Functionality versus Fashion: Misconstruing Gender Neutrality
Gender neutral clothing is a new wave of styles that emerged with the onset of the LGBTQ rights movements coupled with alternative youth cultures. It has entered into the general discussion of clothing as retailers such as Zara or H&M, in keeping with the times, have created collections appropriated for what they understood to be gender neutral style. Of course, they received backlash as many followers of youth culture styles deemed the clothing as offensive. Most critique was aimed at the rush to put women in basic men’s clothing, otherwise considered universal pieces, or for its exploitative goal in marketing something that panders to minorities but is only bought by the general public. The attempt at progressive fashion and political correctness has opened a philosophical debate on what gender neutrality attempts to encompass. Is it a realistic and attainable goal in fashion or is it simply functional clothing?
There’s different ways to identify style as gender normative. There are colors that most characteristically provoke associations to our sociological grouping of men and women. There are also sewing patterns and the fits of clothing, accentuated specific to body types typical for either sex/gender. Accessories and intentional combinations of clothing also play into generic ideas of male or female gender identity. All of the above are fashion sanctions that promote not only male and female stereotypes, but fashion that illustrates social orders of all kinds: financial status, ethnicity, education, personality, etc. Albeit gender seems to be the big cahuna in the modern debate on identity in clothing. This is no surprise considering gender can be seen as the bridge between behavioral associations and the most fundamental biological divide in the human race (ie. sex). Ergo it is interlinked with the behavioralism of stylistic expression in clothing. The dilemma that has risen in recent years is one within the LGBTQ community that sways on a spectrum of gender. Thus it strays from fashion conventions and norms. The question is, is this possible in a world built on social norms which are unavoidably intertwined with genders?
Those that abide by the current, arguably wide, arsenals of male versus female clothing will not want to stray from a fashion that provides comfort in its very limitations. People who wish to secure their appearance in normative trends. Men are free to wear pinks in as much as women are not wearing the same pinks at the same moment as this leads to a conflict of interest. Men wearing typically female attire more often than not will empower the article of clothing. While a woman’s effect on fashion in wearing male clothing is often deemed minimal. There are exceptions to this such as the historical Le Smoking by Yves Saint Laurent. However a power house such as Laurent is geared towards the empowerment of women through fashion by all means, which is why putting a woman in a suit is entirely in lines with their goal that doesn’t strictly adhere to a political agenda (moreover, Yves was a man that put a woman in a suit). This in itself was more of a statement for the sake of fashion than a cause for freedom of gender. The suit in question is by no means masculine, it is in fact a feminine fit designed to emphasize female characteristics of the body. For the sake of history, this piece is an important development of art and fashion culture. How much is it in coherence with gender neutrality though?
Further examination of the semantics in some of the terminology used in discussing the relevant concepts may prove interesting in the way that we sociologically are predisposed to this theme. For example, the word “fashion” is a social phenomenon, while “clothing” is a function. Purchasing fashion is purchasing a preference or statement of ones identity, whereas buying clothes is a practical act. On a general basis: Women’s articles can separate the two, but also support their mutual existence. Men’s clothing will almost always include both in unison.
One error faced in the criticizing of gender neutral clothing is comparing it with women’s fashion and male clothing. Instead of comparing fashion with fashion, clothes with clothes. The essence of male fashion is undefined compared to that of female fashion in as much as female clothing is overpowered by female fashion. Male fashion truly is limited to either being minimal, thus more functional than appearance visioned, or avant-garde and veering into feminine territory. When we discuss clothing strictly as functional the opposite occurs whereby gender neutral becomes automatically associated to male pieces. That being said, theoreticians stress the paradox in unisex fashion contrasting differences instead of blurring them out.
A few years back Zara and H&M took it upon themselves to create the fashion lines “Ungendered” (2016) and “Denim United” (2017), almost as gender neutral clothing ‘starter kits’. The first obvious issue in the following, without even looking at the fashion pieces, is that the average consumer of Zara or H&M are not the typical LGBTQ activist looking to buy androgynous clothing. Therefore it can be deduced that there is no real profitability in such a marginalized group of individuals, unless it is pandering to the sympathy of its general audience in the controversial step of simply endorsing unisex clothing as a viable fashion statement. Otherwise known as “Pink-Washing”, a marketing strategy employed to appeal through gay-friendliness in order for the brand to be perceived as progressive. The second obvious issue, moreover the general critique received by the two retail brands, is that the unisex fashion they market is just male clothing worn by both sexes in the editorial photos. These two issues put together give us an even better explanation of the gender neutral clothing phenomenon.
In researching this project it’s become clear to me that there is almost no way to avoid placing one gender into the other’s clothing in the quest for gender neutrality. Without erasing history and the pre-existing associations tied to articles of clothing, redefining the very goals of clothing seems impossible. However, in regards to the pink-washing many retailers seem inspired by, it’s simple to see the exploitative nature of the idea. Perhaps more importantly, the marketing damages our perception of the idea of putting women into men’s clothing and vice versa. The designers at H&M and Zara are most likely aware of the simplicity in their collections, but instead of calling them functional collections or minimalist collections they chose the words ungendered and unisex to cause intrigue. Our reaction as a public is what causes controversy, not the idea itself. The automatic shaming of this unisex clothing was based on the fact that women were expected to conform to male standards instead of men being forced to conform to female fashion. But is this so bad? To them, no publicity is bad publicity. But to those promoting gender neutrality, the idea of placing a woman into men’s clothing is now stained by corporate objectives. Though this is a general issue we see feminism facing, the automatic rejection on behalf of frustrated women to conform to anything male — deeming it derogatory. It is questionable how much of this issue we can blame on the corporations themselves, when after all, critique comes down to perception.
Making the distinction between gender neutral clothing, often attributed to male fashion, and gender neutral fashion, often attributed to sub/youth culture styles is important when discussing the dilemma in large retailers such as H&M or Zara marketing gender neutrality. Though the two did an excellent job of providing functional clothing, they clung to the marketing strategy of an otherwise edgy and forward thinking subculture. When their goal is in keeping with modern fashion as opposed to what the actual definition should perhaps equate to, this distinction is blurred and can cause offense with its ambiguous intentions. If the clothing had been androgynous, typically a word associated to the David-Bowie-Iggy-Pop-male-in-female-clothing fashion, it would have been more in tune with what that subculture actually represents.
Can there be gender neutral clothing? The question will always come down to interpretation. Is it a fashion or functionality? If it’s a fashion, should it involve both male and female characteristics combined into the perfect emulsion? Or is it only neutral in as much as it resists any prescribed characteristics of one or the other? If that’s the case it seems there’s only functionality left. However functionality is difficult to market because it is very meta. It strays from specifics but is also all-encompassing. The general consensus within gender studies is that gender neutral fashion exists in as long as the fit of clothing does not accentuate or adhere to strictly male versus female body-types. Yet this is exactly what retailers work to achieve, a good fit on each person. H&M tried to blur the line between male and female fashion in 2017 by looking to denim as a source material for gender neutrality. As a medium that evolved through the intertwining of the sexes/genders, whereby the first Texas jeans models were more or less identical in all but size for men and women, denim is a no-brainer material for neutrality. Although modern male and female jeans, such as those sold at H&M, are usually altered according to strength, styling and coloration of the material in line with the styles corresponding to gender normative culture. Thus, their attempt had good source material, but no cigar.
Psychology dictates that stereotypes will inevitably exist. It’s not impossible to have gender neutral clothing but that in itself will quickly become associated to a specific lifestyle as we have seen it become in youth culture. Moreover, gender normative standards are not necessarily a conservative approach to clothing. Normative clothing has a purpose in that it provides people with choice regarding their own sensibility in conformity. If gendered clothing and the very construct of differential genders did not exist, or did not have a viable basis for its existence, the question remains whether transgendered or cross-dressing people would feel the need to redefine genders to begin with. It seems the main issue behind the fashion industry’s differentiating between the sexes and genders is in its stringent focus on female fashion. Abundance subconsciously conditions women into thinking their appearance speaks on their behalf more than other traits. Thus they are led to believe that their focus and money should therefore be channeled on appearance as opposed to the functionality of clothes. Although men might not have as much of a stressful relationship with fashion due to the minor attention it dedicates to the male gender, they certainly don’t reap the benefits of self-care that the industry offers as often as women do.
More importantly, what you wear can, but does not definitively, define you
The question remains whether gender neutrality apparel should be considered pragmatic, as a sort of utilitarian fashion — Or whether it should be seen as the breaking of norms in a dramatic mesh of styles of what is today defined as a spectrum of gender? In both cases it will be criticized for conforming one gender to other’s fashion. Perhaps the solution lays in actively desisting from differentiated labels to begin with. Unifying functional clothing with fashion, men with women and style with identity. Logic dictates that neutrality exists in as much as everything is equanimous. Gender neutrality, without melting together the genders, resembles an Orwellian byproduct of an identity void world. It is not in our nature to live independent of labels. If we did not possess categorical minds we would not feel the need to “identify” as gender neutral to begin with. So at the end of the day, we must think critically when marketed quick solutions. We also cannot criticize the fashion industry for being unfair to either gender (or non-gender) when at the end of the day, in a capitalist system, you choose what you wear. More importantly, what you wear can, but does not definitively, define you.
This article is also published on Moot. Moot is an online opinion and knowledge based blog dedicated to the questioning and contemplation of cultural and philosophical topics in reflection with modern perspectives. Including, but not limited to: Fine art, anthropology, film reviews, economics and more. Currently the main contributor and founder of the site is Sonja Lundin.