What does it really mean to be a man?

Editor’s Note: Clive Martin is a London-based journalist. The views expressed here are the author’s own.

CNN  — 

Masculinity has always been a shifting concept. The history of man is littered with examples of provocateurs and puritans who have fought a seemingly endless battle over what it is to be one.

The warrior pharaohs of Ancient Egypt wore makeup long before it was dismissed as only for women, while in the kingdoms of Greece and Rome it was not only acceptable, but commanding to have sex with your male subjects, before early Christian rulers came and condemned sodomy as an outrage and an offense punishable by death.

The medieval era took the model of masculinity back towards basic, chivalric, Christian values, before the likes of Byron and Brummell shattered these ideas with the rise of the dandy. David Bowie might have shocked in the 1970s with his face powder and effeminate posturing, but in Regency-era England, he could’ve passed as an esteemed member of society.

Recently, the tall, strong, short-haired, hard-working heterosexual has been the norm of masculinity, but once more that is changing.

Looking at pop culture, it’s clear to see that gender is a hot topic right now. Our perceptions of what gender means are splintering, and the conventions around how men and women must look or behave are being challenged.

Refashioning gender

Fashion has reacted to these changes more obviously than any other industry. There is still a long way to go in terms of reaching total acceptance and fluidity, but the old constructions of womenswear and menswear are starting to look somewhat dated, with an increasing amount of unisex collections on the catwalk, and models from across the gender spectrum wearing whatever happens to look good on them.

At the latest London Fashion Week Men’s, now in its fifth year, the trend for lithe, young pretty boys in extravagant garments shows no signs of abating. Charles Jeffrey, a designer whose work is grounded in the androgynous club scene he frequents, was one of the hottest tickets this season, whereas a few years ago he might have just been a niche also-ran.

Even Cottweiler – one of the more traditionally masculine brands, known for their reimagining of sportswear – put models in belly tops and body jewelry this time around.

Gucci, arguably the most globally important fashion brand at the moment, has its own version of what a man is: a louche, silk-haired dandy who’s not afraid of floral prints or embroidery.

But this is not just a fashion thing. This change in attitudes goes into some of the most macho environments imaginable. In football, Cristiano Ronaldo has long been flying the flag for ideals of masculinity away from the norm, and in music, Young Thug – the 25-year-old Atlanta rapper who appeared on the cover of his mixtape “Jeffery” in a ruffled frock – is selling a new kind of manliness.