The blurring of the sexes is nothing new in popular culture, but androgyny is finally being accepted by the general populace.
Nobody knows exactly how the models kept a straight face as they made their way down the runway. Nor do we know whether wispy beards, shaving your head or painting your face green will catch on as a fashion statement. But we do know the reason behind the odd display at Berlin Fashion Week last week. Called Unity, the collection by controversial Munich-based designer Patrick Mohr, who has frightened audiences at previous shows by using both homeless people (a la Zoolander) and uber-tanned body builders, was all about "a unity between the sexes".
The models, both male and female were chosen specifically for their androgynous looks, then had their hair hidden underneath skull caps and wispy beards attached to their pretty faces. The result: bearded men in skirts and bald, bare chested women on the runway trying, one might imagine, not to crack up. And in fact, Mohr's little trick did work: in many cases, evidence of female cleavage, minimal as most runway models' is, was the only way to know who was Arthur and who was Martha.
Just another example of traditional Germanic bad taste, up there with David Hasselhoff and three-quarter leather pants - or a potent portent of humankind's future?
Androgynous style has always been cool - shorthand for interesting and individualist. Look at David Bowie and Patti Smith. But androgyny could be more than that, so much more. It has even been said that the ideal state is an androgynous one because it offers a tasty combo-pack of the best male and female traits. And now that fashion, the sprinter in the pop cultural race for the next big thing, is having a seriously androgynous moment, the question must be posed: could a man in eyeliner and a bearded woman really be the ultimate, most evolved manifestation of our species?
Major brands, including Yves Saint Laurent, Kenzo, Lanvin, Rick Owens - his male models were described as "nuns in stripper heels" by one reviewer - and Karl Lagerfeld, have been blurring the boundaries in fashion recently, presenting men in leggings, skirts, aprons or kilts, and women in suits and other tougher, masculine or unisex styles. Popular chains like American Apparel and Uniqlo offer hundreds of unisex garments: items like skinny jeans, leggings, oversized T-shirts, tailored blazers and lace-up shoes are popular with both sexes.
Androgyny has its stubby little fingers in many a pie. The brutish "is it a she or a he?" question has been liberally applied to the likes of Lady Gaga as well as US basketball player Brittney Griner, who has been touted as a new, more athletic ideal of feminine beauty. Delicious movie star Robert Pattinson of the Twilight series, is so pretty he could be a girl. And a new movie, The Runaways, about the 70s all-girl rock band starring Kristen Stewart as guitar player Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as lingerie-wearing vocalist Cherie Currie, sees the two female leads, both tomboys, having a casual affair.
But of course, that's not all - and none of this is new. If we define androgyny simply as a blurring of female and male identities (rather than sexual preference, which is something different altogether), then we have had plenty of androgynous good times in the past too. As Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1928 novel, Orlando: "In every human being, a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place".
That proposition is an ancient one. Hapi, the ancient Egyptian god of the Nile was of indistinct gender as was the Greek god of wine and partying, Dionysus. In fact, the whole argument about the androgynous being better comes from ancient Greece where many citizens believed that the body, with its attendant material desires, was corrupt, while the mind, or reason, was more pure. Sexuality - the split between men and women - was a necessary evil. But whether you were male or female meant absolutely nothing once your spirit returned to the greater universe - a sexless being once again.
According to historians, Christianity put a stop to that malarkey. The Christian religion said that because we were creations of a higher being rather than just some evolutionary accident, we must behave according to the roles assigned to us by that higher being.
And with some notable exceptions over the past century - examples include Coco Chanel in the 1910s, Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn in the 1930s, Liberace in the 1960s and Yves Saint Laurent's Le Smoking pantsuit for ladies in 1966 - that is the way things have mostly been.
It is generally considered that modern androgyny didn't really hit the big time until musician David Bowie is brought it back with his heels and makeup in the 1970s. Many and varied examples followed in his ravishing trail of glitter and sweat, spanning the last few decades (see sidebar), and every now and then androgynous looks have been a noteworthy trend.
Recently though, the speed at which those trends have moved seems to have increased. For one thing it feels like being ambiguous about your gender is no longer all that counter-cultural. It's about as subversive as an All Black using moisturiser. No big deal.
And as some pundits have already said, today's androgyny is less about gender-bending and more about gender-blending. It is an altogether softer process. For men, it is not about transvestites or being a drag queen - that is, a man trying to look like like a woman. Rather it is about wearing some women's clothing in the process of pulling together an eclectic look. One American psychologist describes it as "gender fluidity," adding that among the hip kids, it is not only tolerable but downright fashionable. Another says it is no longer "so much a question of gender anymore as what we find sexy and beautiful".
It feels like androgyny's many previous appearances - whether it be in rock 'n' roll, on screen or in fashion - have finally added up to some sort of increased acceptance by the general populace. This may have to do with the fact women have become more powerful (in Western countries at least) and rather than choosing outfits to please males, they primarily choose to please themselves - getting in touch with their masculine side if they want. Meanwhile, thanks to what is known as the "metrosexual movement" and the fact the fashion and beauty industries are targeting them more, men are also more inclined to experiment in what have been traditionally considered female realms.
Another major factor in the growing acceptance of androgyny is the fact that societies are becoming more secular, moving away from the traditional Christian model of the nuclear family where Mum does the dishes in a dress and Dad wears the pants and goes out to work.
Which is also part of the reason not everyone agrees with the "androgynous ideal", as it has been called. Just like the ancient Greeks, many researchers have seen androgyny as a positive, indicating a flexible human being representing the best of both sexes. You know, guys who like kittens and babies and girls who know how to change a flat tyre - the full flowering of humanism in a gender-free utopia - equality between men and women.
However, others see androgyny as negative. At worst, traditionalists believe a man in eyeliner represents a breakdown in the family unit and the end of decent community values. Others see a woman in big boots as the end result of too much focus on the individual - anything goes, as long as you don't hurt anyone else - with the same apocalyptic results.
In a New York Times essay on the search for a female Viagra, writer Camille Paglia bemoans that, in a world where men and women dress alike and your romantic partner is also your best friend, "the sexes, which used to occupy intriguingly separate worlds, are suffering from over-familiarity, a curse of the mundane. There's no mystery left. Androgyny is bewitching in art," Paglia writes, "but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom, which no pill can cure."
Hard to say who's right. The acceptance of - and willingness to experiment with - androgyny in fashion and other areas by a younger generation is bound to have an impact - but in the long run, your opinion of that impact is likely to be subjective. Still, there is no doubt that in fashion's near future we will be seeing hot male models with long hair, so pretty they could be mistaken for their sisters, as well as boutiques that sell only unisex clothing.
Oh, and as for those that bearded, unisex baldies from Berlin, they're unlikely to generate anything more than a few horrified gasps. And maybe a few thoughts on the nature of androgyny.
* Annie Lennox
* Grace Jones
* Boy George
* Angelina Jolie, Uma Thurman and Milla Jovovich as action stars
* David Beckham in a sarong
* Samantha Ronson
* Tilda Swinton
* Miss J. Alexander on America's Next Top Model
* Blogger Bryan Boy
* Carine Roitfeld