Is Mass-Produced Gender Neutral Fashion Really All That Neutral?
When we look back on 2016 years from now, it’ll be remembered for a lot of things. We’re only halfway through and this is already the year that Beyoncé served us Lemonade, and a mom in a Chewbacca mask made us temporarily forget that Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for president. It’s also been one of the most groundbreaking years for the deconstruction of gender norms since Prince and David Bowie slipped into glam wardrobes during the 1970s.
Gender, as Hilary Duff once said, is so yesterday. At least, that’s the case for a lot of young people who’ve grown up with instant access to the kind of information not found in outdated sex education classes, information once reserved for encyclopedias and the banned book list. Now, half of millennials ages 18 to 34 believe that gender is on a spectrum, rather than being relegated to a “male” and “female” dichotomy, according to Fusion’s Massive Millennial Poll. Broken down further by age, another survey found that only 44 percent of Generation Z and 54 percent of millennials reported shopping for clothing designed for their own gender. All these numbers add up to a generation set to take over the world—and one that refuses to play by the traditional rules of gender.
This shift is more important now than ever. In the past year, while President Obama and the Department of Justice sued North Carolina and other states over their transphobic bathroom bills, the fashion industry has been a catwalk away, slowly dismantling the gender binary, one collection at a time.
But this blurring of gender, agender fashion—also called unisex, ungendered, genderless, or gender neutral—has revealed an even more pressing discussion about what these terms mean and, most importantly, whether or not the industry sees this as just another trend.
“Clothes, after all, are clothes. If anything, unisex just means we can sell to twice as many people!”
When you pull back the chiffon layers of the fashion world, it seems that the answer might be as complicated as your relationship history. The pace of change within high fashion has evolved rapidly alongside the shift in public perception about gender, yet big retailers seem to be moving at a glacial pace towards true unisex clothing. Rather than risking a foray into fishnets or dresses, agender collections from major retail brands have become synonymous with sweats, oversized denim, and basic t-shirts, which are all clothes that couples and friends have already been swapping across gender lines for years.
A little over a week ago, GUESS became the latest major retail brand to join the conversation about agender clothing, with the announcement of their upcoming HIS + HERS unisex collection. In making clothing free of a gender binary, GUESS did take a necessary first step, as fellow retail giants like Selfridges and Zara have done with their Agender and Ungendered lines—although ironically, GUESS’s line is named after the same binary the garments themselves are supposed to be separate from. While Zara opted for a collection that was heavy on basic, heteromasculine garments, Selfridges brought together Hari Nef and Dev Hynes for a video that highlighted the diversity of gender and showcased clothes that added some much needed flair to what could’ve been yet another line of basic sweats and shirts.
While it’s great to see retailers take their first steps into a world free of gender, it can also be incredibly frustrating to watch their baby steps passed off as groundbreaking. A line of basics presented as agender, gender neutral, or any of the other synonyms associated with the shift away from a binary feels like reward without the risk. And yet, it still remains a step forward no matter how big or small.
High fashion may have begun taking on gender norms seasons ago, but most people live outside of those couture walls. Major retailers that are joining the conversation, diving into the movement, represent a more public push towards deconstructing gender that’ll be seen at malls and shopping centers across the country. These collections could inspire the small town kids whose gender identities are shunned rather than celebrated. Regardless of how daring these retailers are, the important thing to note is that they showed up.
“I think they just want to help blur the line. Every single brand is still trying to open themselves up to the category. GUESS is really proud to be part of it and, obviously, the fashion industry is always evolving,” a GUESS representative explained to us. “As a global brand, GUESS wants to make sure we’re still a part of that conversation.”
It will be seasons before we know whether gender norms will remain integral to fashion or be tossed out like last season’s wardrobe, but the force of the conversation is making a real impact. Alongside GUESS, Selfridges, and Zara, a burgeoning market has emerged for gender neutral kids clothing as well. Brands like Jessy & Jack, Free to Be Kids, and Gardner and Gang have torn through the fabric of the gender binary, weaving a new direction for fashion. And the change is, obviously, not just happening in retail. On the runway, iconic fashion brands like Gucci, Burberry, Tom Ford, and Vetements have all begun consolidating men’s and women’s collections into one streamlined show that falls in line with the new, youthful vision that’s taken hold of the industry.
Yet, for all of the headlines these designers have garnered with their move to ungendered runways or retail collections, the real pioneers of fashion’s uncoupling from gender norms have been the young designers that fit both the age and mindset of the millennial generation. If the past two seasons of New York Fashion Week have taught us anything here, it’s that the most promising new brands haven’t ever had to struggle to stray away from gender norms. Why? Because they never even considered it in the first place.
“If it fits you and looks good on you, then it’s for you.”
“There is a very methodical ambivalence towards gender—it is simply deemed irrelevant. Clothes, after all, are clothes. If anything, unisex just means we can sell to twice as many people,” the Telfar team told us about their design process. The brand, founded by Queens-based designer Telfar Clemens, has been creating unisex clothing since 2003 and show no signs of stopping—and they aren’t alone. Eckhaus Latta, Vaquera, Shan Huq, Nicopanda, Vejas, Gypsy Sport, and more have all embraced the freedom of designing without gender. Their clothes have blurred the lines to the point of no return, which is a place they’d never want to go anyway. As young designers, they’re radically different in size and stature compared to the upper echelons of retail.
For companies like GUESS and Zara, the bottom line is just as important as the hemline. For brands that have built empires out of clothes that fit along a gender dichotomy, moving into gender neutral collections is risky no matter how tame the clothes may be.
For Telfar, the idea of these major retailers hopping on the bandwagon is a step in the right direction. Unlike some corporate types, he doesn’t think it’s a risky choice. “I think anything promoting freedom and the right to choose clothing that’s comfortable to the customer is the future. I don’t think it has to be a topic of risk.”
As we spoke with the designer behind 69, a line whose clothes match their own genderless anonymity, they were more critical of the retailers who’ve used terms like “unisex,” “agender,” and “ungendered” to describe their new collections, stating that, “These are just buzzwords. They make us all roll our eyes. 69 just does its own thing and keeps every body in mind.”
The “risk” these designers take when designing agender clothes—and especially clothes that facilitate the feminization of guys—has become a benchmark of progress for measuring to what extent the fashion industry has broken free from strict gender boundaries. One need only look at the backlash against skirts—which has been styled on Jaden Smith and countless other men walking the runway for brands like Hood By Air, Rick Owens, and Givenchy—to see how risky this clothing style has become in the fight against gender norms.
Before Jaden swerved hard in his skirts and dresses, Will Smith sat him down and told him he couldn’t wear a skirt. When Kanye West stepped on stage in a skirt way back in 2011, the backlash was so harsh that he reportedly tried to have Getty take down all photographic evidence of the fashion moment. It’s clear that no matter how cool you are, wearing a skirt is still grounds for much criticism that won’t be curbed by high fashion’s embrace of the garment.
It’s a point that felt particularly relevant as we talked to GUESS about whether they might go beyond sweats and t-shirts to include some skirts as well. After all, retailers have a cultural reach that almost no high fashion designer can match. While she was quick to shoot down the idea, she was open to the possibility of it moving forward. “We need to see how the consumers react to this,” she said. “If they want more or want it to be riskier, we’ll definitely look into making the collection riskier.”
For all of the risks and rewards that fashion is bringing to the fight against gender, the real goal is to create clothes that make you feel as comfortable as possible, inside and out—no matter what gender. As Telfar told us, “If it fits you and looks good on you, then it’s for you.”
Collage by Kathryn Chadason. Additional images by Christine Hahn and Andrew Boyle, and via Selfridges and Zara.
Stay tuned to Milk for more genderfree fashion.