Gender-neutral fashion is having a moment. Urban Outfitters has a 'unisex' clothing line, in 2016 Zara launched a gender-neutral collection called Ungendered and in 2017 H&M debuted a collection of gender-neutral denim basics called Denim United. Luxury brands are following suit: Gucci now has a line named Gucci Mx, described as "a hand-picked selection of clothing and accessories with a gender fluid approach".
For those who can’t afford Gucci, though, gender-neutral clothing is falling short. Girlfriend Collective's recent launch of Everyone, a range which the brand describes as "everyday comforts for our friends of all genders", was met with ire on Twitter. The collection is oversized loungewear in various shades of brown, including joggers, sweatshirts and hoodies.
Twitter user @Lubchansky tweeted: "great news! the 'agender' fashion has graduated from GREY SACK to BROWN SACK." Thirty-two thousand likes later, it’s obvious that people are frustrated with 'gender-neutral' being a synonym for boring, beige and oversized. The 'brown sack', designed to cover as much of your body as possible, has had its day.
What do people want out of gender-neutral fashion, if not shapeless loungewear? I talked to Josie, a 28-year-old from London, about what she looks for when she shops across gender lines. "The mainstream supply of clothes marketed as gender-neutral can definitely be really boring," she says. "I've gone into the men's to find more gender-neutral clothes to skate in before [because] I know that staple items are usually better made in menswear."
Similarly, 25-year-old Rowan from Brighton tells me that "gender-neutral clothing can be so bland". She buys her everyday clothing from the women’s section but more gender-neutral or masculine clothes are an important part of expressing her butch identity and sexuality. "I look for some kinds of clothing in a gender-neutral context," she says, "and those tend to be things around sex and sexuality, such as kinkwear."
When I ask Rowan if she’d like to see more gender-neutral clothing lines, she tells me: "I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to have a gender-neutral category that I can spend hundreds of pounds on, it almost always has a mark-up."
It’s true that gender-neutral clothing lines are big business. In 2015 Selfridges launched its Agender Concept Space, touting it as "the future of genderless shopping". The pop-up space in the London store sold a variety of designer streetwear brands, including Ann Demeulemeester, Yang Li and Nicopanda. Catwalk brands whose clothes run into the thousands of pounds are out of the price range of many young people looking for gender-neutral options.
There is a tension between what brands offer and what consumers want from gender-neutral clothing. One of the issues is that 'gender-neutral' is a slippery category; different people have different ideas about how clothes are gendered. Josie tells me: "We have this idea of menswear inherently looking more gender-neutral, especially when it's on a woman, which is problematic because any item of clothing can be gender-neutral."
Skirts and dresses are rarely, if ever, included in gender-neutral fashion lines. Despite Harry Styles wearing a Gucci dress on the cover of Vogue and Billy Porter wearing a Christian Siriano gown to the Met Gala, dresses and skirts are resolutely stuck in the women’s section. When gender-neutral clothing lines only stock trousers and oversized sweaters, they don’t challenge gender norms as much as they claim to.
"For me," says Josie, "truly gender-neutral clothing would look like all of the clothes we have currently, but there would be no gender categories." Rather than having designated gender-neutral collections or pop-ups, it would potentially be more radical if clothes weren't gendered at all.
One brand that doesn’t use gender categories is YUK FUN, a small Portslade-by-Sea-based clothing company cofounded by Lucy Cheung and Patrick Gildersleeves. YUK FUN’s website doesn’t have gender categories, listing clothes solely by style. The clothes are modelled by a mix of genders, including non-binary models, and feature technicolour prints and bright patterns.
I asked Cheung and Gildersleeves about their decision not to include gender categories on the website. Cheung says: "When we started out, we made dresses and there was nothing to say that anyone can't wear them. There’s two of us, and we wanted to make stuff we could both wear."
She continues: "We’re definitely able to be more inclusive than larger brands because it’s all made to order as well. I think bigger brands use excuses, like saying they wouldn’t get enough purchases to justify more inclusive clothes." Larger brands have to balance profits against potentially less marketable gender-neutral clothing, which can lead to the boring brown sacks which, theoretically, have wider appeal.
Similarly, Brighton-based brand Lucy and Yak doesn’t split its clothes by gender. CEO and cofounder Lucy Greenwood tells me: "We recognise there are more than two genders, and we want to encourage people to wear whatever makes them feel their most fabulous." Lucy and Yak is launching a range of skirts and dresses in summer 2021 which will be modelled by men. Greenwood says: "We always try to show our products on different genders, though it’s also important to be mindful that we never make assumptions on how a person self-identifies."
Both YUK FUN and Lucy and Yak have successfully moved away from gendered clothing sections while providing fun, varied items which are a far cry from brown sacks. It’s yet to be seen whether larger brands will do the same or whether standalone gender-neutral collections are here to stay.
Josie is hopeful that Gen Z and millennial attitudes to gender fluidity will one day be reflected in the fashion industry. "I think we're very much at the beginning of having an industry where the idea of gendered clothing is being slowly dismantled." She continues: "I think in 10 or 20 years, there's going to be some really exciting gender-neutral clothes."