In the past few years, as fashion brands have realised the financial upside of being more inclusive, they’ve begun to target the non-binary community by venturing into gender-neutral and genderless fashion. While on the surface, this is a good thing for fashion — an industry that has long overlooked anyone who wasn’t a cisgender, white, straight-sized shopper — the plain-looking brown sweats and boxy T-shirts that often come out as a result of these largely uninspired gender-neutral collections do little for the community they are supposed to cater to. For one, there are often modelled on androgynous-looking skinny, white models, suggesting that it’s, well, the model image of a non-binary shopper.
“If you just create a non-binary brand and say ‘this is non-gendered clothing,’ you are essentially trying to say that there's only one type of body that a non-binary person could occupy or possess,” Nyx Melody, psychotherapist and anti-oppression/LGBTQPA+ consultant, tells Refinery29.
For queer people who use style to experiment with and affirm their gender, it’s damaging when the clothing offerings only serve one small portion of the community, particularly when it comes to sizing. “A lot of these brands that celebrate gender neutrality do not make shit for me. They do not have shit in my size,” says Vince, a 25-year-old non-binary trans-femme woman from Seattle who preferred to not disclose their last name. Even when brands do cast non-binary people in their campaigns in an attempt to be genuinely inclusive, Vince views it as “inherently performative.”
“I think more often than not, when we are included in these big brands, we are included as PR stunts, and I don't like being a stunt,” Vince says.
This belief is shared throughout a lot of the queer community, who often only see themselves catered to during a very specific time of the year: June, aka Pride month. That belief is confirmed when even the most well-meaning brands remove the rainbow icons and banners as soon as the clock turns to midnight on July 1.
I love crop tops and mini skirts. And that doesn't fit into this narrative of what non-binary fashion has been made out to be.
Blossom Brown, TikTok educator
Only being seen when it is convenient for capitalism’s sake is nothing new. When Blossom Brown, a TikTok educator and non–binary trans woman, came out two years ago, they realized the image of non-binary some brands had — a “vague vanilla version of masculinity” — didn’t fit them. “The world is obviously so binary that the sort of aesthetic that's being curated for this non-binary category is really marketed towards a very specific group of people. That very specific group of people do not encompass the entire community,” Blossom says. For their part, Brown prefers “dopamine dressing” that leans on a ‘90s/Y2K fashion aesthetic and “anything sparkly, fuzzy, or transparent.”
“I love crop tops and mini skirts. That's my uniform. And that doesn't fit into this narrative of what non-binary fashion has been made out to be,” Brown says.
Brown’s aesthetic is in stark contrast to that of Vico Ortiz, a non-binary Puerto Rican actor, drag king, and activist who describes their style as “femboy, like a pretty boi.” Ortiz says that, at the beginning of their career, they had to “really femme up, really sell this woman-on-societal-standards-like role.”
“I really went for it. [But] it felt so uncomfortable because I wasn't doing it on my own terms,” they say.
After years in the spotlight, Ortiz now feels secure in flowing between what are perceived as traditionally masculine and feminine aesthetics. “That beautiful flow between both energies internally and externally is a constant reminder for myself that I don't owe anyone androgyny,” they say. “Non-binary can literally be anything. If I were to put on a dress and some heels and walk out of this apartment and go out into the world, I'm still non-binary. If I want to put on a suit and tie or a bow tie and draw on a mustache, I'm still non-binary.”
According to Yamikani Msosa — a movement practitioner for Black grief and equity consultant from Lilongwe, Malawi who is now based in Ottawa, Ontario — instead of releasing gender-neutral collections, the fashion industry should be stripping clothing of gender entirely. “Gender-neutral, like what is that? It [can’t be] even materialised because it's so individual,” says Msosa, who identifies as someone “who's gender fucking.”
Ideally, according to Msosa, there would “be no gender markers anywhere, so we can just shop where we want to shop without somebody policing.”
If I were to put on a dress and some heels, I'm still non-binary. If I want to put on a suit and tie and draw on a mustache, I'm still non-binary.
Vico Ortiz, actor, drag king & activist
Others in the community agree. “I think genuinely that clothing would do a lot better if we divided it by what type of clothing it was,” Vince, who describes their style as “dressing like a slot machine,” says. “The move forward is to just stop gendering clothes and allow people to decide how they want to dress up their own bodies,” Brown echoes. “Straight up just mix and match, not have a men’s section or a women’s section. Everything is just up for grabs for whoever wants it,” adds Ortiz.
It’s the simplest answer in the book. Think of most thrift stores, with their piles of clothing, broken up by clothing style category rather than gender. This is especially helpful when it comes to the intricacies of body parts. For example, Boy Smells, the brand best known for its perfumes and candles, separates its underwear section with “flat front” and “pouch front.”
Another example of a brand that seems to understand this is Tanner Fletcher, an emerging genderless fashion label that recently showcased its Fall 2022 collection at NYFW. “We don’t think non-binary folks are looking for this crazy new type of non-binary fashion,” designers Tanner Richie and Fletcher Kasell, told Refinery29. “We think non-binary folks just want the freedom to see something they like regardless of how they identify, grab it off the rack, and be authentically themselves without unnecessary labels and the judgment that comes with them.”
From delicate floral sweater vests to Western-style white tassel suits, Tanner Fletcher’s “label-less” offerings are anything but boring. “We wanted to bring our own distinct style into the fashion world while having nothing to do with the gender of our customers.”
In challenging the mainstream notion of what non-binary fashion is, they have encountered some bumps along the way. “We are seeing a reaction from some retailers where they cannot wrap their minds around removing gender labels,” the designers say. “The common misconception is that women have curves and men do not. This simply isn’t true. We see plenty of male-identifying people that are very curvy… Many female-identifying people are very boxy, broad-shouldered, tall, etc. This is why the gender label just gets in the way. People are people, and each person is not the same as the next.”
Melody agrees that genderless fashion isn't about stripping style of personal expression. “Non-binary expression is as colourful and as diverse as the human population,” they say. “For folks who hold a binary trans identity, I think it can be incredibly affirming to go into a particular section, grab clothing and be like, this is great. This is amazing. I'm affirming my womanness or I'm affirming my manliness.”
Indeed, the word “non-binary” is an umbrella term, encompassing many different types of gender-expansive experiences and identities. As such, creating “genderless” collections that cater to a limited image of what a non-binary shopper looks like and wears overlooks the multi-dimensional community they claim to want to serve. The reason why I and many others in the community feel drawn to the term is that it’s a non-label label. It fights against the outdated idea of the gender binary.
Gender-queer experiences don’t fit in tidy little boxes; they are meant to exist outside of them. When brands create categories, it feels as if they’re trying to fit us back into those boxes we spent our entire lives trying to escape from.