Gender in fashion: just why?

Eoin Shaw

Gender and fashion seem inseparable, they are intertwined closer than Anna Wintour and American Vogue, womenswear and menswear is as guaranteed as fake Louis Vuitton in fashion. But why? Now that gender has become such a hot topic, is it time for fashion to take a long hard look in the mirror and ask why it places so much importance on gender? Or will it just cover-up the problem with enough make-up and hope the question disappears?

Fashion began asking itself this question over 100 years ago when the designers Poiret and Coco Chanel brought a menswear staple, the trouser, to womenswear. The question was furthered when Yves Saint Laurent introduced Le Smoking: the first real womenswear suit. Musicians such as David Bowie and Jimmy Hendrix - later followed by artists like Prince and Elton John – started to wear womenswear staples such as blouses and tight-fitting trousers. Vivienne Westwood started the punk revolution from her little shop in London, beginning a fashion and political revolution that questioned the stereotype that women were weak as they began dresing in head-to-toe leather styled with buzzcuts and mohawks.


In the last 5 years, designers like JW Anderson, Thom Browne, Charles Jeffrey and Jun Takahashi of Undercover, have begun experimenting with womenswear staples such as skirts and off the shoulder tops in menswear.


Adding to the discussion, major publications such as British Vogue and the Guardian have written about gender-neutral fashion. British Vogue, in particular, have written 3 articles about it in recent years, with the most recent titled ‘Gender Neutrality Becomes Fashion Reality’, written by International Editor for Vogue, Suzy Menkes (it’s well worth a read).


One of the most influential collections in recent years was the JW Anderson AW13 menswear collection. In an interview with JW Anderson by Showstudio, in which they rewatched his menswear collection, Anderson talks about the reaction to the collection, with many people saying it was for shock. With the collection overall causing a lot of controversy, he said, “clothing has to make you think, I think it’s extremely important that when you present an idea it has to cause, it’s not to cause controversy, it’s to cause a reaction, you have to question something, you have to think, it has to open up as idea.”


This is what JW Anderson’s AW13 collection – and the few collections after it – did; they made the fashion industry entertain the idea that menswear can have elements of womenswear. In the case of JW Anderson, that was adding frilly hems to shorts and wellies, tight-fitting mini dresses, and tops that sat off the shoulder. Overall, the fashion world loved the collection, it was praised for its craftsmanship and simple ideas that really questioned the menswear scene that still today lacks many new ideas.


However, as aforementioned, outside the fashion bubble, the collection was shocking, and one article in particular from the ‘femail’ section on the Daily Mail’s website looks at the SS14 menswear collection, which continued the previous collection’s feminine theme.


The article, titled ‘Leather straitjackets, poodle fringes and racy lace halternecks: More crazy fashion from the Men's Collections shows’, clearly shows that opinions weren’t overtly positive. Even less positive is the comment section, which can easily be used to present the most common counter-argument against gender neutral fashion: the argument that, as MailOnline user Mike phrases it, ‘...Remember who you're dressing. MEN!!!’. Very eloquently put.


This really is a common argument used against gender-neutral fashion, from both sexes alike, and even used to be the argument against women wearing trousers. Restaurants would turn away women who came wearing trousers, as it was deemed as what a lady shouldn’t wear. Today, however, trousers are a staple of female evening-wear, and even Haute Couture.


This argument has a more damaging effect than most realise as it is really an argument to protect male dominance. When women’s emancipation was furthered by the suit, male resentment grew as women were seen as becoming more like men. It’s no wonder that when a woman wears a suit to work it’s called a power suit, because it shows how powerful she is. For the same reason, men hate men wearing ‘too-feminine’ clothes; they will hurl slurs at men in dresses like ‘sissy’, as well as girl or gay in order to offend. The fact that men use these slurs, particularly ‘girl’, really shows how they are scared of men becoming more feminine. They think they are better than women.


Thankfully there is a little known movement trying to fix this: Feminism. To the surprise of many, it isn’t just about women, it’s about gender equality. This requires not just women defying stereotypes and showing traits that are typically ‘masculine’, but men showing traits that are more ‘feminine’. Most recently, there’s been an increase in conversation about men talking about their feelings, effectively girl gossip. But these traits also extend to fashion because fashion is so personal. Men are teased, judged and excluded for liking ‘girly things’ like florals, pink, shoes that aren’t trainers, bags and fashion in general. Why? For a start pink used to be more of a boy’s colour.


Where gendered fashion does the most damage is children’s fashion. Slogan tees that label girls only as beautiful and pretty but boys as being strong, scientists, and loving trucks and cars. No wonder the STEM subjects have so few girls: they are being told from birth that boys play with trucks and cars and girls play with dolls. How is a girl going to aspire maths and construction if she’s told that’s what boys like and girls like creative things?


Fortunately for our next generation, there are companies and people with big influences making big changes. John Lewis and River Island are creating gender neutral children’s clothing, celebrities like Harry Styles, Jaden Smith as well as TV shows, like Ru Paul’s Drag Race, are role models for everyone. They demonstrate that it’s okay to love sequins and florals, it’s okay to wear a skirt, it’s okay to take on an alter-ego and strut around as a sassy bitch in 6-inch heels. Your genitals don’t have an influence on what you can and can’t wear. It’s your decision; go be crazy.


However, as many positive influences are taking gender out of fashion, there’s also popular figures and brands who are getting it all wrong.


Firstly, the recently-split couple Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik, stated in a vogue interview said that their fashion is ‘gender-fluid’, because Gigi might take Zayn’s shirt and Zayn might take Gigi’s t-shirt. I don’t think I even need to explain why that’s not what gender-fluid fashion is, mainly because gender fluid is a gender identity, but nor is it gender neutral fashion.


There has also been River Island’s new ‘labels are for clothes’ campaign which is a campaign to support anti-bullying and removing stereotypes based on race, religion, sexuality and gender, even advertising itself as ‘100% gender free’. Currently, when you look at their website, the tops and t-shirts are labeled under mens and womens, not a great start. However, the advert for the campaign does feature a model wearing a denim corset with no breasts, which possibly suggests that there are more clothes that actually are gender-neutral and hopefully River Island can fix it’s labeling issue on it’s website.


Unfortunately, the two examples above are not isolated. Gender neutral fashion is often misunderstood, and often only implemented in womenswear, with women in ‘men's’ clothing, which in reality has been a part of women’s fashion for decades. If you were to search ‘gender neutral fashion’ you would see images of men and women in hoodies and jeans. That’s not all of what gender neutral is but that's as far as people think it should go and as much as it’s good that the brand is advertising unisex fashion, they are often labeled under the women's section. For example, Zara, who labeled their unisex collection in trf, a man wouldn’t look there online, they’d likely only look in men’s where they wouldn’t find it.


To conclude, fashion doesn’t really need gender. All this does is separate men and women and help to set a status quo about what girls and boys can be. If done right, gender-neutral fashion could well be our future; you could shop online and just search for a t-shirt - not a men's t-shirt, not a women’s t-shirt, just a t-shirt because that’s what it is. You would have the freedom to wear what you want and not what you’re told you want. This future is already beginning to emerge, fronted by stores like John Lewis and designers like JW Anderson. Even Smirnoff, who have, as I’m writing this article, released an advertising campaign saying that labels are for bottles, featuring three androgynous friends enjoying some shots, which I’m sure we can all relate to. So with that, I toast to a gender-neutral future in fashion and I hope you do too.