The pictures of me as a little girl have a running theme. The bright orange hair, up to no good facial expression, and a dress or skirt. Usually paired with some shockingly coloured patterned tights (thanks mum and dad), I dressed in what could be labelled as a very stereotypical girly way. My uniform at school was a dress or skirt, with trousers and shorts simply not being an option. But as I got older, and had the freedom to make my own fashion choices, I became a lot more comfortable in jeans, t shirts and trainers. When I look at my wardrobe now, the way I dress day to day is pretty neutral. I don’t feel the need to wear a dress or a skirt to embrace my femininity. You might even say my chosen uniform is gender neutral, a phrase heard a lot recently in the fashion and media world. But is everyone on board with it?
With the question of whether little girls and boys should be boxed into gendered categories before they themselves get to choose being somewhat of a hot headline in the past couple of years, the topic has spilled over into the world of fashion.
The industry has coined on to the ever-growing trend of ditching labels when it comes to sexuality and gender and responded in a number of ways. One of the biggest fashion giants to start the ball rolling was Louis Vuitton, who featured Jaden Smith in their 2016 Spring campaign for their series 4 collection. The images of Smith blew up on social media, but a very mixed response of both negative and positive feedback was received. At the time, the trends for 2015 were revolving around gender-free themes that celebrated individuality and freedom to be and dress how you want. But the shock that it was Vuitton that took the concept off the runway and into their campaigns in such an unapologetic way rippled throughout the fashion world, and soon took effect.
This trend wasn’t reserved for the high fashion houses of the world. Soon after the campaign dropped, high street retailers followed suit and launched their own gender free ranges. High street meets high fashion retailer Zara launched their ungendered line in March 2017, containing a 16-piece capsule of unisex items that fell into both their men’s and women’s sections. This didn’t make huge headlines and was actually celebrated by most in the press.
However, later that same year in September, UK retailer John Lewis announced that they would be removing gendered labels from their children’s clothing, changing their signage and labelling to ‘Girls & Boys’ and ‘Boys & Girls’. Many claimed that this decision was dangerous, and uncalled for, claiming that by removing gendered labelling in children’s clothing they were confusing young children about their identities. There were claims from the public that by doing so, John Lewis were taking political correctness too far. Only two months later, River Island announced they were launching a gender-neutral clothing line, with the slogan ‘kids just want to be kids’.
The controversy surrounding these decisions sparked debates of whether pushing a gender-neutral agenda had the potential to seriously damage children’s sense of identity and self awareness. However, this didn’t cause the movement to slow down. If anything, it only propelled it to move further into the fashion world.
Online retailer ASOS teamed up with the world’s leading LGBTQ media advocacy organisation GLAAD to launch a collaborative gender-neutral capsule collection. Pieces in the collection featured the ‘&’ symbol, which is said to represent the power of everyone’s voice, the concept of togetherness and resistance to discrimination and hate. A spokesperson for the organisation stated that ‘proudly wearing the symbol is one way for people to unite in accelerating acceptance.’
The idea of unity and encouraging the resistance of discrimination followed on to influence renowned retail giant Selfridges to open Agender. Described as an interconnected three-story space, it was designed to exist outside of the traditional ideologies and expectations of gendered dressing. The new approach for the space was to encourage everyone of anyone, no matter their gender, to shop for and wear whatever they want.
This year, we’ve seen River Island take on gender stereotypes yet again, this time with a global advertising campaign to celebrate the brand’s 30th Birthday. With a focus on anti-bullying, they have partnered with the international anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label. The diverse range of models in the campaign include twelve different spokespeople who have been subject to outdated social stereotypes.
The campaign runs alongside the selling of a collection of t-shirts and sweatshirts which propel the message of ditch the label. With every sale, £3 will be donated to the Ditch the Label charity, who provide support for those who have been victim to both on and offline bullying. With the slogan ‘labels are for clothes not people’, the campaign aims to encourage people to be themselves unapologetically and without risk of discrimination.
Whilst every concept and message behind these campaigns champions the notion of accepting yourself and others, and not conforming to society’s norms or expectations depending on your gender, when you look at the items in the collections, questions are raised.
Most of the collections claiming to be unisex or gender neutral mainly consist of baggy fitting t-shirts, shorts, trousers and hoodies. All of which are considered to be somewhat masculine style clothing. So, if you are claiming gender neutrality, is it right to ignore the feminine aspect? Are these brands claiming to champion change but in reality are too scared to go all the way? If the focus remains on masculine style, cut and fit, how can the clothing be considered gender neutral?
There has been an outcry of false advertising from social media in response to the multiple campaigns and collections, with public users claiming brands are being misogynistic and non-inclusive by leaving out the femininity in their pieces. They argue that by neglecting the more feminine aspects of fashion, such as skirts, dresses and certain colour and patterns, these brands are only propelling the notion that embracing femininity is reserved for females. There’s a lack of encouragement or acceptance in their imagery and creation to show that men too can don the more feminine cuts and styles of clothing just as much as women can with masculine elements.
With this in mind, it’s important to remain aware of the difference between a bandwagon campaign and a genuine step towards equality in fashion. Just because a brand claims gender neutrality, doesn’t mean they are fully embracing the aspects of what makes an item or a person gender neutral. By neglecting to accommodate their branding and design for every type of person, no matter who or what they identify as, they are failing to follow their own message.
Gender neutrality isn’t about restructuring the traditional elements of fashion and design. It’s not a call to abandon the feminine and masculine elements, it’s a call to make them available to anyone and everyone. The chance to break down the social barriers that determine what is and isn’t OK for men and women to wear and do is here, and I hope that both high-end and high-street fashions make the most of it and encourage it.