In an interview last year, the actress Tilda Swinton remembered, as a child, seeing her mother and father (an Army major-general) going out for dinner, and recalled thinking, ‘I’d rather be handsome, as he is, for an hour, than pretty [like her mother] for a week’. Swinton found fame playing the title role in the film of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando — the ultimate gender-bender in that s/he literally changes from male to female halfway through. But the actress has retained an androgynous, starkly ethereal look and, with her fierce crop, aversion to make-up and austere clothes, she embodies the truth that a masculine style has always been appealing for many women.
In the 1930s, screen sirens such as Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and the fashion designer Coco Chanel donned trousers and mannish suits to assert their independence. Meanwhile, Amelia Earhart’s leather aviator jacket and silk tie complemented her delicate, heart-shaped face. Several decades on, a woman in man’s clothing still had a unique power. Who can forget that seminal scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), when Audrey Hepburn opens the door in a white men’s dress shirt? And when Yves Saint Laurent unveiled his trail-blazing ‘Le Smoking’ tuxedo jacket to the fashion elite in 1966, there was an audible intake of breath.
A few years back, we went through a fashion ‘moment’ where the notion was that girls raided their men’s wardrobes. There was the oversized white shirt, worn with mussed-up post-coital hair, the pilfered cashmere jumper, the cut of jeans marketed as ‘Boyfriend’.
Now it’s all gone a bit Annie Hall. The man-to-woman repertoire includes Church’s brogues (worn battered, with punky smudged eyeliner, if you’re Coco Sumner, or polished, with cropped jeans, if you’re glossy style expert Olivia Palermo), the Crombie coat, lumberjack and denim shirts and duffel coats. The classic theft of recent years has to be the leather biker jacket, as feminised by Alexa Chung. This season, we also have the Letterman, or ‘varsity’, jacket (as seen on the supermodel Cara Delevingne), cotton Oxford shirts and men’s pyjama shirts. Accessory-wise, we’ve nabbed the fedora (still risky), the beanie hat (positively pedestrian), smoking slippers (brightly monogrammed is best), Chelsea boots (again) and lace-up workman boots — as loved by coal miners, Colin Farrell and, er, teenage girls. A shirt, a blazer and a pair of Chelsea boots, teamed with leather trousers, is the classic look for Gallic style icons such as Vogue’s Emmanuelle Alt and the actress Clémence Poésy.
From the male rocker influence at Rick Owens, to the tomboyish off-duty model vibe at Alexander Wang, to the slim-cut suits at Stella McCartney and J Crew, every contemporary womenswear label has raided male sartorial style. At American Apparel, the high-street hipsters’ hangout, most of their stock comes with the label ‘unisex’.
The A-list stars of the Twilight franchise, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, seem to share all their clothes: their style is a compilation of baseball caps, skinny jeans, tennis shoes, hoodies and ‘wife-beater’ T-shirts. Sharing a wardrobe can be useful, after all. If you happen to date a man with a slender 14.5-inch neck and a fondness for brushed cotton shirts, as I do, then you find yourself with a lot of shirts at your disposal. During the last London Fashion Week, I snaffled a vintage burgundy shirt of his simply because it matched my lipstick. Unlike Dietrich et al, we are now so emancipated that we reach for the XXL tee as readily as the pencil skirt.
In a nod to Coco, Chanel recently cast Brad Pitt as the first male face of their signature fragrance, Chanel No. 5. But it cuts both ways, and women who are averse to the floral pungency of many fragrances are increasingly using male or unisex grooming products. Kiehl’s Facial Fuel, with its clean menthol smell, is bought by almost as many women as men. Me, I rarely stray from Acqua di Gio for Men, which I fell in love with a decade ago when I bought some for an ex-boyfriend. The boyfriend and I split before I could give the present — and ten years on, it remains my signature smell.
GET THE LOOK
A.P.C. Plaid cotton-flannel shirt, £150
J Brand Aiah leather biker jacket, £1,190
Gucci Studded leather brogues, £610
All available from www.net-a-porter.com