For the past century, women have regularly delved into the wardrobes of their boyfriends, husbands and lovers. Coco Chanel was an early adopter of borrowing from the boys when she tried out tweed sportswear from the capacious dressing rooms of her lover, the Duke of Westminster, and later transformed them into one of fashion’s most coveted trophy pieces – the Chanel jacket. (An influence that was recently acknowledged when Chanel launched its first gender-fluid fragrance, Boy, named after Coco’s other elegant lover, Arthur “Boy” Capel.) And a few decades later Yves Saint Laurent provided his clients with thrills when, inspired by the singular style of the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, he designed his first tuxedo suit for women – Le Smoking – in 1966. It was considered shocking even then: when Nan Kempner wore hers she was famously refused entrance to La Côte Basque restaurant in New York, so she removed the offending trousers and entered wearing her tux jacket as a minidress.
This autumn, international collections have once more been liberally sprinkled with menswear references. Proenza Schouler conjures a country club aesthetic with gilt-button black blazers (£1,185) and slouchy cream trousers (£940), while Dries Van Noten’s collection counts endless nods to old-school staples, from crisp white waistcoats (€340) and striped shirting (from €524) to dogstooth trouser suits (€642) and wonderful boyish overcoats (€884). At MaxMara there are chalkstripe trouser suits (price on request), while Ralph Lauren has tapped into his love of old‑world elegance with wide‑legged trousers (£2,720) in earthy suede paired with crisp shirting (£900), a tie (£147) and matching suede blazer (£4,045) or camel cashmere cardigan (£1,230). Alessandra Facchinetti also delved into men’s suiting at Tod’s, with red and blue check trouser suits (£2,300).
But bubbling beneath these almost routine forays into classic menswear staples there’s a deeper shift occurring. Earlier this year, Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri announced that from next year the Florentine house will merge its men’s and women’s shows – a move that reflects the changes Alessandro Michele has instigated since taking over as creative director in 2015. His catwalks have always been a gender bender fusion of haute bohemia – boys and girls indistinguishable in their colourful embroidered suits and whimsical sporty separates. “It seems only natural to me to present my men’s and women’s collections together,” Michele has said. “It’s the way I see the world today.” And he’s not alone – Burberry has also announced plans to blend its men’s and women’s shows this month, while on the Vetements catwalks male and female models are already intermingled into an amorphous, gender-ambiguous tribe.
Designers may have made headlines with these revolutionary changes, but in many ways they are only reflecting what’s been happening on shop floors as women increasingly shop across both men’s and women’s collections. At Gucci this season, the menswear line’s heavily embroidered velvet chinoiserie jacket (£6,650) and matching “leisure pants” (£3,700), vintage wool embroidered pyjama jacket (£1,150) and matching bottoms (£1,110), and embroidered deep green velvet tracksuit jacket (£1,110) and matching trousers (£2,890) are just as likely to be bought and worn by women. And at Matchesfashion.com, the Gucci cotton jersey sweatshirts (£510), snake intarsia wool sweaters (£510) and butterfly appliqué, snake-print tracksuit jackets (£725) from the men’s store are all snapped up as eagerly by female customers as by its male regulars. The boutique has also noted women investing in pieces from Raey’s menswear collection, including leopard-print raglan sleeve coats (£795) and patch-shoulder sweaters (£350), as well as items from Central Saint Martins graduate Grace Wales Bonner, such as black velvet suits (jacket, £1,090, trousers, £645) and high-waisted embroidered jeans (£715).
At some labels, menswear pieces are appropriated for the womenswear collection before they even hit the shop floor. At Joseph, for example, creative director Louise Trotter has been cherrypicking pieces from the menswear line during the design process since 2014. Men’s clothing has always held a fascination for Trotter: “There’s a certain level of quality and construction in menswear that’s almost been lost in womenswear,” she says from her office in Paris. “The scope is much narrower – you are limited to trousers, jackets and so on – but the research into the fit and finishing can be much deeper.” Trotter loves traditional techniques, borrowing not only the lines of, say, a classic pair of black trousers or a Crombie coat for her womenswear collections but also incorporating long-established tailoring constructions in the waistbands and fusing of linings.
Many pieces in Joseph’s current men’s and women’s collection are so in sync that it’s easy to imagine women shopping across both. “We work on the pre-collections and menswear collections simultaneously, so naturally the two cross-pollinate,” Trotter says. A men’s deep orange crewneck cashmere sweater (£295) and stretch velvet trousers (£295) echo looks in womenswear, and there’s little hint of any gender difference in the black scuba-jersey trousers with sporty red stripes (£195) or in a camel alpaca-wool coat (£895) except a tweaked placement of buttons. “There’s a certain woman who wants her masculine pieces to be totally authentic, not just a feminised version of a menswear item.”
Alex Eagle shares Trotter’s obsession with classic menswear. At her eponymous studio, the single-breasted deep royal blue wool coats (£765) are made by Jermyn Street tailor New & Lingwood and finished with a black velvet collar and horn buttons, focusing on the beautiful fabrics, details and longevity of bespoke tailoring. And J Crew has collaborated with London men’s outfitters Drake’s on a capsule collection of vivid silk pyjama-style shirts (£198) and trousers (£198) for women.
Alexander McQueen’s McQ line is purposefully designed to blur genders. The recently launched Swallow capsule collection includes oversized hoodies (£155), chunky knits (£250) and black roomy culottes (£310) that can be worn by either sex – a theme echoed in the main collection where striped black track tops (£310), slinky black zip-front hoodies (£325) and speckled ponyskin coats (£1,390) appeal to women just as much as men. Women regularly buy from the menswear departments at the vast new Dover Street Market in Haymarket too, making a beeline for Craig Green’s androgynous looks and pieces such as a nylon windbreaker (£105) from the Comme des Garçons Good Design Shop.
For Faye Toogood, another Dover Street Market stalwart, creating clothes her friends could wear irrespective of gender was a principle of the eponymous label she launched with her sister Erica in 2013. “We began to realise that our boyfriends and the guys we worked with were all starting to wear similar things to us,” she says. Their starting point was workwear-inspired pieces that would transcend time and gender. This season that includes a hand-quilted calico Explorer coat (£2,195), a sand-washed silk Draughtsman shirt (£550) and lightweight cashmere Acrobat trousers (£595) that all have a slouchy fit suited to both sexes. Toogood also incorporates devices that will adjust sizing – such as buttons or belt ties – as seen on the bestselling Photographer’s jacket (£3,195) in heavyweight cashmere, which can be worn undone or cinched in with a belt.
Indeed, Toogood was among the labels included in last year’s Agender project at Selfridges, a fashion floor devoted to collections that sang to both men and women and one of the first real commercial nods towards gender-neutral clothing. “We didn’t do any special product development,” says former buying director Judd Crane (now CEO of Proenza Schouler), “we just worked with our existing brands and took them out of their usual context.” The project was such a commercial hit that the store is now building on its success, identifying two key areas where both sexes happily shop across previously defined genders – avant-garde labels and streetwear. Menswear brand Off-White is typical of the latter, with female shoppers snapping up cotton hoodies (£255) in black or white with striped sleeves and checked cotton shirts (£275). The store’s menswear buyers have also noted women buying into Craig Green’s menswear collections, which have a particularly genderless workwear aesthetic; popular pieces with women include navy silk jackets (£760) with patch pockets and navy silk trousers (£590) with tie waists. “A few years ago, gender fluidity was much more niche, but now there doesn’t seem to be any stigma attached to women wearing men’s clothes or vice versa,” adds Crane. “No one cares which collection a piece came from.” And due to the slouchy shapes in many collections, sizing has not been an issue. Buyers at Selfridges, for example, will purchase multiple smaller sizes of the menswear pieces they think will sell well to female shoppers. And clothes being slightly oversized is, of course, a key element of the movement towards a more androgynous style.
This movement is, after all, only reflecting the changes in the world that millennials have grown up in. Unisex clothes and androgyny is not new, but the current wave is more fundamental and enduring. “Our roles in our homes and at work have changed. There’s a blurring between sexes and I think this shift is a symptom of that,” says Toogood. “The unisex clothing we are talking about is not about dressing like your boyfriend, a girl dressing as a man. It’s about having clothes that feel right – something we can work in and move in that feels comfortable.” And that, surely, is something most of us covet.