Step one: actually consult gender neutral people on what they want and need
Over the course of the last year, conversations surrounding gender expression have gained considerable momentum, as the line between the traditional male and female binaries grow increasingly blurred and the cultural landscape begins to shift.
These conversations haven't been lost on the fashion industry. Identifying as gender-neutral myself, I’ve been flooded with excitement to see more and more designers choosing to create gender neutral lines. But though the topic is now, at least, on the table, what’s actually happening on a practical level is a far cry from where things need to be. I recently went shopping with a female-identifying friend. Upon entering the store (which has more of a progressive reputation than most) a row of models physically separated menswear from womenswear – when she went left, I went right. Gone was our shared shopping experience.
Given a positive slant, fashion’s burgeoning acceptance of gender fluidity does show promise. But for the most part, the conversation lacks depth and nuance when it comes to tilting the binary. Over the last few years, a number of high-end and high street brands have entered into the market seeking to cater for gender neutral customers, and the 2018 nominees were credited for “treading a unisex line” according to WWD. Where the likes of Charles Jeffrey, 69US, and Eckhaus Latta show a natural propensity toward gender neutrality within their collections, others joining the movement show less consideration as to what a move like that actually means.
H&M and Zara, for example, have both presented ‘gender neutral’ offerings of hoodies, sweatshirts and t-shirts designed for both men and women. But while their intentions may have been positive, each collection was merchandised either within the menswear or womenswear section of both stores, meaning gender neutral customers still had to make a decision as to which to head for. For the most part, my rejection of the male-female fashion dichotomy means heading straight to the menswear section, and all the old signposts still mark my decision. Despite brands’ efforts, I’m not able to make purchases without physically (or digitally) placing myself within one category or the other. As with the history of medicine, signposts, and even language, it’s that which is male which is seen as ‘neutral’.
Past that first hurdle, comes a second obstacle: from the selection of styles on offer, I face choices that may fit my gender presentation, but won't fit my body. I was born female, identify as gender neutral, and wear menswear. Is it really that revolutionary for me to wear trousers and muted colours? Why does the fashion industry assume I’m breaking convention rather that choosing a desired ambivalence?
And while I don’t want to downplay the merits of clothing lines that advocate for girls who don’t want to wear pink, on the other end of the spectrum, there is little done to acknowledge those born male who do not wish to only wear menswear. Gender neutral does not mean ‘without any traditional female signifiers’, as most retailers seem to believe. Girls clothes appear exclusively for girls, but boys clothes are for everyone: the silent but apparent contradiction that undermines fashion fluidity becomes obvious under minor scrutiny. Why can’t dresses and skirts be gender neutral too?
“Gender neutral does not mean ‘without any traditional female signifiers’, as most retailers seem to believe”
For the most part, brands are not pushing current definitions of gender expression. Instead, we see traditional men’s styles presented as a blanket statement which capitalise on existing social movements and the political consciousness of consumers. It’s a pattern that both excludes and insults the non-binary, transgender, and non-conforming individuals that brands have the opportunity to appeal to. At the moment, the emergence of gender neutral lines that are literally just menswear feel like less of a move towards increased equality, and more an indication of ambient cultural misogyny – ideas that femininity is invalid and masculinity is standard.
Where the likes of H&M and Zara’s endeavours into gender fluid or neutral offerings failed, there are some doing things right, though. Phluid Project, which opened in New York recently, is the city’s first dedicated space that displays gender neutral clothing in a manner that rejects the male-female binary. Elsewhere, in 2017, British department store John Lewis made the move to stop explicitly labelling their childrenswear for boys or girls, offering hope for structural change that goes well beyond other seemingly trend-jumping efforts.
Still, as a non-binary person who strives to wear clothes without regard to gender, I still don’t feel represented. I want variety, not a one-sided bargain. Jeans should not be the only immediately comfortable garment I own, and if jeans can be gender-neutral, then what is the cultural roadblock that prevents skirts from receiving the same treatment? What rules do we need to break to upend masculine and feminine ideologies? Dresses and heels can be for everyone. We need the potential beauty of gender expression to transcend currently inescapable norms and conventions.
So how would these actually gender-neutral ranges work? Accepting gender fluidity, designs must account for the variety of body types related to assigned sex; gender neutral clothing needs to fit all shapes. Size ranges should expand to accommodate body shape, comparable to waist and leg length when purchasing jeans. Gender Free World, for example, has created their own sizing method which completely eradicates the need for numbers: instead, it consists of a series of names that correspond to different body types. SK Manor Hill has drawstrings on all their trousers to accommodate its customers’ varying shapes, while Seeker solves the fitting problem with elastic waistbands and two ways to fasten – a tie or a button. Elsewhere, the black and queer-owned Kris Harring blends masculine and feminine design elements in a culturally necessary manner.
“Jeans should not be the only immediately comfortable garment I own, and if jeans can be gender-neutral, then what is the cultural roadblock that prevents skirts from receiving the same treatment?”
Such diversity and customisation should not remain limited to a small, exclusive, and often expensive, range of labels, though. By attempting to sell gender neutral fashion, the industry fails to promote diversity in a way that invites productive conversation about gender expression. We need to hold fashion brands accountable for their role in the contemporary curation of gender.
According to a study by GLAAD, 12 per cent of young people now identify as something other than cisgender, meaning that increased representation is non-negotiable. To move forward from here, non-binary individuals need to be present for all steps of the design and production process, both of garments and retail spaces. If my body doesn’t fit into existing style categories, then I need to be able to help make the new criteria. To refuse such choice pushes me back to where I started, and forces me to continue making a decision between two mannequins that mean nothing to me. There are no two ways about it. It’s time the wider fashion industry cemented their commitment to designing for our new, real, and widening-gendered world.