Controversial boundaries of gender-bending fashion in Nigeria
As a former high fashion runway model, I’ve seen my own fair share of androgyny and gender bending fashion statements grace the runway in the United States. They were often new and innovative twists to menswear that provided a fresh look and spin to men’s fashion. Recently, Nigerian androgynous male models wore mini-skirts in a fashion campaign that led to an outrage which was defended by the creator of the spread, as pushing the boundaries on exploring masculinity. (These are mainly directed at men because there is a double standard for women in virtually all societies, where women can openly wear male fashion and masculine articles of clothing with little to no scrutiny or critics.)
In some designers’ effort to stay on par with European fashion houses in pushing gender norms in male clothing, they sometimes miss the mark. Nigerians, in general, tend to seek international standards in many facets of contemporary social lifestyles which includes fashion. But could these gender-bending designs have deeper meaning? Are they a repressed desire to express alternate gender roles and challenge traditional roles? Because, if not, then surely there are other innovative ways of doing so without boxing in imagination by just styling a model in a dress so they end up literally cross dressing. Unless, of course, that is their innate intention. One of the male models for the spread even stated that wearing skirts was an opportunity to know how it feels to be a woman. So, is that the goal or even a sub goal?
Putting men in mini-skirts may be lacking creativity if the objective is to express and explore non-conventional dressing styles for men. The controversy in breaking status quo has arrived in Nigeria, though some celebrities like Denrele Edun have been bending the gender line when it comes to dressing over the years by donning high heels and feminine articles of clothing, and he remains a respected actor and personality in the Nigerian entertainment industry. Years ago, New York City Mayor, Rudy Gulianni openly cross dressed and today remains a respected politician in some Republican circles. So clearly, this is nothing “new,” per say, but it is rising in visibility in the new millennial culture era, here in Nigeria.
These days, we are inundated by the latest faces of male makeup artists and “stylists” who fill their social media pages, and appear in blogs, wearing fully made up faces, with long painted finger nails and lengthy eye lashes and oftentimes wearing feminine clothing and high heels. Some in Nigeria have asked why in spite of Nigerians’ strict conservative attitude towards gender norms, these dressing trends are not firmly denounced especially given the fact that there’s a law that prohibits homosexuality – an orientation which some say can be signified by such dressing.
Nigerian homosexuality law, under the Criminal Code of 1990, has a penalty of 14 years imprisonment for homosexual acts for either men or women. The Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, which passed in 2013 and was enacted in 2014, penalizes with 10 years imprisonment, anyone found guilty of belonging to gay organizations, supporting same-sex marriages, or displaying same-sex affection in public and 14 years in prison for any Nigerian who marries a person of the same sex. There’s no insinuation that men who wear pieces of feminine articles of clothing are unequivocally homosexuals, after all a number of them have vehemently declared the contrary. Yet, with the government going as far as governing sexual activities between individuals, they have also set an invisible borderline for those who challenge the traditional gender norms including of clothing and dressing.
What is the difference between gender-bending clothing and full drag? Drag queens are men who dress in elaborate pageant-like women’s clothing equipped with full hair enhancements, cinched waists, equipped with bodice-like figures, oftentimes with high heels and a full face of makeup to simulate the image of a women. The most popular drag queen, hands down, has to be RuPaul who found fame in the early 1990s with television appearances and a music career, making dance tracks such as the hit single, Supermodel (You Better Work) in 1992, and a recently released track, Call me Mother.
When some men take on these feminine personas, they often make statements referring to leader matriarchal figures which can make critics wonder if these outward expressions are from an overwhelming admiration for the strong female figures in their lives and if wearing female adornments is a way of paying homage to the same women. RuPaul was raised by women when abandoned at a young age by his father, he therefore draws great inspiration from the female images he saw in his childhood.
As more male brands begin to bend the barrier between masculine and feminine clothing for their consumers, what does this mean for the future of Nigerian gender norms in public? Will it initiate subtle changes in culture – one of acceptance and tolerance for alternative expressions of gender? Time will tell.