Fashion Goes Gender-Neutral


The terms ‘Transgender’, ‘Gender-Neutral’, ‘Gender Fluidity’ and ‘Unisex’ are the dominant catchphrases for 2016 fashion and retail.

The focus is on reinventing perceptions of beauty/clothing or retail/marketing/advertising. These trend terms are emerging in tandem with a growing acceptance of gender variations in the mainstream arena.

Facebook’s newly-introduced gender options offer UK users 70 different choices, giving rise to freedom of self-identify on its platform. American retail giant, Target, announced in August 2015 they would be eliminating gendered language in its children’s toys and bedding sections after a controversial tweet. In a press release Target acknowledged the shift in their consumer’s perceptions and released the following statement;

“As guests have pointed out, in some departments like toys, home or entertainment, suggesting products by gender is unnecessary…We heard you, and we agree. Right now, our teams are working across the store to identify areas where we can phase out gender-based signage to help strike a better balance”.

The notion of ‘Gender Fluidity’ is flowing into the consciousness of society.

An ad campaign, titled “Find Your Magic”, for male grooming brand Axe praises and celebrates maleness; which is unique, varied and diverse. Among the men exalted for their individuality in the ad is a ‘Vogue-ing Queen’ killing it in heels and a ‘gay indie music geek’ who finds love in his local record store.

These movements and trends can be traced to the initiation of conversations surrounding depictions of gender. The release of transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover in July of 2015, as well as singer Miley Cyrus’ self-identification as ‘gender fluid’ in Paper magazine are examples of a burgeoning ‘coming out’, acceptance and integration. An Instagram image of Cyrus in solidarity with Laura Jane Grace (previous front man of punk band Against Me) wearing a tank top, designed by Marie McGwier and Nina Mashurova, emblazoned with the slogan “Gender is Over – if you want it”, further reinforces the shift. (@genderisover)

Jenner who has been heralded as the most famous openly-transgender woman in the world, along with Laura Jane Grace who revealed her gender dysphoria and transition to Rolling Stone magazine as early as 2012, demonstrates how this lifestyle is not only surfacing within the fashion industry as a fashion garment or range. It’s also evidenced within larger society, lifestyle, celebrity, and pop culture; shifting social ideals and gender archetypes.

Well-renowned futurists have been proclaiming the concept of gender to be an artifact of a less-progressive past. But is the future now? Are we moving into a ‘genderless’ society?

According to WGSN’s report ‘Multidimensional Male’, women are outranking men in the classroom and the office, encouraging men to redefine their ways of operating in order to compete. Men are reinventing themselves, borrowing traits from feminine traditions, but stamping their own mark on parenting and running households.

gender fluidity

With Trend Analysts such as Faith Popcorn coining female empowerment phrases such as ‘The Solo-Citizen’, ‘Single-Arity’ and the rise of robust and provocative conversations which are altering gender-specific perceptions on social media platforms.

As with any lifestyle development, fashion is echoing the current zeitgeist and designers are picking and choosing elements associated with both genders to reshape the concept of ‘Unisex’ or ‘Gender Fluidity’.

Current men’s fashion is headed for a ‘Gender Bending’ epoch unseen since the ’70s. ‘Gender Bending’ is nothing new in fashion or pop culture. The concept of ‘Gender Bending’ ‘Androgyny’ and the now newly-aligned phrase ‘Gender Fluidity’ emerges periodically in fashion.

In recent fashion history, two of the most notable examples are in the 1920s and in the late 1960s into the 1970s. In large-scale, high-end fashion, the theme has not been conveyed as loudly or as frequently since a young Mick Jagger, David Bowie or Marc Bolan explored feminised looks in the late 1960s.

With brands such as JW Anderson and Hood by Air encapsulating this philosophy and a new generation of models such as Willy Carter, Andrej Pejić, Roan Louch and activist/model, Rain Dove who walks the runway ‘gender bending’ in both menswear and women’s wear proclaiming a careless attitude towards clothing and concerns, the notion of “him” and “her” has been redefined. Dove supports this in conversation within the online documentary ‘A Great Big Story’ by asserting, “I’m Not A Model, I’m A Movement.”

Recently, fashion houses such as like Gucci and current boutiques have begun selling what’s being termed ‘gender-neutral’ or ‘gender-free’ clothing which can be worn by either men or women. Tom Kalenderian, executive vice president and general merchandise manager for men’s at Barneys New York, points out that “Androgyny is certainly not a passing trend, but one that is going through another cycle with a new generation”.

In January 2014, couture designer, Rad Hourani designed the first unisex line to be recognised by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Hourani differentiates between unisex and androgyny, two terms that are often used interchangeably: “Androgyny is a style,” he said. “Unisex is erasing all limitations.”

Today, thanks to a troupe of contemporary designer, such as Rick Owens, Shane Oliver  for Hood by Air and J.W. Anderson, the theme of ‘gender neutral’ attire has been reimagined.

Design label, Hood by Air has taken the fashion world by storm with its ground-breaking take on street-inspired style. Chief designer Shane Oliver has subverted gender codes with provocative prints and bold silhouettes which have made the brand one of New York’s most talked-about cult labels.

Equal numbers of men and women wearing spliced and suspended skirts and dresses have featured on the runway.

When asked by a journalist Which is meant for which?”and for his position on ‘gender-neutral clothes, Oliver  replied: “At this point,” he replied, “we are wearing Hood By Air, just as part of the family.”

In January 2015, Gucci’s menswear runway collection created an unprecedented stir in the industry. The reason wasn’t that the brand had just fired its nearly decade-long creative director Frida Giannini in December, or because new designer Alessandro Michele had pulled the clothing together in less than a week in his new position. It was because the men on the runway looked like women. In fact, some of them were women; an increasing trend in menswear shows. Models of both genders were seen wearing silhouettes, fabrications, and items of clothing which traditionally appear in women’s wear collections. This change in creative direction became symbolic of an industry-wide trend and crowned Michele the movement’s unofficial leader.

A shift toward androgyny and gender fluidity has been building with fashion houses over the past two years.  With Gucci’s new experimental take, it has made its mark in the trend zone. (It’s worth noting that the recently-slumping Gucci recently reported its first sales growth in two years – a 4.6% increase for the second quarter of 2015;up from a 7.9 % decrease in the first quarter.)

2015 was an abundant year for diversity in fashion. In tracking these trends we look for small, radical, activists, deviants, innovators, influencers and gatekeepers who drive the market in complex ways. The industry has made seismic strides in reflecting the real world on runways and advertising or marketing campaigns.

From runway shows featuring models of different sizes, to lingerie campaigns starring transgender models, to women with body hair and scars, and the backlash against Photoshopping and augmented reality, the fashion industry has become more authentic and real. The progress shows no signs of slowing down. In 2016 with Louis Vuitton’s brand new spring campaign stars the epitome of Gen Z – Jaden Smith in a skirt. Not a first for Smith who wore a skirt to his prom and has been publicly riding the gender-fluid fashion wave since 2013.

A new study by Vice claims that 50% of youth do not identify as straight. Over half, 56%, of Gen Z said that they knew someone who went by gender neutral pronouns such as “they,” “them,” or “ze”.According Les Fabian Brathewate for OUT online (2016), “…embracing a queer identity while rejecting the gender binary is less a trend and more a reflection of growing up in a world with unprecedented access to information and communities, at a time when the concept of identity is open to interpretation”.

With ‘Gender Fluidity’ and genderless fashion gaining traction in 2016, and this new proposed way of thinking, living and fashioning, it’s important to differentiate between gimmick, marketing and actual progress towards gender equality.

As Sandiso Ngubane explains in ‘Gender Free’, a written article published on in February of 2016, accompanied with local fashion shoot with photographer Bevan Davis featuring Ngubane himself and known stylists, Lee Hagen and Jared Ethan Blake: “Fashion as a form of fearless self-expression.

For a long time I couldn’t find people who, like me, did not confine their sartorial choices to a gender binary, and I must mention that what we do is not drag. We certainly don’t dress up flamboyantly to entertain others, and we most certainly don’t dress up as women. We dress as ourselves!”

‘Gender fluid’ fashion recently transferred into mass production by Zara’s new ‘Unisex’ range raises questions. As observed by Dazed and Confused online (2016) is the Zara range, “A sign of wider social acceptance of non-binary identities, or just a clever rebrand of the word unisex?” The impact of sociological trends on fashion is powerful. Fashion has the authority to advocate for social change through interpreting the signs of the time through product and advertising. However, just as often, fashion exploits a new aesthetic or social, sexual and lifestyle movements, commercialising them as a way to appear edgy and to turn a profit.

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