Rock can have a habit of making one think of the most masculine and testosteronic of men. It sometimes seems strapped in leather and aggression, screamed lyrics, and dirty hair. But interestingly enough, there also exists a sense of androgyny in rock: An ambiguous style that tiptoes on the feminine, which only makes the participators come across as all the more masculine. Or at least, that used to be the case. Throughout the past decade or so, there's arguably been a gender-bending decline on airwaves and in concert halls. These days, one of the most risqué things a band member might wear is skinny jeans and shoulder-length hair. Which leads me to ask, where did the androgyny in rock go?
From the '50s pouty-lipped Elvis who swung his hips in a way that likely made any man of yesteryear loosen his tie in turned-on confusion, to the '90s Kurt Cobain and his princess tiaras, rock has enjoyed a history of gender-bending players who challenged the cultural ideas of masculinity. Whether we're talking about the Peacock Revolution in the '70s or the lycra-wearing, bang-feathering glam rock of the '80s, the subversiveness of inviting femininity onto the stage only added to their virility.
Androgynous individuals in rock have long proved that one needn't fit into the tight confines of stereotypical masculinity in order to be a man. Below are the men who upended the definition of masculinity with their androgynous style in rock, and some musings as to why their progressiveness might have gone out of style.
1. Elvis Presley, OG Pretty Boy
When you think of androgynous rock legends, the likes of Ziggy Stardust and Prince might come to mind: Kate-Moss-hipped, platform-wearing dudes who knew just what to do with their feather boas. But it could be argued that Elvis was the one who started it all in terms of androgyny.
The Observer explained, "The most important aspect of Elvis’ legacy is something so obvious that it has defied revelation: Elvis Presley invented androgyny as the standard template for the rock/pop frontman. Elvis did not succeed because of the myth that he was the first white boy who sang like a Black man. Elvis succeeded because he was the first white boy singer who looked like a pretty white girl."
Before Presley and his pouty lips, the stuff of rock legends was basically a dictionary definition of a "manly man." The genre slowly evolved out of R&B and doo-wop in the '40s, when the likes of the more traditional Ivory Joe Hunter or Amos Milburn tore up the scene. When Elvis went onstage with his eyeliner and fast moving hips, a new element was introduced: androgyny.
The Observer added, "[No rock star] had been pretty like a girl, and certainly none had combined such a look with an absolutely assured male presence that was virtually palatable in every photo or recorded yelp and hiccup." Yep, Elvis was the poster child of the "pretty boy."
2. Mick Jagger's Virile Dresses
While Mick Jagger might have had a penchant for flouncy dresses with Princess Diana-like collars, there was nothing effeminate about him. From wearing white frocks with Renaissance poet collar detailing, to donning pencil skirts over jeans, Jagger proved that one could be both camp and masculine at the same time. According to The BBC, "The Swinging '60s saw Jagger enter a foppish, dandy phase, sporting top hats, scarves, jewelry, ruffled shirts, and velvet coats. This almost androgynous look, with its Sun King flamboyance, pooh-poohed the priggish, masculine codes of the establishment."
Jagger challenged the notion that a man couldn't hold onto his masculinity if he allowed himself to enjoy traditionally female looks. The BBC continued, "Combining camp with cockiness, Jagger’s aesthetic was at once virile and feminine, much like fellow rock star Jimi Hendrix and, in later decades, Prince."
While his pillow lips and dandy-like outfits might have made those with more traditional lines of thinking question his sexuality, his straightness was rarely in doubt by the masses — not when he was wrapped up in catwalk models more often than not. To put it simply, Jagger championed the notion that virility and femininity could go hand in hand.
3. Marc Bolan's Glitter Bombed Rock Look
Marc Bolan's looks were often a gender-bending assault on masculinity, what with his penchant for teaming top hats with feather boas and smearing glitter on his cheeks. Dazed painted a picture, writing, "Marc Bolan was the curly-haired, leopard print sporting, feather boa rocking guitar player and singer of T.Rex who pioneered the glittered cheekbone look. While on stage, Bolan rocked stacked heels alongside lavish satin jumpsuits and top hats, topped off with stern and yet sultry pose and a pair of brogue-style platforms." That isn't really a style you see rocked by dudes too often in the pages of GQ today, right? He was all glitz and flash, but his glamour-boy looks seemed to only heighten his masculine edge on stage.
Cilla Black, who performed with him on The Cilla Show, told the Telegraph, "It was like being jealous of your best girlfriend. He had everything — the hair, the eyes, the makeup, the glam. The worrying thing was you did kind of fancy him, being this feminine-looking guy." Truth be told, femming up your look back then often heightened your masculinity, rather than detracting from it.
Women loved him, men wanted to be him, and with his sparkle, he kept the Peacock Revolution and this progressive sense of masculine style alive.
4. Prince's Soft But Testosteronic Style
Prince arguably lived in his own world — one without labels. In his 1984 song “I Would Die 4 U," he showed how a person could easily embody both maleness and femaleness. The lyrics sang, “I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I’m something that you’ll never understand."
So did this kaleidoscope-like take on gender break down the idea of masculinity, or did it help construct a broader spectrum of it? The very core of Prince's identity was that one didn't have to be masculine to be a man. In his 1999 song "Prettyman," for instance, he explained, "The way I wear my knickers around this booty tight. Make a sister wanna call me up every night.” Boy could wear the laciest of thongs and women would still come knocking on his door.
Slate aptly wrote, "Prince didn’t just disregard the boundaries of gender and sexuality: He kicked straight through them in platform heels, gyrating his very visible bulge in naysayers’ faces for good measure."
Just take a look at his album covers for proof. On the back cover of 1980's Dirty Mind , we see Prince stretched out lazily, wearing thigh-highs, bikini bottoms, and platform booties; the pose hinting at the languid sexuality of a woman. On 1986's Parade , he struck a stance that looked mid-vogue, with immaculately shaped eyebrows, eyeliner, and a crop top that stopped just short of the nipple. Or how about 1988’s Lovesexy cover, for which he is both feminine and masculine, posing naked on top of giant flower petals, demurely hiding his breasts like a woman, but displaying his masculinity with his chest hair and mustache?
Prince was totally free from gender conformity, but that didn't take away from his masculinity. Huffington Post explained, "He actively questioned the idea that presenting as feminine or androgynous somehow dictates one’s sexual orientation. Prince was soft. He was all frills and satin, lycra and lace. He was all those things, and he loved women. A lot." With his aesthetics, he proved how obsessed society has long been with putting people into tightly-defined boxes — masculine or feminine, gay or straight.
5. Richey Edwards' Fur Coats
The band Manic Street Preachers brought glam rock back into a plaid-obsessed, engineer-boot-wearing decade. With Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire being dubbed the "Glamour Twins" by much of the world, they brought glitter and tiaras into the grunge age. According to music blog One Week One Band, "The Manics never really bought into rock’s testosterone mythology — they’ve always been determinedly androgynous (albeit reluctantly, in some cases), and their entire aesthetic has drawn heavily on the more gender-bending aspects of rock’s past: glam, LA Spandex rock, punk."
Edwards donned fur coats and leopard print blouses, while Wire put on the odd dress and slipped into black lace. Their styles were edgy and fey, whereby they gave "an explosion of Paris '68-style sloganeering and Motley Crue-style makeup methods, 'a mess of eyeliner and spray paint,' they injected glamour into a drab, dressed-down age," according to the Independent. But was this aesthetic for show, or did it have a purpose?
One Week One Band reported, "They’re one of the few bands to look honestly at what it means to be male, and to understand that as with any aspect of sexuality, masculinity is a spectrum — not, as Richey Edwards once wrote, a 'fixed ideal.'" The Glamour Twins rallied against the notion that there was only one right way to look like a man.
6. Kurt Cobain's Dresses
Kurt Cobain's scraggly beard and sweet babydoll dresses brought a flippant subversion to punk that didn't so much as question the rules of masculinity, but made many wonder why we even cared in the first place.
As The Guardian explained, "Using clothes to play with gender in this way isn’t just about looking pretty: It’s highlighting the edges of society, celebrating outsiders and questioning norms." His mindset was progressive — showing up to concerts wearing prom dresses and posing on magazine covers in his girlfriend's skirts — but more than that, he proved that a man could still be metal and aggressive without the tough-guy exterior.
New York Magazine reported, "Per Christopher Sanford’s biography of him, Cobain would dress up in a pink bathrobe or women’s underwear for meetings with his record label. He went to a photo shoot wearing a ball gown and a stole. But he was publicly nonchalant about the meaning behind these choices."
It would seem he chose them not to make a statement, but because they were simply an option. New York Magazine continued, "When Melody Maker asked him, in 1992, why he’d chosen to wear a white babydoll dress in the video for 'In Bloom,' he demurred. 'I really don’t know why. I like to wear dresses because they’re comfortable. If I could wear a sheet, I would. I don’t know what to say … if I said we do it to be subversive, then that would be a load of shit, because men in bands wearing dresses isn’t controversial anymore.'"
Cobain not only made androgyny seem less radical and, as he put it, uncontroversial, but almost a meaningless option.
7. So Where Did Androgyny Go Today?
After grunge took its seat as a passing fad, the need to challenge the cultural idea of masculinity seemingly went away with it. Rather than continue to upend society's celebration of macho bravado and strict guidelines on masculinity, rock settled into a comfortable "every man" look. If we take a peak at the top charts, we'll notice that those who own rock's airwaves aren't tiptoeing the line of femininity; they're not blurring any gender lines. The Guardian pointed out, "A quick scan of the charts shows that — just as in the pre-glam era — being a regular guy is the thing. There’s the buttoned-up, Sinatra-influenced smartness of Mark Ronson, the T-shirts and jeans of Years & Years, and the hats and hair combo of singer-songwriter types such as James Bay."
While there is still a smattering of musicians that shoulders the look — from the glam rock group Steel Panthers to Lenny Kravitz — it seems we've mostly reverted back into a defensive stance when it comes to questioning gender and sexuality. Take Kanye West's foray into kilts, for example. "West, hardly conservative when it comes to clothes, apparently tried to remove images of himself wearing the kilt from photography agency Getty after negative press online," reported The Guardian.
A reason as to the change might be that we feel like we can't afford to experiment right now. Paul Gorman, fashion curator and author of The Look, explained to The Guardian, “Young people have become more conservative in the last 20 years and they’re kind of anti this stuff. In the '80s, we could afford to experiment; that might not be the case for the post-recession generation.”
The Smithsonian pointed out that androgyny also went away in the late '70s for a while, when a recession hit and many felt like they needed to fit into society's neatly drawn boxes in order to get and keep employment. "Unisex fashion waned in the mid-to-late '70s. Workers struggling to land jobs in a weak economy sought a more conservative style ... bringing back suits for men and inspiring Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses for women."
Maybe it could also be that with the dawn of the noughties, many felt there was no longer anything to fight for. The Smithsonian suggested, "Ultimately ... unisex fashion [can be interpreted as] a reflection of political and social upheaval. As the feminist movement gained steam and women fought for equal rights, their clothing became more androgynous. Men, meanwhile, discarded gray flannel suits — and the restrictive version of masculinity that came with them — by appropriating feminine garments." But with the focus being on financial stability, the fight for equal rights seemingly took a back seat, and along with it the political statement of androgyny.
That's on the upswing now, though. Over the past few years, debates around transgender identity, gay marriage, contraception, and women's rights have reopened, bringing with them an aesthetic that once again gender bends. From Gucci dressing its male models in pussy-bow blouses and sassy berets, to Givenchy giving Julia Roberts a hard, masculine edge in its campaigns that dripped of Patti Smith androgyny, we just might be getting a slow comeback.
Ambiguity, we've been waiting for you.
Images: The Face (1); Melody Maker (1); GynMusic Srl (1); Warner Bros. (1)