We are in the midst of a social revolution. The gender binary that has confined humans to the labels “male” or “female” for centuries is now under scrutiny with more and more people admitting to not identifying with either gender. Modern families are now choosing to raise gender neutral children, with Sweden leading the way, recently introducing the new pronoun “Hen” to their national dictionary as a neutral alternative to he and she.
There is a huge gender spectrum that reaches far beyond just man and woman, something which universities, employers and the media are now finally recognising. However, at present, it appears to have been largely overlooked by high street fashion retailers who continue to promote gender specific clothing.
High street brands are often hailed for staying on top of the latest trends; however, if you head to Topshop’s flagship Oxford Circus store and take a look at their window displays, you’ll notice a distinct lack of consideration for the contemporary customer. At the very least, it can be said that their visual merchandising team are slightly behind the times. The windows on the left-hand side feature typically female mannequins boasting long hair and short skirts. On the other side of the divide, you will find a cluster of broad shouldered male mannequins with no hair, wearing loose fitting garments in an array of bland colours. Although perhaps not overtly offensive to the average shopper, this display reinforces the social stereotypes that for so long have dictated how individuals are supposed to dress. Unsurprisingly, Topshop is not alone, as the vast majority of popular fashion brands are guilty of the same ignorance. There are, however, some indications of change within the industry.
American Apparel was the first well-known fashion retailer to market unisex clothing to the public and has been doing so since the brand’s creation in 1989, yet the company has faced a lot of controversy over the years for using arguably sexist advertising campaigns. More recently, Topman acknowledged the movement by trialling a unisex range of clothing in 2013 called ‘Kate & Johnny’. This line featured a lot of classically masculine clothing available in a wide range of sizes. The ad campaign promoted the range as “not defined by gender labels”; however, the clothes were also described as ‘boyfriend style’ by the company which was considered rather contradictory at the time. Selfridges opened a pop-up store in 2015, aptly named Agender, which featured a gender fluid line of clothing and in March 2016, Zara followed suit by unveiling their ‘Ungendered’ range.
While this is a clear step in the right direction, a popular criticism is that most unisex ranges available on the market are too plain and drab. Rather than conveying the message that fashion is genderless, these limited ranges are only neutral in the sense that they are void of any personality. Another common complaint is that such lines tend to consist solely of casual masculine clothes, neglecting the inclusion of traditionally feminine garments entirely. Fortunately, it seems the world of high fashion is a few steps ahead of the game compared to the high street. For example, Louis Vuitton’s SS16 Womenswear campaign featured 18-year-old Jaden Smith donning a skirt which definitely raised a few eyebrows, drawing more attention to the movement within the industry. Gucci has also been praised for showcasing a particularly flamboyant menswear collection this year and Givenchy used a transgender model in their AW15 campaign. Though some have accused these luxury designers of jumping on the unisex fashion bandwagon, they are, if nothing else, helping to break down huge barriers, something that is yet to translate onto the high street.
Ultimately, all of the mainstream brands who claim to support gender neutrality still focus most of their efforts on their gender specific clothing lines. So are unisex ranges merely a gimmick? A way for businesses to stay current and test the water without actually addressing the issue? Surely for true gender neutrality in high street fashion, companies should merge their male and female lines into one genderless line rather than having a specialist range that inhibits self-expression.
Undeniably, it’s much less risky for these retail giants to trial small-scale ranges rather than change their whole business model overnight. Implementing such a plan would require multiple modifications to the current structure of any mainstream fashion brand. At the very least, all of the products would have to be manufactured in a much wider range of sizes, advertising campaigns would have to be redesigned, and store layouts would have to be radically reassembled. Practicalities aside, no such change is likely to occur until there is a larger demand for it in the mass market. With the high street currently in a state of post-Brexit uncertainty, brands are extremely sensitive to public opinion right now. Since our generation has only ever known gender defined labels, the majority of shoppers are unlikely to even have contemplated a world without them. As there is no evidence to suggest that consumers would respond positively to such a drastic change, it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. Genderless fashion may well be the way forward, but it is also a huge step into the unknown for big businesses.
So what can be done to help generate more widespread acceptance? One possible solution is for retailers to introduce unisex clothing from childhood so that future generations are not indoctrinated to believe that girls and boys must dress in a certain way. Though baby clothes are often unisex, retailers usually start to manufacture gender specific clothes for children from the age of around two years old and upwards. If unisex clothing became the norm for older children too, it may help to dilute and eventually eradicate existing gender stereotypes. Unfortunately, at present, true gender neutral clothing outlets only really exist in the form of independent boutiques, but these are few and far between. Perhaps a stronger high street or online presence of these stores would enhance public understanding. Celebrity culture is also hugely influential and, for years, well known public figures have blurred the lines between gender and fashion. Elton John, David Bowie, Annie Lennox, Lady Gaga, and Mick Jagger, to name but a few. These role models are especially important for young people who feel oppressed by gender norms. Modern society could definitely do with more of these icons for people to relate to.
While it’s great to see some mainstream fashion brands recognising the need for gender neutrality in the market, one would expect an industry with so much social influence to be bolder and more courageous in their choices. Small unisex fashion lines alone are not powerful enough to eliminate gender stereotypes and are often nothing more than a short-lived trend. For a sustainable change, there has to be a shift in public opinion. At present, it seems the fashion industry simply reacts to social change rather than creating it. While luxury fashion brands are doing more than the high street to shed light on gender neutrality, it is not yet impacting consumer behaviour. Changing people’s mindsets to such an extent is an ambitious task and not everybody is going to view a move to genderless fashion as a positive thing; however, as this movement gains more support, it’s no longer an issue big retailers can shy away from.
Words: Kate Dooley
Hashtags: #genderneutrality #agender #genderfluid #unisex #fashion #highstreet