Sunday Life, The Sun-Herald (Sydney), 31 May 1998

The joy of unisex

Paul McDermott is still inspired by the gender liberation of the 1960s, when sexual difference became a dirty word.

It came from California, a dynamic new concept in human relations. It came as a word whispered by inspired youth that challenged the status quo. It was driven by the need for the sexes to unite in something more than the base coupling required for procreation. It called for the barriers developed over centuries of systematic sexual repression to disappear, it demanded that the sexes become indistinguishable, it promised a liberated sexual democracy.

It was a word that would change the way men and women related: unisex.

It is a word many will remember, although it has all but been erased from our language. While the old guard saw "unisex" as something dangerous, to the young it was a call to arms. Like freedom or liberty, the mere mention of the word caused governments to tremble. It spread like wildfire through populations eager for revolution.

For men and women tired of the seemingly arbitrary roles society imposed, here was a concept that would render them obsolete.

Virtually overnight, unisex clothes, bars, clubs, coffe-shops and tobacconists sprang up. Suddenly men and women could mingle: share ideas, hopes and dreams. A few older establishments held out against this tidal wave of change. They paid the price for their stoicism: their numbers dwindled and within a few years they no longer existed.

There was nothing on the face of the earth that couldn't become unisex.To make anything gender specific was a crime against nature.

Humanity had come of age, proudly proclaiming it's individuality by celebrating its sameness.

Fabrics that had previously been the preserve of women became popular with men: gabardine, organza, polyester, velveteen, corduroy and glomesh.

Pastimes from the male domain, like steer-riding and spitting, attracted women. Women stood proudly by their brothers in pantsuits. Without fear of embarrassment or workplace ridicule, men could wear Bonnie Bell strawberry flavoured lip-gloss, cruise to the office on their rollerskates and sport chunky zodiac jewellery.

This dark horse escaped the doomed utopian vision of the '60s and forced its way into the '70s. It was in this age of hedonism and wild abandon that it flourished, and as a child, it was here I first encountered it.

After the strict confines of my upbringing it was initially disturbing to witness men and women conversing in public places. Nothing will compare with the shock I felt on first entering my first unisex toilet. The confusing genderless image on the door opened my eyes to a world of tiled wonder. I was filled with a mixture of horror and excitement when I heard conversations from both sexes rising from the cubicles.

But it was in Raymond's swinging unisex salon that I observed the true merits of unisex culture. Here "man" and "wo-man" could sit side by side and have a haircut, rinse and blowdry. Men could get their hair crimped, shagged, tinted or flicked while women settled for a trim and shave and neither felt self-conscious.

Californian Poppy mixed with the chemical scent of Gossamer Hair as they discussed politics and art beneath enormous pale-blue egg-shaped dryers. As Raymond's hairy knuckles created a universe of androgynous styles, the world changed for me. Here was a period of unsurpassed creativity and design.

There is often regret and embarrassment over post-60s, pre-80s fashion. I believe this has more to do with the fact that we, as a people, are ashamed we let such a vibrant period pass us by. The Renaissance pales beside the explosion of thought that accompanied the unisex movement. (Let us never forget this was the period that gave us body language.)

It is only now, 20 years later, that we can begin to appreciate the immense service this decade performed for civilisation. The haircuts have long since fallen out of favour, just as the clothing has gone out of vogue, but the fervour and lust for life I perceived will always be in fashion.

I hope you enjoyed it!

Typed up by Claire. Sourced from the MOSH!! board, 31 May1998.