This 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 catwalk for a number of years, with designers such as J.W.Anderson, Wales Bonner, Rick Owens and Craig Green presenting collections that aren't limited by traditional gender constraints and silhouettes. More recently, many of the industry's biggest luxury brands, including Gucci, Burberry, Tom Ford, Paul Smith, Margiela and Vivienne Westwood, started combining men's and women's collections – essentially moving away from the long-established binary blueprint of ‘menswear’ and ‘womenswear’ shows. 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 mixtape ‘Jeffery’, while Jaden Smith made headlines last year for starring in Louis Vuitton’s SS16 womenswear campaign.
The strict parameters between the traditional notions of women's and men's clothing have been challenged for a number of years, but Selfridges became a high-profile pioneer of genderless dressing back in 2015 when it introduced its Agender initiative. “Agender was Selfridges’ response to the cross-pollination of menswear and womenswear which we had witnessed in store for some time,” explains creative director Linda Hewson. “It was becoming very clear to us that women weren’t thinking twice about shopping on our menswear floor, and that men were investing in womenswear ready-to-wear and accessories. The original idea of the department store – and shopping by clearly defined categories – seemed like a good place to start the conversation around gender in fashion and retail. Alongside Faye Toogood and her team we were able to reimagine the idea of a department store, a space where products were displayed against a neutral backdrop, rather than a space dedicated to a particular gender.”
The idea was particularly welcome as it honed in on what many had already noticed; menswear designers had been dropping the hemlines of T-shirts in order to create a subtly subversive yet still palatable version of a ‘dress’ for men, whereas womenswear was shifting away from high-femme aesthetics in favour of slogan hoodies, tailoring and deconstructed denim.
H&M’s ‘Denim United’ expands on this trend, 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”. They were literally plain grey trainers.
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 summarised 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 globalised 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 colours, 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 colours, 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 and Selfridges altering both their marketing language and their shop layouts is undeniable; not only does it recognise that many of us already dress daily in ‘gender-neutral’ or ‘unisex’ clothing, 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 colour palettes to stand a chance of mainstream acceptance – the ‘gender-neutral’ aesthetic is not one characterised 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.