is virility soluble in genderfluid?

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N°32 SS19 , Adrian Kammarti

By summoning the figure of undifferentiated man, the Spring-Summer 2019 men’s collections draft new forms of masculinity. Reaffirmed or abandoned, what will become of virility?

“How man became a woman like any other” probes Antoine Leclerc-Mougne on Antidote magazine’s website, invoking in passing the concepts of “genderfluid”, “gender neutral”, and “no gender” or “agender”. This article, joining the plethora of reflections on the subject (by this I mean the profusion of interventions in favour of the disappearance of gender in the post-counter-cultural media such as iD, Dazed, etc.), extols the propensity of the latest men’s collections to borrow from the woman’s wardrobe. The Maison Margiela Spring-Summer 2019 show was symptomatic: a succession of feminised masculine silhouettes, the show ushered out a parade of corseted men, men obscured with silk veils or wearing flowery kimonos, paired with pastel-coloured leggings. Same thing for Charles Jeffrey, LVMH 2018 award finalist for his brand Charles Jeffrey Loverboy: his Autumn-Winter 2018 show featured a series of transvestite silhouettes, characterized in particular by wide belts worn above the hips, torn woollen dresses, loose leather skirts, and platform shoes. True parodies of the genre, these two shows brilliantly demonstrated Judith Butler’s famous “category crisis”, echoing her analysis of the drag queen who “effectively mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity.”

Cottweiler show Spring 2017

But here the question emerges of the relation of these creations to masculinity, understood as “a place in gender relations, the practices through which men and women engage that place in gender, and the effects of these practices in bodily experience, personality and culture” 1, and their anchorage to the real. If this type of presentation has the merit of revealing to us the eminently constructed nature of the masculine, they seem to fail at redefining it beyond mere cross-dressing, in other words, a “becoming-feminine” of man, hardly digestible by a wide audience. And for good reason, the “hegemonic masculinity” 2 is only approached here carefully devoid of one of its main components, namely the notion of virility and its attributes of “physical power, moral strength, and sexual potency” 3. By omitting them, this model in fact reveals an unambiguous and stereotypical conception of the neo-masculine, as well as its manifest inability to positively rethink the masculinity/virility 4 diptych. An inferior copy of the “woman in trousers” of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century5 (who donned men’s clothes precisely for their ability to confer status, contrary to the approaches of John Galliano and Charles Jeffrey), both attempts remain artificial, so much so that they seem to be reduced to a parody, to clumsy formal research, symptomatic of a certain apoliticalization of gender, now reduced to a simple mode of individual being.

tailoring sportswear, Cottweiler is engaged in an astute resignification of the “manly” elements of the male wardrobe of the British suburbs

Something else entirely is the approach of the young English brand Cottweiler and its design duo Ben Cottrell and Matthew Dainty. Tailoring sportswear since summer 2016, the designers are engaged in an astute resignification of the “manly” elements of the male wardrobe of the British suburbs. In this way, tracksuits are notable for their transparency (Spring-Summer 2017), sports jackets become crop-tops (Spring-Summer 2018), or shoulder bags typical of Gucci or Burberry, regularly worn by a fringe of working-class youth, adopt feminine traits and become confused with handbags (Fall-Winter 2018). The result is a disturbing hybridization, a kind of “subtle queer” 6, between “hegemonic” and “subordinate” masculinity, suggesting a singular way of rethinking the codes of virility now drained of its oppressive character. This approach is an astonishing follow-up to Yohji Yamamoto’s attempts to reconsider the formal male suit in the 1980s. By removing the padded shoulders and rounding them, moving buttons, pockets, and exaggerating hems, the Japanese designer was already considering the suit’s deconstruction, beyond its Savile Row heritage, by reconfiguring a notion of manhood, which he defined in his autobiography My Dear Bomb as “a practical invention to control people more easily.”

Cottweiler’s Instagram

Thus, contrary to a “masculinist” vision of virility, an absurd counter-offensive to feminist discourses, worried about the “replacement of gender by the irrevocable ratatouille” 7, Cottweiler seems on the contrary to introduce a “masculist” position8 by a skilful questioning of the sexual stereotypes of the garment in order to imagine the unoppressed man. Taking specifically the concept of virility as its subject, the attempt is complementary to the feminist project in that it contributes to the appeasement of gender relations by freeing man from his eternal normative virility. It is undoubtedly a relevant answer to the various partisans of a so-called “crisis of masculinity”, its own response being to outline a transfigured neo-masculinity, without, however, denying it. 

1 Like R.W. Connell, we obviously want to distinguish ourselves from any essentialist, positivist, normative, or semiotic approach to masculinity, to prefer a relational definition considering it in its relation to the notion of femininity, cf. R.W. Connell, Masculinities: Enjeux sociaux de l’hégémonie, Paris, Éditions Amsterdam, 2014, p. 65.
2 In his 1995 book Masculinities, R.W. Connell distinguished hegemonic, subordinate, complicit, and marginal masculinities. The first was defined by the procedures implemented to ensure patriarchy, when subordination referred rather to the dominated position of certain groups of men (homosexuals for example). For a recent update of these concepts, cf. R.W. Connell, James W. Messerschmidt, 2005. Hegemonic Masculinity. Rethinking the Concept, Gender & Society, Vol. 19, No. 6, pp. 829-859.
3 3 The construction and the set of representations assuring the validity of male domination, virility seems to be related in a transhistorical way to such concepts, cf. J.-J. Courtine (dir.), Histoire de la virilité, tome 3, Paris, Seuil, 2011, p. 8.
4 We distinguish masculinity and virility, in that the latter is only the attribute of certain masculinities. In this, we can imagine a multiplicity of masculinities, that is to say different ways of assuming the male role, for some non-virile, such as the possibility of virile femininities. The whole purpose here is to think of a new articulation between masculinity and manhood, outside its oppressive framework.
5 We refer here to figures as diverse as Rosa Bonheur, George Sand, Jane Dieulafoy, Madeleine Pelletier, or Violette Moriss, cf. Christine Bard, Les Garçonnes, Modes et fantasmes des Années folles, Paris, Flammarion, 1998.
6 Here I borrow Joe Bobowicz’s expression of Cottweiler’s work as “subtle queering” from his article published June 8, 2018 on showstudio.com.
7 A concern expressed notably by P. Muray in many interventions, cf. P. Muray, “Le monde sans femmes est à vous”, in P. Muray, Après l’histoire II, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2000.
8 Olivia Gazalé differentiates between “masculism” and “masculinism”. The term “masculism” postulates the existence of a “masculine cause to defend against sexual stereotypes”, unlike “masculinism” assimilated to an “affirmation of phallic power”. Olivia Gazalé, 2017, radio interview with Adèle Van Reeth, Les chemins de la philosophie, 13 October broadcast. Paris: France Culture.