If most ‘unisex’ styles are masculine, are we really degendering fashion?

Gender-neutral dressing is finally having its time in the spotlight, but are we actually getting it right?

Even those who scarcely find themselves online, or within arms reach of a magazine, were most likely intimately aware of the cultural mark left by Harry Styles’ Vogue cover in late 2020.

Met with innumerable Twitter reactions and much chatter among friends, the cover became a catalyst for conversations that attempted to address the presence of gender in fashion.

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Representing Gen Z’s desire to dress outside the binary, the singer became a vanguard (of sorts) of the gender-neutral fashion movement. “The lines of what you should wear based on whether you’re ‘male’ or ‘female’ are crumbling away,” he told the publication. “I’ve never really thought too much about what it means, it’s just this extended part of creating something without limitations.”

Celebrities like Billy Porter, Bad Bunny and Jaden Smith are among a growing legion of male-identifying public figures who regularly challenge the parochial traditions of the fashion world.

However, this expression doesn’t come without its criticisms.“Bring back manly men,” is a sentiment that circulated with fervour. This Tweet by conservative political commentator Candace Owens highlighted how divisive debates around gender expression have become, particularly on a global scale.

Although confronting, is it any surprise? Beholden by the blueprint of gender, the fashion industry has operated solely within the binary, utilising strict gender categorisations as a means to communicate and market both product and brand ethos.

It’s only within the last few years that the tide has begun to turn. Gen Z, a demographic that’s been driving demand for style over gender, will reportedly account for $143 billion in spending over the next few years.

Not to mention, according to research conducted by The Phluid Project56 per cent of people shop irrespective of their assigned gender and 81 per cent believe a person shouldn’t be defined by it. The game is beginning to rewrite itself, and the digital natives are urging the industry, through both their words and dollars, to look beyond the binary.

But it begs the question: how does an industry built on gender successfully invest in this new direction? Though we’ve seen great progress from emerging and existing industry players in recent years, with at times exemplary effort made in terms of casting and marketing, the end result has unfortunately fallen short.

Brick-and-mortar stores and eCommerce sites have become playgrounds to not only temperature check what’s important to their audiences, but to function as a message to their respective customer bases that they’re keeping up with the times.

The words ‘unisex’ and ‘gender-neutral’ have become market buzzwords, both being used interchangeably to reference a brand’s ‘genderless’ collection. But the reality is that they usually still have a single gender in mind.

A few years ago, the clothing monolith Zara released a gender-neutral clothing line. What started as a breath of fresh air for those looking to shop outside the binary soon coalesced as a collective sigh when the male-coded clothing started making the digital rounds.

By opting for loose-fitting, neutral-coloured garbs, the gender-neutral movement can easily become marred with a hidden message that’s all too loud to those most familiar with it: that genderless design is no more than reworked ‘menswear’ with dollar signs attached to it.

The industry has long operated under the belief that gender categorisation is easier for consumers and businesses. Such a vein of thought has led brands to believe a safe, cost-effective adoption of the gender-neutral movement is a proverbial side-step rather than an authentic commitment. The vice president of Ssense’s womenswear buying, Brigitte Chartrand, highlights the challenge perfectly.

“We recognise that [style] can be fluid and flexible – meaning that one day, you may identify with and choose to express greater degrees of femininity than you might on a different day, [but] we also recognise that the average consumer at this moment, and despite our collective, growing consciousness about gender identities and continuums, still has a mental model that they use when buying clothing,” she says.

It’s clear traditional consumer habits and business margins inform a lot of what occurs within the fashion world, but with Gen Z’s refusal to conform to conventional archetypes, this antiquated structure is being questioned. “The way we dress from a gender standpoint is, to a larger extent, a reflection of how we regard gender roles,” Zeke Hemme, a model and the owner of a vintage clothing resale brand, told Highsnobiety.

“As they blur, the traditional fashion identities of both men and women are blurring along with them. As long as we continue to become more progressive in our views of what it means to be a man or a woman, we’ll see more progressive fashion designs to meet the change.”

So what if clothing wasn’t given a third option, but became degendered altogether? It’s an idea that many fashion commentators, like Alok Vaid-Menon, have toyed with.

“Ask your favourite brands, your favourite designers: why do you continue to gender your product? Are we dressing to fit an idea of ​​what women or men should be, or are we dressing for ourselves?” states Alok.

Alok’s weighted queries highlight an important notion; that true ‘gender-neutral’ clothing doesn’t need to stand separate from the rest of a brand’s range. It shouldn’t be a project that’s only given an added marketing budget for one month a year . We need to rid ourselves of gendered clothing categories altogether.

While luxury brands and retailers continue to embark on their journey toward a less gender-centric world by creating independent product lines, there are countless individuals who remain captive to the rigidity of the binary model.

These would-be fashion lovers are entering shopping centres and browsing online sites only to be met with directions on where they should shop and who they should be.

Fashion’s function is for self-expression, and yet the system is restrictive. As truly amazing as it is to see brands engaging, it’s important to remember that the problem is in the limitations of gender itself, not the clothes.

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