High heels, red lips, long capes, and makeup were some products that King Louis XIV of France, the “Sun King,” wore almost every single day. He was an aristocrat, a powerful man who got together with other powerful people in Europe for professional and personal affairs back in the 17th century. The king wore high heels to be taller than the people around him, so he was always the tallest in the room. He was very interested in symbols of power and wealth, so not only did he wear the highest heels in Versailles, but he also made the sole of the shoe red. Red was an expensive color at that time in France because the dye came from little bugs called cochineals, so lots of time was required to produce it.

Jewelled buckles and red heels and soles were symbols of wealth that King Louis XIV of France enjoyed. Image Courtesy of Royal Collection Trust.

The high heel shoes were covered with layers of fabric, another indication of his wealth and power. The more fabric and height you had, the more powerful you were.

In contrast, during the second decade of the 21st century, high heels with a red sole and a long evening gown have a different meaning. It is still associated with wealth because Christian Louboutin started making red sole footwear in 1992, inspired by Louis XIV, and creates high heel shoes that can cost over $12,000 USD. But we see these heels mostly in women, and we see long gowns and capes mostly in women as well.

Embellished mules by Christian Loboutin at Saks Fifth Avenue.

So how did high heel shoes with red soles become an accessory that targeted women when the most powerful man in France wore them with pride four centuries ago, and no one doubted his masculinity or his power? Is footwear “masculine” or “feminine”? Or is it our perception of the world around us that gives meaning to the objects and the fashion around us?

Today we’ll go over some examples in fashion history that prove how enby fashion has always been with us across historical moments. We didn’t refer to it as enby fashion centuries ago, not even a few years ago. But by looking at history from a more objective perspective, it’s easier to realize that we have been gendering fashion for a very long time with no need.

Key concepts

Nonbinary fashion represents the variety of identities in the world. Image Courtesy of The Cut.

Before we start, let’s go over a few important concepts defined by Free & Equal United Nations that will help to understand better the gender spectrum and what gender is.

Gender Identity: Reflects a deeply felt and experienced sense of one’s own gender. Everyone has a gender identity, which is part of their overall identity. A person’s gender identity is typically aligned with the sex assigned to them at birth. 
Transgender: An umbrella term used to describe people with a wide range of identities – including transsexual people, cross-dressers, people who identify as third gender, and others whose appearance and characteristics are seen as gender atypical and whose sense of their own gender is different to the sex that they were assigned at birth. 
Cisgender: A term used to describe people whose sense of their own gender is aligned with the sex that they were assigned at birth. (Free & Equal United Nations). This means that if you were designated the male sex at birth and you identify as a man, you are cisgender.

Gender is different from sexual orientation. Gender has to do with how one identifies one’s self, and sexual orientation has to do with who we are attracted to.

Let’s start this journey in enby fashion history with the very first humans that lived on Earth. Those who were nomads and lived walking and searching for food and warmth. They used the skin of the animals they haunted to do their clothes and protect themselves from the extremely cold temperatures. They sewed the clothes with needles they did out of bones and sharped with rocks or other bones. The main objective of these clothes was to protect, and so the shape of the garment was very similar for men, women, and for people of all genders.

Nonbinary fashion since we were nomads. The goal of clothing was to stay warm. Image Courtesy of Newsweek.
Clothing in Ancient Greece was primarily fabric draped around the body. It can be argued that fashion was nonbinary back then. Image Courtesy of AWorkStation.
In Ancient Greece, the clothing came mainly from a big rectangle of fabric draped around the body, and there was no big difference between genders and how they draped these fabrics. 

Gender Roles and Gendered Fashion

Humans came to the world knowing that clothes have the function of protecting us, and there was no need to gender them because the need for warmth was shared among all genders. However, somewhere in time, we stained our concept of clothes with the idea that there is menswear and womenswear. A huge reason for this gendered boxing has to do with the power that the Catholic Church had for centuries and the Western colonizers.

They established rules that allowed them to have a hierarchy system where women had a subordinate relationship with men. 
The gender roles are illustrated in the clothes of a period in history. French nobles of the 16th century. Image Courtesy of World4.EU

These gender roles include women having to contribute to the good of their families by focusing on domestic duties and men going into the labor force and objectifying women for their own pleasure. Fashion reflected the participation that each gender had in society, which made the difference between menswear and womenswear more evident. Men’s clothing allowed men to move, run, walk, fight in battles, and dress and undress without any issues. Women’s clothing restricted movement and focused on the aesthetic more than its wearability. So it was very common to see layers of fabric and crinolines that required help from someone to get dressed and undressed. 

We gender clothes because we gender each other. We are born into this world, and a gender is assigned to us with a list of expectations about what we should do and be based on our gender. But what is gender?

 Gender is a social and psychological construct that changes with time and location. What it meant to be a woman in the 18th century in France is very different from what it means to be a woman in Russia in 2022 or in California in 2010. Gender is not a static idea because with research, social movements, and political changes, we change our idea of gender.

Women in the 1930’s and women in the 1990’s. The clothes talk about the gender roles of each decade. Image Courtesy of Industry Global News 24 and Retrowaste.

So where does enby fashion come in? A movement that aims that fashion should not be gendered, and clothing represents people’s identity and not the expectations that society has of us. In certain moments of history, we’ve seen some brave people challenging the idea of gender, realizing they could wear any clothes and not follow gender roles. A great example of this is Mulan.

Mulan and Genderless Fashion

Mulan is ultimately the first character to think of clothes as nonbinary, since she could overcome the obstacles of wearing “men’s clothes” and follow gender roles. Image Courtesy of El Heraldo.

The classical Disney movie is inspired by a legendary heroine from the Northern Wei dynasty (386-535 AD). As the movie itself, the legend describes the journey of a young and brave woman who dressed up as a man to take her very old father’s place in the army. Mulan wore “men’s clothes” while she was in the army, speaking like a “man” and “behaving” like a man. 

She didn’t seem to doubt her gender at any point in the story, nor she doubted what gender she was attracted to. She simply put a pair of pants on, removed her makeup, cut her long hair, and did what women of her time didn’t do.

Mulan wears men’s clothes, but that didn’t change the perception of her gender identity or her sexual orientation, which is a very common belief around genderless and nonbinary fashion. Image Courtesy of Teen Vogue.

 Did Mulan wear enby (or genderless) fashion? Yes, because wearing menswear was not a limitation for her, and she made clothes assigned to a man suit her. Mulan challenged the social norms of what women should do and what women should wear. This is a spectacular example of how someone who identifies as a woman or a man may not accept gendered clothing or gendered roles. And this has nothing to do with one’s gender identity and everything to do with all the social expectations that we didn’t sign up for based on our gender. 

Another important point about enby fashion is the vagueness of what masculine and feminine mean. Since gender roles change, fashion changes and everything around is changing so quickly; it’s often hard to divide into a strict list the masculine and feminine characteristics. Additionally, what was masculine 100 years ago, is not entirely masculine in today’s world. A clear example in fashion history of this phenomenon is our perception of pink. 

Pink was considered a masculine color prior to World War II. 

Pink hasn’t always been a “girly” color. Barbie in pink gown. Image Courtesy of IBZ Store.

The most prevalent hypothesis is that pink was associated with fiery, anger, and ¨masculinity¨ because it was a shade of red, a bold and energetic color with power. On the other hand, blue was linked to the softness and calmness of the Virgin Mary, so it was perceived as a feminine and gentle color. 

When Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli introduced a bold shade of pink in her collection and called it “shocking pink”, it was a movement of empowerment that was well-received by most consumers and inspired other designers to follow the same pink path in womenswear.

But the turning point in our perception of pink happened during World War II. In concentration camps, the Nazis made homosexual prisoners wear a pink triangle in their uniforms. (Time)

The Nazis condemned homosexuality, claiming that it went against the “natural order of things”. During the Holocaust, some journalists from the British press praised Hitler’s decision of condemning homosexuality, describing the murder of gay men as “cleaning up”. (Holocaust Learning).

Out of shame, a dictatorship, and a strong indication of punishing homosexuality, pink became a color of weakness, delicate, tender, and ultimately feminine.

Homosexuality was punished during the Holocaust. Gay prisoners wore a pink triangle in their uniform. Image Courtesy of Time.

In today’s world, pink is still viewed as a feminine and “soft” color, but people of all genders wear it, and it’s more common than ever to see cisgender straight men wearing pink shirts without the prejudices and shame around this color, that were prevalent during World War II. 

The pink triangle was reclaimed by the gay community as a symbol to find a sense of belonging and thrive against adversity. Illustration by Sofie Birkin.

Pink is what we want it to be. We give meaning to the colors, and that’s how we perceive them. But pink doesn’t have a feminine nor a masculine nature to it that makes it exclusive to a certain gender. We could say the same thing about skirts, suits, high heels, lipsticks, dresses, glitter, neckties, sequins, fur, lace, hosiery, lingerie, shapewear, loafers, high boots, espadrilles, athletic footwear, bow ties, handbags, underwear, tuxedos, glasses, hats, jewelry, umbrellas, backpacks, socks. And the list can go on. 

Enby fashion is a mindset where clothes are not gendered, where we wear what we feel comfortable wearing. 

Lil Nas X wore a “women’s suit” to the Tom Ford fashion show in 2020. Image Courtesy of Pop Sugar.

As more women wear neckties, more men wear pearls, and more people outside the binary spectrum are raising their voices to be recognized by the fashion industry, we see that enby fashion is here to stay. 

From a fresher perspective, it’s easier to see that gender roles are inherited from Colonial times when we believed that everything revolves around the Earth and that light has a speed. If we now know Earth revolves around the Sun, and the light travels at one nano second per foot, why do we still believe there are gender roles to follow?