In April 2016, a parcel arrived for me that I had been eagerly been anticipating all week. I ran upstairs, ripped open the packaging to put my new Zara purchase on. I loved my new top so much taking multiple selfies in it and practically wearing it every night out for the next three months. This was not just any top but the navy blue long sleeve top from the Zara Ungendered collection.
I loved what I thought the top stood for and eagerly posted a picture to Instagram of me in it. Within a few minutes of posting it I received a message from one of my followers. “Wow, their marketing really worked on you didn’t it…”. After I tried to explain the top to the individual they replied with a salty “nah don’t be silly they clearly haven’t ripped you off”. This annoyed me. My love for this top was based on my discontent at the enforcement of gender roles in society, especially in the fashion industry.
The ungendered collection at Zara represented a movement towards gender neutrality that I hoped would be the future, but my follower’s response made me see the plain navy blue top for what it was, a plain navy blue top. I do still love the top but less for any brand social comment I thought it was making, than the colour and fit of the garment itself.
This moment did get me thinking though: how gender neutral is ungendered clothing really? While various retailers such as Zara and Selfridges have released their own unisex collections, these wannabe fashion ground-breakers actually stick to many of the gendered stereotypes that already exist in society.
The term ungendered implies at a space off the gender spectrum, not one end or the other, or anything in between, but outside of the spectrum’s rules. These clothes, however, only went as far as to re-defined masculine clothing as androgynous. Where were the skirts marketed to both genders? Or unisex t-shirts in baby pink? Unisex was achieved by making everyone dress like men and ignoring femininity.
Did this come from the age old fear of femininity? The same fear that has affected responses to women, homosexuals and effeminate males alike. To a certain extent, heterosexual women with stereotypically masculine traits had a space within ‘straight’ society with the idea of the ‘tomboy’ but femininity was, and still is to a certain degree, seen as weak.
What it seemed like was that boyfriend fits, with a less patronising name, were being marketed towards women who wanted to explore their masculine side. Very little was on offer for men who wanted to express a sense of femininity.
Moreover, while the collections tried to explore an ambiguous grey space of gender, they were extremely rigid in their options for different body shapes.
I loved my top and the way it fit me but that was because I naturally have a fairly feminine male physique. The clothes would naturally fit well on me because, to be quite frank, I have the body of Kendall Jenner. While this has led to many concerns about malnourishment and possible dying from relatives (a highlight was when a distant aunt did the sign of the cross on herself when she saw how skinny I was), its meant that most clothes, male or female, fit me and I have a freedom to wear what I want.
I realised that the future I saw where these ungendered collections were mainstream was a future where every female would have just the right boob size to waist ratio. That all women and men’s shoulders would fall within a certain width range dependant on their waists. While unisex clothing was meant to escape the boxes of gender, it was creating a new box of body standards.
These genderless collections were not made for everyone but for androgynously bodied people, for people who’s body shapes fit a half way mark between male and female and there’s really nothing ground-breaking about that.
If unisex fashion really wants to be ground-breaking it needed to challenge stereotypes. Unisex fashion doesn’t have to be one size fits all but instead can have one look that works for many.
Companies like George already started doing this with their removal of ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ labels on their kids ranges that then allows children to pick whatever item they want from their age range rather than what has been dictated to them. While, this would be a lot harder to implement in adult clothing it would be exciting to see a high street retailer make female styles and looks for the adult male body and vice versa.
The recent use of lace in men’s fashion has been a polarising idea. While some think its usage is ridiculous I actually really liked it, but then I have only ever seen it on drop dead gorgeous models. Lace, a material often associated with female sexuality, is the kind of way in which unisex fashion could start to ungender materials and looks.
Hopefully, as we head into a world more aware of the implications of gender roles and stereotypes, fashion shall catch up to.
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