failings unisex clothing
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Article by:
Céline Vonlanthen
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November 11, 2021
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We Should Deconstruct Fashion: The Failings Of Unisex Clothing

Nowadays, more and more brands are coming up with unisex or gender-inclusive clothing. And do not get me wrong: I love the idea. On paper. I very much think that we should all be allowed to wear what we want, when we want and where we want. No more underdressing, no more dressing over the top, no more ‘but it is not the most flattering thing for your figure’, no more ‘men should not wear.../women should not wear...’, no more gender, weight, height or figure limits. Just the infinite freedom of wearing what makes you happy. And maybe it is what gender-inclusive brands have tried to sell us. But my opinion is, they spectacularly failed. Let me tell you why.

Let us start by having a look at what do unisex and gender-inclusive clothing mean exactly. Indeed, many words are used to describe this aspect of fashion, sometimes interchangeably. But where do they come from and what reality do they cover?

PS: Keep in mind that his article talks about fashion from a Western perspective only.

What are unisex, androgynous and gender-inclusive clothing? – An historical overview

From a strictly historical perspective, the branch of fashion that has questioned gendered norms has always existed. Famous examples are Joan of Arc’s suit of armor or Amelia Bloomer’s ‘Turkish trousers’ from the 1960s. Jessica Glasscock, lecturer at the Parsons School of Design, explains that ‘ fashion has long served as a vehicle for commentary, critique and sometimes dismantling of rigid rules governing gender and sexuality’ (NBC News, June 2021). In other words, as long as a strict gender-distinctive norms systems have existed, people have tried to contest them, notably through fashion. But we only started to name it and give it more importance in the 1960’s. 

Amelia Bloomer’s Turkish Trousers / Photo credits: Library of Congress

Unisex clothing

One of the first term that has been used is 'unisex' clothing, ‘coined in the 1960s in reference to garments that were intended to be worn by [everyone].’(The Modestman, December 2020). The trend was born as a reaction to the strict gender norms of the 1950’s, following WWII. Unisex clothing in the 1960s and the 1970s ‘aspired ‘to blur or cross gender lines’ (The Atlantic, April 2015). It culminated in 1968, launching the trend of long hair and pants for everyone. 

However, there have been several issues with unisex clothing. Firstly, the term itself: it is using ‘sex’ to mean ‘gender’. The distinction between sex, referring to one’s biological sexual attributes, and gender, referring to one’s identity, behavior and self-expression has been operated since the end of the 20th century. Many people feel the term is outdated, but it has not stopped companies from using it anyway, up until today. Because I think that equating sex with gender is a big problem, I will put the term ‘unisex’ in quotation marks for the rest of the article. However, I do think it is important to discuss the term to understand exactly where ‘unisex’ has failed, because most of the reasons are linked to the name precisely. 

An example of unisex fashion, London 1971 / Photo credits: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Secondly, ‘unisex’ clothing in the 1960s and 1970s has often spectacularly fail, as the fitted garments have more often than not accentuated the physical differences of the wearers, attracting the attention on the gender of the wearers (The Atlantic, April 2015). In addition, if ‘unisex’ clothing started out as wanting to blur the difference between genders, it only succeeded in including women’s in clothing trends traditionally meant for men, but never the opposite. 

Androgynous

For all of the above reasons, the focus quickly shifted from ‘unisex’ clothing to androgynous clothing, which actively tried to blur the gender binary by mixing elements of traditionally masculine clothing and traditionally feminine clothing. The term quickly gain popularity through the 1970s glam rock scene (The Modestman, December 2020). This whole idea is perhaps best incarnated by David Bowie’s fashion sense. And indeed, Bowie greatly contributed to popularize the androgynous trend. 

David Bowie / Photo credits: Masayoshi Sukita

Contrary to ‘unisex’ clothing, which tended to accentuate the differences in the wearers’ physical appearance, effectively highlighting gender, androgynous fashion’s goal is to express a more gender-neutral identity. It tends to hide the wearer’s physical characteristics behind neutral tones and geometrical shapes or boxy structures. 

Gender-neutral clothing

The term ‘gender-neutral clothing’ is a little more recent and was built on its predecessors’ history. It is specifically addressing the need for inclusion regarding the many different gender identities. (The Modestman, December 2020). It also tends to place bodies at the center of the conception, actively trying to make clothes that can fit everyone, rather than to force bodies to fit into a piece of clothing. 

Photo credits: TomboyX

Sadly, most big companies tend to use all of these terms indifferently, blurring the difference between them. They also tend to add a ‘unisex’ section to fit society’s call for more tolerance, which is a good start. However, if they do not actively try to rethink fashion and include body types at the very start of the clothes’ conception, it will not enforce any change…

So, what are the problems of ‘unisex’ fashion? – Representations issues

Nowadays, many brands are offering ‘unisex’ or gender-inclusive options, from big brands such as GAP or ASOS to smaller, local and sustainable brands like Agogo Rainbow or Chelsea Bravo. It reflects a growing demand from customers. Indeed, in 2019, ‘56 percent of Gen Z consumers shopped ‘outside their assigned gendered area’ (NBC News, June 2021). Here are a few examples of the apparels you can find when looking for 'unisex' outfits:

Photo credits: ASOS / G-Star Raw

Notice anything in common? I bet you do. You probably saw me coming. But I will say it anyway: things have not really changed since the 1960s. It seems that we have taken clothes traditionally perceived as masculine and said women could wear them as well. And that is it. Well, duh.

Why are there still no clothes traditionally perceived as feminine? Why is it that I can wear a shirt and a costume if I want to, but my male friends could not wear a skirt or a crop top? Where are the glitters? The dresses? The cropped stuff? The bright colors, the sequins, the prints, the metallic shines? Where is the fantasy? Why are people pictured in the images always thin and tall? And why brands offering ‘unisex’ clothing keep on separating their clothing section following the gender binary, as it does not help push past the gender-barrier? Why have brands not been able to push past their ancestors’ failures? 

The issue of adding ‘men’ to the name to make it more manly 

Have you ever noticed how fragile masculinity can be? There has been recurrent outrage over clothing brands (re)introducing men’s crop tops. Let me clear out one thing first: there is no reason to get mad at a piece of fabric. And if you think society is failing because men wear shorter t-shirts and not because of capitalism, exploitation of the poor and the lack of wealth repartition, maybe take sometimes to think about your vision of the world and why you are this wrong. 

Kid Cudi wearing a crop top / Photo credits: Ubong Richmond/Photo Courtesy

That being said, I do think that calling them ‘men’s crop top’ is a little bit unproductive. Just like refusing to call men’s makeup just ‘makeup’. I understand the need to make a photoshoot and campaign displaying men wearing them to get your point across, because we have been brainwashed into thinking those are exclusively feminine attributes. But I think that if we insist on adding ‘men’ to the name, we will lose the intended purpose: make it accessible to everyone. 

Where are the fat people?

Another issue that I see with gender-inclusive clothing is the abyssal lack of fat people wearing it. To be fair, this is true for fashion as a whole. But I kind of find it disappointing when people want to push boundaries of what society expects us to do in terms of fashion, but completely leave out fat people. 

Fat people have the right to dress too, you know. And not only that, but they have the right to dress the way they want. There are non-binary fat people, there are androgynous fat people, there are transmasc and transfem fat people. But as long as we keep showing gender-inclusive clothes on skinny people only, it gives out the message that it is impossible to be fat and dress androgynous. Just like we have made people believe that wearing jeans and a white t-shirt is high-class fashion when you are skinny, but lazy when you are fat. 

I am getting a little bit tired of the fatphobia in the fashion industry. So, can you imagine what you must feel if you can never find anything in your size and you never get represented in the photoshoots? 

I will add this: if you want to be inclusive, it is great. Truly. We need more inclusivity. But please, do not forget fat people. The mainstream fashion industry already did. 

PS: that is also applicable for sustainable clothing: stop making clothes only for skinny people. Other morphologies exist too. 

Oh, and while we are at it: normalize fat men wearing dresses and crop tops too. It is nice to support Harry Styles and Billy Porter wearing dresses or young Will Smith wearing a crop top, but do it too for fat people too. Thank you. 

Photo credits: Tumblr 

What now? – On doing better 

To be entirely fair, there is the beginning of a bettering, especially from smaller brands or brands created by queer people. There has been the addition of cropped pullovers, hoodies or t-shirts in gender-neutral collections, for instance, like in the French brand Agogo Rainbow's collection. 

Cropped pullover / Photo credits: Agogo Rainbow

And a special mention goes to the brand TomboyX, whose founders decided not to divide their clothing into gendered sections but into sizes. And even more interesting, the sizes are not based on algorithms or traditional sizing, but on real people. Indeed, TomboyX paid customers to come and try out their clothes, so they could better adjust them to the wearer. So, on TomboyX, you do not shop by gender but by body type, as clothing is designed to fit all body types. And I find that fantastic.  

Photo credits: TomboyX

I think we should all take this brand as an example. Because, we do not need specific ‘unisex’ collections. Instead, all clothes should be considered gender-fluid. We should realize that clothes are, by definition, genderless: they are only pieces of fabric, and anyone can wear anything they like. This would help non-binary and trans folks shop the clothes they want/need without feeling endangered or without getting unwanted judgments from other customers or vendors. It would also help stop the violence people face in the streets because they are not wearing the clothes society thinks they should, based on what they look like. Like, I think we could all gain from it if people did not get beaten on the streets because they are wearing a dress while being perceived as a man – because, while we are at it: do not assault people because of their clothing!! Or, you know, do not assault people at all.

If this speaks to you, I would recommend checking Alok Vmenon’s Instagram account: they are an author, speaker and fashionist@, very much invested on the topic of making clothes available for everyone. And they talk about it much better than I do!

Most importantly, what we should really focus on is increasing the variety of available sizes. Make bigger sizes. Make slimmer sizes. Make larger sizes. Make sizes narrower at the waist. Make adjustable sizes. Make sustainable clothes that can grow with us. Why not add an elastic and buttons inside of pants waist, for instance, so we can wear them tighter or looser, depending how we feel or where our body is at? I think we forgot that clothes should be adaptable to our body, and not the other way around... (another wonderful consequence of capitalism). Also, your body is entitled to change. It is normal. It is part of the process of being human and alive. You gain weight, you lose weight. Sometimes you feel bloated, sometimes not. Your weight does not define you and yes, it will change throughout your life. Because you are, precisely, alive. 

Photo credits: memegenerator.net

But that, my friends, will be the subject of another article on diet culture and we will publish it just in time for the end of the year. So, keep an eye out for it!

In the meantime, take care of yourself and do not hesitate to share your thoughts on fashion on our Instagram account. We always love to hear from you!

Love xx

Header credits: Scotch & Soda

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