Words Chiara Marconi
Illustration Julija Moroz
What happens when we stop defining fashion by genders?
“Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above”.
— Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Clothing is one of the first tools we are given to express our gender. Throughout history, from fairy tales to pop culture, fashion has played a major role in defining and demonstrating our gender roles in society. Nowadays, the focus in fashion is becoming less about whether clothing is made for women or men, and more about clothing that represents an attitude, a feeling, a look, or an overall aesthetic. The identity of clothing has shifted from feminine and masculine, to identity in itself. A new concept is seeing the light of day, not solely in the fashion world but also in our the modern society: Genderless. The word seems contradictory but actually, holds an important message. For a long time, people have been trying to eliminate all the boundaries and differences between male and female gender imposed by the society. This message is evident in fields like fashion, where the idea of gender is deeply rooted. As Virginia Woolf wrote, we all have both male and female qualities; only the gender of clothing remains absolute. The gender of human beings is rather plastic and the so-called “Genderless revolution” seeks to validate that. Genderless is not an annulment of differences, but it’s an exaltation of them. Genderless is the translation of the idea of “escaping from the cage of masculine and feminine”. In other words, genderless could be defined as the “all free” rule. Free to be different and free to choose whatever complies with your soul and attitude, your personal and social identity.
However, it must be underlined that the “Genderless question” is nothing new. Louis XVI’s variegate outfits composed of ermine furs, velvet, lace, extravagant wigs, make-up and heels (the so-called “talons rouges” shoes), surely broke gender rules, at least how they are perceived today. Gender roles in fashion were fleeting in a different way that we have seen in the 19th century. In other parts of the world, the Japanese kimono replaced two-piece outfits of shirt and trousers starting in the Heian period (which lasted from 794 to 1185 A.D.). Both men and women wore kimonos belted at the waist with an obi or sash. While additional garments and fashions did add distinctions between men and women, the overall look was far more similar than that present in Europe. The "sarong", is also worth mentioning and is worn by people from Southeast Asia, the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa. The sarong is also a ubiquitous fabric wrap that can be worn regardless of gender.
Plato’s hermaphrodite myth saying that to label by gender is the condemnation of beings to an eternal search for completeness, Louis XVI’s sumptuous garments, the “dandy” personified by Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire or even the famous Chanel’s Garçonne look all suggested change. In more recent time, we can look at the “London Peacock Revolution” of the Sixties, the glam rock of the Seventies, the obsessive body care of the Eighties, the male makeup of the Nineties to understand that the boundaries of every wardrobe are constantly revolving.
Yes, gender is certainly present in fashion. From female empowerment as a marketing gimmick and shapeless t-shirts being sold as “genderless”, it is a talking point impossible to ignore. But something is changing. It seems there is a widening acceptance of a style with no boundaries: people of all ages and in all markets are constructing a visual representation of their own identities more freely than ever. As a result, consumption patterns are no longer defined by traditional values such as age, location, income, family status, and gender. We live in a world where gender stereotyping is old-fashioned. Men borrow from women’s wardrobes and women from men’s, but not to be “unisex”: Unisex is synonym of aseptic and cold it’s like defenceless and silent on the wearer’s skin. Genderless fashion, on the contrary, could be defined as a shared wardrobe ideal. It eliminates all fashion tags and creates a new kind of aesthetics with no stereotypes. Genderless is gender neutrality; it is the ability to give freedom to the expression of the individual’s inner self with.
“It’s the power of choosing that could define us as gender, but only if we decide to be defined. Gender doesn’t dominate us”
- Lou Stoppard for SHOWstudio
In high fashion these terms are no strangers to one another, they regularly cross paths in design houses, merging into one large trend with designers Alessandro Michele’s at Gucci or J.W Anderson or Rick Owens springing to mind. But have these high fashion ideas transcended into the everyday catwalk of the streets? We need not look any further than our social media platforms to meet the #genderless or the #agender Instagram hashtags. They have become some of the most attractive words for the "fashionistas". We see the biggest fashion runways and the glossy covers of the most important fashion magazines presenting a-gender models in both men’s and women’s catwalks. Even shops and fashion stores are inaugurating genderless departments such as the British department store Selfridges launching Agender, an experiential, gender-neutral pop-up shop devoted to gender-neutral garments. Above all, we see a younger generation’s consumption behaviour and their desire to be non-conformist grow increasingly. They are led by a new generation of young designers developing original and innovative proposals as to how we should dress. This way gender neutral fashion isn’t just an elite runway fashion phenomenon discriminating the masses from attaining this look.
One such brand is the Toronto-based fashion brand Muttonhead, created by Meg and Mel Sinclair and their friend Paige Cowan in 2009. They are creating fair trade unisex clothing for all genders and ages. Muttonhead has developed into one of Canada’s top ethical and sustainable fashion retailers because of their slow fashion approach. The brand focuses on timeless, rather than fad, designs which appeal to both men and women alike. Founder Meg Sinclair explains that she wanted to create a lifestyle brand that produces timeless, high-quality outerwear "for the everyday adventurer", regardless of their gender. Her efforts herald a new approach to fashion design that focuses on sustainability and quality, over globalised, disposable fashion. Using sustainable materials and fair trade practices they manufacture locally, pay workers a fair living wage, and use the highest quality and durable materials available, Muttonhead has steadily produced solid collections with a “boyish-shaped” style that many women appreciate.
Another brand is the Montreal-born Superfluous Culture that was founded by the Canadian designer Adam Taubert. The brand is based on the idea of offering gender neutral, durable, and functional garments that transcend the need for excess. While materials are sourced ethically, organically, nationally and internationally, the local manufacturing of all products is nearly entirely local. In fact, 80% of all products are manufactured less than 10 kilometres from the Superfluous Atelier.
“I find it very important to keep things local. Not only does it add life to your environment, but it also provides more opportunity should it become successful” the designer explained.
All items are unisex and Taubert introduced organic materials to the line only a year after The Superfluous Culture was created. Today, the brand produces mostly in cotton, hemp, linen, and bamboo materials. The brand offers a simple and clean approach but with a contemporary touch. Taubert hopes The Superfluous Culture might spark a change in the present consumer's mentality.
With all of this said, we can underline one thing for certain: Genderless fashion is not just a temporary fad but something much deeper, an echo from the past as well as our future. It’s a new way of living and thinking, reflecting on our social changes. It is the future of fashion and a movement towards a wider acceptance and appreciation of a limitless sense of style through the expression of our true identity.