Are gender neutral clothes the future of fashion?

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High fashion has been flirting with the idea of genderless clothes for years, and now the high street is following suit. Laura Craik gives her verdict 

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By Laura Craik on

I bumped into an old friend at the weekend, recently back in London after several years living in New York. After we’d reacquainted ourselves with each other’s children, I figured it was only polite to introduce the dog, who was standing there on the pavement observing us all in that blank, long-suffering way that dogs do. “This is Stevie,” I said. 

“He’s lovely,” my friend said.

“Stevie’s a girl,” I said. “Gender neutral.”

“Of course!” my friend replied, with the slightest hint of an eye-roll. “She’s a North London dog!” 

“Y THO?” I said to myself afterwards. Why did I blurt out “gender neutral”? We called the dog Stevie because it was the only name our family could agree upon, not because we had aspirations to raise a gender neutral dog. Besides, to a new dog owner like me, all dogs are gender neutral, in the sense that you have no idea what sex they are unless you look at their bits. I really like this about dogs. Sometimes, I wish it were the same with humans. 

Although arguably, maybe it soon will be. Gender neutral this, gender neutral that… if ever a concept defined 2017, it’s gender neutral. High fashion has been obsessed with the idea for years, whether via Katharine Hamnett’s non-gender specific clothing or the more directional approaches of designers such as J.W Anderson and Rick Owens. For spring 2018, Selfridges is pushing Omer Asim, a rising star whose collections are genderless. High fashion is supposed to be challenging and avant garde, of course, but when the high street starts capitulating to the gender neutral trend, you know a real sea change is occurring. Even that bastion of Middle England, John Lewis, has launched a unisex clothing line for children, featuring dinosaur print dresses and spaceship tops.

Rather than designing specific gender neutral collections, perhaps a better idea is to remove the labels from existing ones, and let customers choose to wear and interpret garments as they wish

This is all good, for even if you don’t believe the concept of gender to be outdated or even fluid (predictably, the John Lewis range was met with angst and ire in some quarters), you will hopefully agree that at the very least, it can be prescriptive and limiting. But while we’ve all heard the tired old trope about women who borrow their boyfriend’s jumpers, the question has to be asked: beyond the hype, are gender neutral clothing ranges the problem-solving panacea they’re purported to be? When Zara launched its unisex line, Ungendered, last year, it was met with mixed reviews. Some people criticised the drab colours; others called out the dreariness of the garments. “Why no skirts – too subversive?” asked one Twitter user. Which only goes to show what a minefield the concept of gender neutral clothing is. 

Personally, I’m over the idea of hoodies, oversized shirts and baggy jeans being touted as a modern wardrobe solution for both sexes – not least because they tend to look so shapeless and apologetic, as though you’re trying to hide whatever body you inhabit rather than celebrating it. Like the majority of fashion, the concept only works if you’re a certain body shape: long, lean and boob-less. If you’re a man with a belly, broad shoulders or big calves, or a woman with generous breasts and a bountiful bottom, the idea that “unisex” jeans or a “non gender-specific” shirt will even fit you – much less suit you – is naive. Rather than designing specific gender neutral collections, perhaps a better idea is to remove the labels from existing ones, and let customers choose to wear and interpret garments as they wish. John Lewis has already done this with its childrenswear, earlier this year removing “Girl” and “Boy” labels and merging both ranges into one retail space. And where John Lewis leads, Zara, apparently, follows: while it hasn’t made an official announcement, earlier this week the world’s biggest fashion retailer quietly started showcasing some of its garments on both male and female models. On the Zara website, for example, a £159 checked coat, modelled by a woman, is listed as being from Zara Man, while another coat appears in both the men’s and womenswear categories, and is modelled by both genders. 

The Zara Man coat, as modelled by a woman on the brand's website 

Is this the beginning of ditching the “women’s” and “men’s” sections entirely? Would it really be so awful just to market everything as “clothes”? Hmm. I would hate political correctness to impede me in my quest to find a new pair of trousers, but as long as every garment’s measurements are given clearly, then I don’t know that it would. Besides, some things are worth the inconvenience. And people being free to wear exactly what they want to wear is one such thing. 


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