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Gender Neutral Clothing: A Revolution in Fashion?

There's nothing new in men wearing skirts in the context of quilts and sarongs

Franklin D. Roosevelt in a dress before he became the US President

Franklin D. Roosevelt in a dress before he became the US President

Is fashion becoming non-binary?

According to some, the only clothing that is specific to both men and women in the modern context are the jockstrap and bra respectively. For much of European history, let’s say from mediaeval times, outer clothing was more gender specific, at least among the middle classes and aristocrats. Unfortunately, a balanced assessment is marred by paintings and other evidence that probably reflect the rich and powerful more than prevailing majorities. Peasant culture tended to blend fashions more – this probably applied in particular to cheaper shoes and boots where size rather than style would have distinguished them. Until relatively recently, children were dressed in girls’ clothing until about the age of 5 if not 7. It was probably cheaper that way. There wasn’t much of a clothing industry in the past – things needed hand sewing. Most infant clothing such as nappies are not especially gender specific.

As children grew up, it would have been very common for them to wear boys or girls clothing inherited as hand me downs, before the advent of mass marketing by a clothing industry. Clothing was more scarce and expensive to produce. This probably applied to shorts, shirts, skirts, stockings and shoes, until such children reached puberty, when reproductive, romantic and work considerations dictated a divergence between the sexes. Differences in clothing were probably most emphasised among the rich who had more time and money for materials and fashion.

The modern, mass produced clothing and fashion industry is a peculiar and capricious beast. It is driven by prevailing culture, celebrities and advertising including “influencers”. There is more equality between the sexes than ever before at the cost of women’s reproductive output (probably OK given death rates have fallen and the human population has never been higher). Whereas some jobs are still segregated according to gender – the building trade is dominated by men, most types of work apply equally to men and women. The medical, legal, business, service and even to some extent, military sectors employ both men and women, with women increasingly dominating as schoolteachers as well as taking over in areas such as medicine. If both men and women do similar types of work, can’t they manage with similar clothing at a practical level?

The answer is yes. The operative word is similar. It need not mean the same. Developments in the 20thcentury witnessed an increasing masculinisation of women’s fashion. In places like London there will be more women wearing pants or trousers in some form compared to skirts that they wore traditionally. Generally, since the 20th century, culture if not clothing has been somewhat feminised given that women have been increasingly adopting roles historically occupied by men. Before this, women tended to be more housebound to look after children.

The rise of a “gender neutral”* culture as a fashion trend probably begins in the 1960s. If a specific time can be picked, maybe it’s represented by the contraceptive pill. During the Flower Power movement, men started growing their hair long, in part as a shift towards a feminine direction (this was told to me by someone who was a young adult at the time). With the rise of the “gay movement” or a growing sexual counterculture increasingly divorced from monogamy and raising families, the fashion industry started embracing the new trends. The advertising industry has also played a role in the culture of imagery that dominates our airwaves that’s probably impacted “gender-neutrality”.

With the Industrial revolution, advertising started employing images of women to sell things starting from around the 1850s. Women were seen as repositories of beauty, virtue and homeliness and had to be so in the context of being faithful to their spouse and the cornerstone of their children’s upbringing and education.

Everything from toiletries such as soaps to labour saving devices like washing machines employed images of women. In the beginning, they were portraits of idealised women drawn by artists, well into the 1950s before photos of real women started taking over. This escalated the fashion model industry and women often became iconically associated with everything from cars and air travel (air hostesses) to dominate in beauty and fashion: from hair dye to cosmetics and lingerie. It is possible, that at some level, men were feeling increasingly left out and there could have been a touch of “Venus envy” creeping in. In any case supermodels and actresses got paid extremely well in industries steered in part by men, who chose not to share the limelight.

Are we witnessing a time when women are the dominant sex, unless, in some way, they already were? If the sexes are seen as equal, then it follows naturally that clothing differences are reduced with emphasis on nuances, style and colour rather than types of clothing.

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Modern politics, sexuality and the fashion industry with a dose of Venus envy are now conspiring to feminise Western culture – perhaps it’s high time this happens given a historical patriarchy. But this is not without negative consequences for women at a time that femininity if not its vulnerabilities are being appropriated by some men that it is not the place to discuss here. Take for example, legal trans-women beating cis-women in women’s sports, given their original male physique.

Never before has it been easier to acquire clothing of either gender without stepping out of one’s own home. Companies like Amazon will deliver a bra or a jockstrap or socks to your doorstep for about the same price or less than a cup of coffee. This is a real revolution with economic and environmental perturbations. It reflects e-commerce at a globalised level. This, above all other factors will promote an exploration and individualisation of clothing choices by women and men. You can now order most clothes facelessly online, collect them at a store and return them if they don’t fit. This process will only become more sophisticated – soon you could have an online virtual shoe fitting without visiting a shoe shop. Of course, the high street could suffer.

UK schools are already making school uniforms "gender neutral", at least on the grounds of non-discrimination between boys and girls. Some girls are clearly upset at being potentially deprived of their skirts. Gender neutral brands are taking over, but this will also be reliant on the existence of a polarity in clothing between male and female. Perhaps we will soon see most clothes marketed at a predominantly male or female market rather than in a specifically binary way, unless they want to declare most clothing unisex. The fashion industry will do whatever to succeed, so they are probably more keen than ever before to find out how best to shift their assets according to gender during these fluctuations if not turbulence.

Some predict that 2019 will be the year that men choose to widely adopt the skirt. Well, this would not necessarily be new. I’ve been wearing "skirts" at night for years – also called a sarong, that I often wear in the hot country I mostly choose to holiday in. Sarongs are still worn in India and Burma though the trouser is sadly replacing this garment. Maybe it’s high time we had simpler, somewhat cylindrical clothing below our waist as was the case more widely, certainly 500 years ago.

Predictions are not easy, but given some of the above trends, driven by technology, it is not surprising that more people are becoming experimental with their fashion choices and yes, in some sense there is now a revolution. When it comes to our bodies, our choice of clothing is probably second only to what we eat and drink.

There is now an almost limitless “freedom” to wallow in fashion and make radical departures from expected norms in clothing. The current revolution is one where you as a reader may have as great a role than apparel brands and a fashion police, that has for years tried to persuade you on how and what to wear.

* Gender neutral does not imply that both sexes start dressing the same way. This has already been tried in Maoist China. It does imply a convergence in certain types of clothing, at least at a casual or formal level if not during occasions to highlight gender differences (e.g., ballroom dancing). It also implies a greater prevalence of cross-dressing in the sense of either sex adopting clothing wholly or in part of the opposite gender.

© 2019 Tenochtitlan

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