little evidence is available to support this.
This intricate web of gender and power has fascinated designers for ages. Both instances of Egyptomania in 1790 and 1920 saw women liberating themselves with a looser silhouette, similar to that of traditional Egyptian dress. Additionally, modern designers have looked towards the androgyny of Ancient Egypt for inspiration. John Galliano’s 2004 collection for Dior showed women wearing false beards, recalling Hatshepsut’s appropriation of male power. Recently, the Met Opera’s production of Akhenaten by Philip Glass was lauded for its costumes (designed by Kevin Pollard), including a ballgown for the main character. With Zuhair Murad and Chanel releasing Egypt-inspired collections as recently as 2020, it’s safe to say that the androgynous appeal of Ancient Egypt is here to stay.