Last month, H&M added its name to a growing list of fashion heavyweights abandoning the idea of gender-specific clothing and marketing. It’s a change that’s been happening on the runway for a number of years now, with labels like J.W.Anderson, Wales Bonner, and Rick Owens showing collections that aren't limited by traditional gender constraints. More recently, many of the industry's biggest luxury brands, labels like Gucci and Burberry, started combining its men's and women's collections – essentially moving away from the long-established binary blueprint of dividing its shows into ‘menswear’ and ‘womenswear.' Today’s young tastemakers are also sparking conversation by disrupting ideas of what we "should" all be wearing: Young Thug, for example, was heavily praised for wearing a dress on the cover of his mixtape "Jeffery," while Jaden Smith made headlines in 2016 for starring in Louis Vuitton’s spring '16 womenswear campaign, wearing a skirt.
H&M’s Denim United collection expands on this idea, attracting praise for its denim dress marketed at all gender identities – a sure indication that gender-specific clothing is already a narrower category than we often assume. “With this collection we are rethinking the mindset around ‘his’ and ‘hers’ clothing, blurring borders and challenging norms,” explains an H&M spokesperson. “Traditional thinking is revisited with menswear and womenswear borrowing both materials and silhouettes from each other.”
Again, the language of marketing plays a key role; the designation of clothing into gendered categories affects our perceptions and projects meaning onto otherwise neutral garments. This was comically exemplified in a recent Tweet which saw an eBay user cancel an order because the product they had ordered was marketed “for women.” It was literally a pair of plain gray sneakers.
Contextually, this change in mentality is long overdue. As trans-visibility continues to rise and education surrounding non-binary identities filters into mainstream discussions, it seems more basic than ever to allow arbitrary factors like sex and gender to define what we should and shouldn’t be wearing.
These shifts in mentality do, of course, have wider political implications. Not only do these changes progress cultural discussions of gender, they are also desperately needed in order to protect the public safety of trans and non-binary people. Shopping in clothing sections divided by gender can be difficult and, at worst, dangerous for gender-variant people, an anxiety which writer Shon Faye brilliantly summarized last year in an article for Dazed, featuring the perspectives of interviewees worldwide.
Fashion professor Dr. Benjamin Wild argues that the current fascination with unisex and genderless marketing is intrinsically linked to today’s cultural climate; “I think the creation and marketing of clothing as ‘unisex’ reflects current anxieties about gender and, more generally, the increasingly unclear and unstable notions of ethnicity and religion, etc. in our globalized world. It is little surprise that people would want their clothing to reflect shifting perceptions of self, and I think it is a good thing that such choice exists.” He is, however, quick to point out that these discussions should be part of an ongoing narrative that aims to shift perceptions, as opposed to a new trend. “While people may now talk more about ‘unisex clothing,' I wonder how many really think about what that means, and this applies to the companies who market their products as ‘unisex’ too.”
In its most recent guise, ‘unisex clothing’ largely refers to oversized basics, loose silhouettes and neutral colors, which are enough to stir up conversation around gender but never truly push the envelope. Innovative young designers continue to blur the lines of gender and sexuality, but these statements are largely expected on the catwalks; liberal cities may be largely more accepting, but the idea of a genderless future in more rural areas still seems a long way off. As long as bright colors, prints and what we still understand as ‘gender-specific’ silhouettes are deemed to be a political or ‘brave’ statement when worn by men, the boundaries of the larger fashion industry can only truly be pushed so far without being met by the backlash of a society obsessed with masculinity.
Still, these collections are admirable and undeniably necessary, a fact proven by the wave of positive responses. “Agender was an experiment for us and the learnings have been valuable,” explains Hewson. “The response has been wholly positive – from a fashion consumer and industry, but also a cultural, perspective. People are telling us the idea is important to them, so we are now looking at how Agender ideals will continue in our stores, our online experience and our creative projects in a long-term and meaningful way.” H&M has attracted similar responses, buoyed further by its use of sustainable textiles like organic and recycled cotton.
In essence, these small steps are necessary in order to rethink the way that we consume, shop for and think about clothing. The importance of brands like H&M altering both its marketing language and its shop layouts is undeniable; not only does it recognize that many of us already dress daily in "gender-neutral" or "unisex" clothing, but it creates a physical retail environment more conducive to the safety of trans and gender-variant shoppers.
The reality is that unisex clothing, at least for now, has to be rooted in a certain set of loose silhouettes and neutral color palettes to stand a chance of mainstream acceptance – the "gender-neutral" aesthetic is not one characterized by bold prints, abstract patterns, and unconventional shapes. At least, not yet. Still, many of us already dress in an eclectic fusion of menswear and womenswear; creativity always finds a way to thrive outside of the gender binary. For now, it’s enough that these influential brands are challenging dominant mentalities and inching ever closer to the reality of a progressive fashion industry that truly caters to all.