Text by Mitchell Kuga
For 21of21, GOOGLE SHOPPING and PAPER came together to break down some of the most memorable shopping moments of 2021 based on Google's trending search data. In April, Google search interest for “gender neutral clothes” reached a high, proof that the 21st century is all about wearing what makes you feel good. The new fashion rule is that there are no fashion rules. Below, legendary celebrity stylist and “image architect” Law Roach brings the trend to life.
There was a time not so long ago when a man wearing a pearl necklace used to mean something: that he was theatrical, kitschy and defiantly swishy — a “friend of Dorothy” who took pleasure in winking at the necklace’s sexual innuendo. Not so much anymore.
Take one man I noticed recently at a cafe in Honolulu, waiting for his coffee. He was dressed casually in all black — baseball hat, tank top, swim trunks — save for the strand of luminescent pearls that cradled his Adam’s apple like a sling. Was it meant to bolster or subvert that most masculine of laryngeal protrusions? Conventionally masculine in appearance, I interpreted his pearl necklace as Gen Z hanky code, a way of signaling his desires on stealth, and steadied my gaze appropriately (he was strikingly handsome). But then a woman entered the frame and touched the small of his back in a way that signaled possession. The pair kissed. Had I been wearing any, I would have clutched my pearls.
I know: a gay millennial scratching his head over straight cis men adopting the long-held codes of queer culture feels narrow, slippery, antiquated. It’s reminiscent of the early 2000s, when the spectre of the metrosexual — straight men living in big cities who were suddenly indulging their femininity, en masse — haunted the norms of American masculinity, and became the star of multiple articles in the newspaper of record. It described men who bought expensive face lotions and hair products and yet still proclaimed themselves as “straight.”
But rather than attempting to collapse the space between gay and straight, or male and female, the new codes for men’s fashion feel genderless, less interested in flirting with the feminine than disrupting the very concept of gendered fashion all together. A skirt is just fabric; a pearl necklace is just a string of calcium carbonate that slowly forms in a shelled mollusk (or as is often the case, imitation plastic from China). By men I mean the cis, conventionally masculine variety who worship at the feet of Virgil Abloh’s Off-White Nikes, who know the song “Watermelon Sugar” is about the female orgasm. Spurred by COVID, TikTok and the outsized influence of a handful of prominent celebrities, men are finally starting to break free, dressing in ways that feel liberating, expansive, dizzying. The presiding spirit, which must be sung in the key of Madonna: “Express Yourself” (hey, hey).
On the street, these codes look like small but mighty talismans: Mini Telfar bags the color of tropical Skittles, beaded necklaces not unlike the ones you strung at 8th grade summer camp, a dangly pearl earring (just one) that has ScarJo shaking in her boots. On the runway: Form-fitting Dion Lee halters with peek-a-boo slits; the amorphous, shapeshifting woosh of a Rick Owens dress; a Thom Browne skirt — pleated, gray, knee-length — that manages to exude both uniformity and rebellion. At the club it looks like glow-and-the-dark nail polish clutching a mini Luar purse, the nonbinary streetwear of Gyspy Sport, Phlemuns, Barragan, Vaquera, Hood By Air, Eckhaus Latta, Puppet and Puppets and Collina Strada, to name just a few. On television it’s Kid Cudi wearing an Off-White floral dress for his performance on SNL; Lil Nas X on The Tonight Show in a red Louis Vuitton kilt; Team Liberia parading Telfar-designed activewear at the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics (think shoulder exposing half-tanks and flowy slitted sweats); Bowen Yang at the Emmys, teetering in metallic Syro platforms; and every time Harry Styles breathes.
The effect is celebratory, like dressing for what it means to reemerge into the world again, born anew. Fashion editors have been calling it dopamine dressing, or the tendency for shoppers (even New Yorkers!) to gravitate towards bright colors and loud prints — anything to soothe the anxieties of an outstretched pandemic. To me it feels more like apocalypse dressing — not the connotations of a drab doomsday wardrobe, but the liberation from rules, of getting dressed on borrowed time, and making up for the loss of it. What’s the point of abiding by made up rules anymore when the end feels imminent?
These are looks that feel worked out during the isolation of quarantine, when we were forced to reconsider what it means to get dressed with no one to please but ourselves — and perhaps the one billion people on TikTok. Many of the trends currently being flaunted on the streets first incubated there, on the clock app, where playing with gender takes on different, safer dimensions than it does IRL. The hashtag #Femboys became a hub where men joyfully twirled in skirts and garters in the comfort of their bedrooms, to horny comments from mostly women. An offshoot, #MaidTok, features men posing in sexy maid outfits, often with their girlfriends in the frame. Pearl necklaces abound, often on men who are pointedly straight. Some, like Cooper Neidecker, have managed to monetize the accessory while crafting their identities around it, selling homemade mashups on Depop (a recent one reads “I’m♥Harry♥Styles”) for $69 a pop.
In 2021, all roads on the genderless superhighway lead to Styles, who has a penchant for showing up on the red carpet in feather boas, frilly blouses, and a single pearl earring. The artist often speaks about how he doesn’t think too much about who the clothes he wears were originally meant for—to him, it’s all just tools of self-expression.
Of course Styles is not the first, he’s just the current one. Before Styles there was Bowie, Prince, Sir Elton, Little Richard. Kid Cudi’s aforementioned floral dress was a tribute to Kurt Cobain, who had been known to wear floral printed dresses in his day. In India, men have been wearing pearl necklaces since the early 16th century; in Persia, heels since at least the 10th century (long before women); and in ancient Egypt, skirts since before time was recorded. But what’s changed are the signifiers, or lack thereof.
Styles' ascension as the unofficial spokesperson for genderless fashion feels both hopeful and troubling. On the one hand, there’s immense power in a mega-celebrity like himself wearing a dress on the cover of America’s most influential fashion magazine, an incredible gesture that says, It just looks good. It’s comfortable. Ironically, sometimes there’s a flavor of machismo to the approach taken by straight men, as if wearing a dress serves to reinforce the very gender binary genderless fashion seeks to skewer (It takes a real man to wear a dress). On the other, femme-identified trans and nonbinary people are rarely afforded that privilege; for so many, that same dress is rife with salvation, both portal and lifeline, but it also holds the potential for violence.
Though we’ve long claimed that “genderless fashion is the future,” it’s become evident that that future has arrived. According to Google, “gender neutral clothes” have become a “breakout search term,” which begs the question: In a world where men in pearl necklaces are aggressively straight, and gay men favor Kirkland tennis shoes and Carhartt overalls (despite having never operaeted a power tool), does fashion still contain the power to signify?
In Los Angeles, a friend recently slipped off his sandals to reveal toenails the color of caution tape. When I asked him if his wife did it, he shook his head. Silence. He just felt like it. There was nothing left to say.
VP of Production & Casting: Katie Karole, Executive Creative Director: Jordan Bradfield, Digital Director & Casting: Justin Moran, Art Director: Malcolm Mammone, Managing Editor (21of21): Laia Garcia-Furtado, Managing Editor (PAPER): Eliza Weinreb, Producer: Juli DiNicola, DP & Video Editor: Nicholas Lattimore, Stylist: Roberto Johnson, Hair: Antoinette Hill, Makeup: Amber Amos, Set Designer: David Wright