Gender Fluidity on the Runways

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Watching male and female models stride down the runways in tandem as more designers combined their women’s and men’s collections this New York Fashion Week raised the questions of what is masculine and what is feminine, how much those distinctions matter, and who gets to decide.

Depending on which show you viewed, it’s fine for men to sport blue feather boas or fishnet shirts with a bow (Jeremy Scott). Or for women and men to wear virtually interchangeable clothes, in restrained, minimalist androgyny (Raf Simons for Calvin Klein). Or for women to feminize the puffer by wearing it off the shoulder, cinched at the waist (Public School).

Society is in a time of renewed ferment about gender. Culture wars rage over bathrooms and even the very notion that men or women have to choose one fixed gender identity. President Donald J. Trump reportedly likes his female staff “to dress like women”; just what this means isn’t entirely clear. The divide looms between those who welcome the new fluidity and those who yearn for clearly defined gender roles. So designers on the runway this week engaged in a continuing dialogue about how clothing defines masculinity and femininity — and how it scrambles these notions, too.

Fashion has crossed many of these lines for years, of course. Women have long appropriated men’s clothes for comfort and authority. In the 1960s, longhaired men in paisley, florals and bell-bottoms defied conventions of what men were supposed to look like and what clothes they were supposed to wear. Jean Paul Gaultier put a man in a skirt back in 1984. And last year, Jaden Smith wore clothes designed for women in a Louis Vuitton advertisement.

But showing the women’s and men’s lines together allowed for rapid-fire consideration of what the differences were, really. Material? Designers used the same fabrics for many of the men’s and women’s collections. Cut? In some cases, the tailoring seemed uncannily similar. Accessories? Many designers included accessories that once would have been thought exclusively feminine or masculine on both male and female models.

Fashion, like society, is clearly not opting for hard and fast rules. Yet each designer brought a particular sensibility to the gender continuum.

Raf Simons made his name in men’s wear before expanding to women’s clothing. His first collection for Calvin Klein was also the first time the house showed both men’s and women’s lines in the same show. Mr. Simons was known for a distinctive male model, skinny and less bulked up, and he has said he designed some of his distinctive slim-shouldered suits for that physique.

In this show, much of the men’s and women’s clothing looked all but identical; there were a few times when it was hard to figure out whether the model was a man or a woman.

There were glen plaid suits with double-breasted blazers and black leather jackets with silver rose cutouts for men and women. The marching-band pants and varsity stripe motifs were echoed in the men’s and women’s clothes. Mr. Simons played with the idea of transparency: women in sheer tops showing nipples; men in sheer tops showing theirs.

But he did not overtly cross gender lines by putting men in skirts. And he showed some simply beautiful feminine clothes, such as the dresses made of feathers encased in sheer plastic.

For Public School, the designers Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne took street motifs often associated with men — parkas, puffers, hoodies, anoraks — and toyed with how to dress women in them. The off-the-shoulder puffers for women were a surprisingly sensual look for a normally unisex coat; the men in the show wore the puffers short, not big or baggy.

As with the other runway shows, combining men and women allowed the designers to present one aesthetic and show how it applied to each gender. At Public School, a man walked out in a plaid shirt and slightly baggy pants with a zipper, followed by a woman wearing the same plaid shirt as a dress with a navy train. A man wore an oversize glen paid top; a woman wore the same glen plaid ensemble but belted and draped more closely to her body.

Generally, the men’s and women’s looks were not interchangeable; rather, men were in recognizable men’s clothes, and women were more often in dresses and skirts, with bare shoulders and material gathered in artful folds. It was a brasher vision than Calvin Klein’s, further along the continuum of sexual distinction.

Jeremy Scott had it both ways: gender traditional in his unabashed sexuality for women and nonconforming in his use of what were once thought of as feminine colors, styles and accessories for men. Many of his designs for women were sex kittenish, including baby doll dresses, fishnet stockings, go-go boots, short shorts in pink knit, and clingy tops in silver lamé. Men wore styles and colors that used to be associated with femininity: clingy velour pants in fuchsia and purple or jackets with gold fringe and purple sleeves.

And sometimes Mr. Scott drew inspiration from both tropes in one look: He sent out a male model in a plaid skirt worn like a tunic over ripped jeans, finished off with an oversize parka. Men and women wore his signature Jesus motif coats with leopard accents — the women’s coats tighter, the men’s looser.

In the end, designers ran the gamut, from blurring the lines between men and women to embracing them, sometimes in the same collection. It may be that fashion’s refusal to decide, to render any one verdict, is as radical as some of the more overtly political statements made this week on the runways.