With the addition of unisex/non-binary as a category within New York Fashion week in February 2018, it is fair to say that traditional and restrictive views on clothing as being gender-specific are diminishing. A quick search for ‘gender neutral’ on Vogue.co.uk brings up countless articles praising the new and emerging designers who are opting to follow a less defined clothing path, as well as the old names who have been championing genderless designs since before it was ‘cool’.
However the movement is not solely confined to the fashion world. Is it not commonplace to now see unisex toilets popping up in many public places? And how many news articles constantly appear on your phone about gender neutral parenting techniques? In 2017 Emma Watson won MTVs first gender-neutral award for her role in Beauty and the Beast, where she was nominated alongside actors such as Hugh Jackman and James McEvoy. To applaud them simply for their acting skills and not judge them separately due to their sex was ground-breaking, speaking at the award ceremony Emma Watson said “The first acting award in history that doesn’t separate nominees based on their sex says something about how we perceive the human experience”.
Within the beauty and performance industry gender fluidity and blurred boundaries have been a longstanding practice with the likes of male actors wearing make up in the theatre giving rise to the drag queen community and present-day male make up artists and YouTube superstars such as Jeffery Star and James Charles.
Within Shakespearian theatre female roles were traditionally filled by young male actors (due to religious rites) who donned make up and dresses and took to the stage mimicking higher pitches voices. In later years female actors started to play the roles of some of Shakespeare’s most infamous male characters such as Hamlet, who was first played by Sarah Bernhart in 1899. Shakespearian characters were cross-dressers themselves and his plays are known for exploring desires related to sexual identity and for challenging the audiences perception of gender. Within this circle androgyny is a tradition which people come to expect and may almost be disappointed by a regimented rendition of a play where actors and actresses play their respective role.
From its origins in the theatre, female impersonation shows grew in popularity across the US in the early 20th century, combining dance, song and comedy. Gay culture and drag became associated with each other during the times of prohibition when both communities were driven underground but instead of dying off, they found solace with each other in speakeasies where they felt free to express their true selves.
The popularity of perhaps the most famous of all drag queens, Ru Paul’s show RuPaul’s Drag Race, proves that there is widespread interest and acceptance of the drag and LGTBQ community. With eleven seasons of the original series and spinoff series such as RuPaul’s Drag Race Thailand and UK, viewing figures of over a million per episode and an Emmy Award for Outstanding Host of a Reality or Reality Competition Program, the show has brought drag into the mainstream.
Within the beauty sphere, the taboo around male make up has been gradually lifting for some time. Many cosmetic companies create products specifically for men, such as MMUK Man, and ASOS have a Men’s Make Up category. Instagram is dominated in equal parts by both male and female MUAs, where gender is irrelevant in the work they create, often showcasing makeup looks that are regarded as art works or illusion pieces, not specifically female beauty. The 2019 BBC show Glow Up saw Ellis Atlantis win the competition with a make up look created from colour to represent what you don’t initially see in a person, such as their sexuality.
Elsewhere on social media, artists such as Ms Hannah Rose Dalton and Mx Steve Raj Bhakaran, have gone beyond gender non-conformity and present themselves to the world as high fashion alien-esque characters, who appear of another world and have created their own gender which they wish to reside in. Both artists describe themselves as non-binary and prefer less conventional pro-nouns, such as Mx. Their extreme style and make up looks have caught the attention of millions, not least Vogue Magazine who featured a post with their lengthy make up routine on Vogue.com. Describing the duo as alien and demon-like, Vogue’s publicity helped the pair reach fame and create a platform to vocalise and bring about more acceptance and understanding of people who identify as non-binary and prefer a distorted version of gender.
In high end fashion, the concept of androgynous clothing is nothing new. For years womenswear collections have featured masculine tailoring in the form of over-sized blazers and shirts, while boyfriend jeans and mannish brogues have long been a staple in many women’s wardrobes. However feminine styling crossing over into menswear is a relatively new development which has started to take off in the past few years on Fashion Week catwalks. For Gucci’s RTW AW15 collection Alessandro Michele sent both male and female models down the runway in colourful, flouncy blouses with pussy bows around the neck. Male models wore their hair long and flowing while their female counterparts wore sheer tops to reveal their nipples in a stark, masculine fashion.
Jean Paul Gaultier is another designer who is renowned for his gender fluid collections. His RTW AW07 collection took and androgynous take on fairy tales with female models dressed as the prince charming character in riding jodhpurs, tailcoats and fitted trousers, subverting expectations of women as the damsel in distress. His frequent work with model trans Andreja Pejic in his catwalks and campaigns for both mens and womenswear, truly pushed gender boundaries and was a bold and daring move at the time.
Commes Des Garcons, French for ‘like the boys’ is well known its hybrid styles of masculine tailoring paired with feminine skirts, bows and floral prints. The AW12 Commes Des Garcons Hommes collection was a combination of punk hairstyles with knee-length school boy shorts/ school girl skirts, brogues and pirate-style hats. The AW11 collection saw literal splits of male and female styling within one garment, with a classic evening dress on one side juxtaposed with a tailored jacket on the other. Their combination of tailoring and fluidity provide the perfect balance between genders that allow their designs to translate well into commercial garments that are more accessible to consumers.
In AW19 Jil Sanders will also be launching a new unisex collection for the first time, featuring outerwear, accessories, denim, shirts, shoes and more. The denim will be sourced from Japanese mills and knitwear will be made from recycled cashmere in collaboration with Mackintosh. Combining sustainable practices with genderless garments seems to embody the demands of the new, conscious consumer who are increasing their demands for such collections. It also poses the question that does creating unisex clothing help combat sustainability issues? Does the fact that one line of clothing being created instead of two for each gender, reduce the amount of raw materials being used? Will it encourage retailers to stock less items or will consumers continue to purchase just as much?
High street retailers have also started to adopt and create unisex lines in recent years. H&M’s collaboration with Etyts launched in January 2019 featuring unisex denim, shoes, jackets and sweatshirts in boxy, over-sized silhouettes. The Creative Director of Etyts stated that the collab aimed “to introduce the H&M customer to [their] design philosophy of robust and fuss-free design where function triumphs embellishment and style spans genders”. With the focus of the collaboration revolving around a collection of chunky trainers and sandals, the two brands wanted to present a ‘generic’ look which was easy to style and would inspire confidence in the wearer.
ASOS have also introduced unisex collections from their ASOS DESIGN and ASOS MADE IN KENYA lines. They have partnered with GLAAD, an organisation set up to accelerate LGTBQ acceptance and bring about meaningful change, with 100% of all NET profits generated from the sales of their unisex designs being donated to help GLAAD with their cause. Collaborations with LGTBQ organisations have also been seen on Fashion Week catwalks as Burberry debuted their rainbow check collection in 2018 with donations being made to The Trevor Project, The Albert Kennedy Trust and the ILGA, all devoted to LGTBQ rights globally. Could it be that where luxury brands lead, the high street will follow? There certainly does seems to be a shift in mainstream retailers as they hear the demands of their consumers for garments without labels and gender limitations.
Rivers Island’s Labels Are For Clothes campaign was launched in 2018 to dispel prejudice, remove stereotypes and celebrate the diversity within their customer base. With £3 of every sale being donated to Ditch The Label charity, the campaign was a social media phenomenon which was praised by many for its pro-diversification message. Available across adult and children’s wear the campaign truly aimed to unite all people with a feeling of acceptance regardless of age, gender, race, disability or religion.
Two brands which are exclusive to ASOS, Collusion and Life is Beautiful, both celebrate community and inclusivity within their clothing. Offering unisex garments in comprehensive sizes and modern, playful prints, they are both set to expand greatly over the coming time and be front-runners in mainstream gender neutral brands.
Every aspect of gender neutrality within today’s society suggests that it is vital for brands to gear their products towards this new, non-discriminatory customer. Research by the Innovative Group and JWT Intelligence revealed that 38% of Gen Z and 27% of millennials “strongly agreed” that gender no longer defines a person as much as it used to. While 56% of consumers 13-20 years old also said someone they know uses gender neutral pronouns “they”, “them” or “ze” versus “he” or “she”. However this liberal attitude may be confined to the younger generation as studies conducted by The Fawcett Society found that 65% of people over the age of 65 thought that gender was binary and not a trait a person has control over.
Therefore proving that if brands today want to continue to appeal to this younger market, and especially the coming-of-age generation Z, then they must look to be more inclusive with their collections. In 2019 it is no longer enough to release a grey hoodie dubbed as ‘gender neutral’, designs should seek to encapsulate the growing attitude of inclusivity and blurred boundaries, which comes with a celebration of people’s differences, expressed through colour, inspired by culture and worn by everyone.
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