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Fashion is a powerful tool for individuals to depict their own narratives through style, clothing, and accessories, allowing for the expression of a strong personal identity. It plays a significant role in mobilizing society by encouraging creativity and providing benefits to the community. However, in this seemingly liberated world of self-expression where creativity knows no bounds, gender-based inequalities persist in the realm of fashion. Despite efforts by fashion brands that reject conforming to binary gender norms, the issue of gender inequality has been deeply ingrained in the essence of the industry and remains a longstanding and debated issue. Beyond the glamour of the runways and the glossy pages of magazines, attempts to overcome gender inequality with brands that defy binary gender norms have not yet fully succeeded. This is not merely a trend; it should be considered as a delayed representation of the most influential groups in fashion.
In this blog post, we will embark on a journey through the complex layers of the fashion world, exploring the role of gender in the design, marketing, and production of clothing. We will shed light on the challenges faced by designers, models, consumers, and workers, discussing ongoing systemic inequalities and examining how fluid designs can be part of the solution.
What Does Binary Gender Mean in Fashion?
Luciana Zegheanu, working in the field of digital strategy and planning, points out that fashion brings about changes in socio-economic and political landscapes. This implies that fashion influences social status, trends, and even how clothing can be applied to society. Fashion is one of the major ways of determining societal gender roles, which are socially constructed. Just as expectations about how women should behave and dress have been established long ago, so have those for men.
Therefore, gender-neutral fashion is nothing more than the freedom for people to choose how they want to dress. It is crucial not to perceive this as a mere adaptation by designers and brands to produce straight-cut and unisex clothing. This is because the concept of binary gender involves categorizing gender into two separate, opposite, and mutually exclusive categories—typically as male and female.
In the understanding of binary gender, individuals are expected to neatly fit into one of these two categories based on their biological gender at birth. This concept can be quite restrictive, as the way a person expresses themselves and their identity doesn't necessarily have to conform to these two rigid categories. This is where our paths intersect with the concept of gender fluidity. Gender fluidity is a term that describes a gender identity not fixed to one end of the gender binary. Individuals who identify as gender fluid may experience their gender identity as a combination of both male and female, neither, entirely different genders, or as a fluid and evolving concept that can change over time.
Evidence of approaches in fashion that don't adhere to binary gender norms dates back to ancient times. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all wore skirts or tunics (also known as togas) regardless of their gender. Clothing at that time wasn't attributed to any specific gender. Clothes initially emerged as a tool for survival but gradually transformed into a form of expression. In a nutshell, the gendering of clothing is also a product of social structures.
In the history of Western fashion, there is information about cultures where there was no distinction between women's and men's fashion in the past. During feudal periods, men and women from similar social classes dressed quite similarly. Clothing, beyond its utilitarian purpose, reflected status more than gender.
Gender fluidity or non-binary fashion is not a new concept. Across time and space, cultures and eras have always experimented with fashion as an expression of gender and reflected their own concepts of gender. Today in the West, as the Z and Y generations challenge the boundaries imposed by society, the binary division of gender into male and female has begun to loosen. Indeed, as we have observed in recent years, gender fluidity in fashion has gained momentum, emerging from the shadows and becoming more democratized across the entire spectrum of genders.
Clichés and Stereotypes
Design and Styles: In a fashion industry dominated by binary gender, clothing designs, and styles are created with the assumption that they will be worn by only one gender. For example, men's fashion typically includes items characterized by simplicity, practicality, and a focus on power, such as suits, pants, and shirts. On the other hand, women's fashion often includes dresses, skirts, and blouses that emphasize beauty, decoration, and elegance. The fundamental basis for these distinctions is often societal gender stereotypes.
Color Stereotypes: Gender binary also associates specific colors with specific genders. For instance, pink is traditionally associated with femininity, while blue is linked with masculinity. These color stereotypes have influenced clothing design and marketing for decades, further reinforcing the binary.
Marketing: Fashion brands and retailers historically have marketed and organized their clothing sections based on gender binary. This approach persists by creating separate sections for men's and women's clothing, maintaining the idea of rigid boundaries between the two genders.
Body and Fit: Clothes designed for men generally have a different fit compared to those designed for women, making it challenging for individuals who don't conform to traditional gender binaries and want to express themselves with different clothing. Moreover, these patterns emerge from childhood. While it might seem quite normal for girls and boys under the age of 10 to have access to shirts and shorts with similar cuts and shapes, the reality is different. Studies show that, despite similar heights, shorts for girls at this age are produced much shorter than those for boys.
We are increasingly seeing gender-fluid collections that are not designed or marketed for a specific gender and avoid categorizing any item, color, print, pattern, fabric, etc., into gender binaries. We hope this eliminates the almost impossible task of finding garments adorned with dinosaurs, football-themed skirts, or cargo shorts covered in unicorns.
The Importance of Genderless Collections
Gender-neutral clothing has been around for a long time but tended to be niche at times. Thirty years ago, top designers like Yohji Yamamoto were offering garments labeled as unisex for a wealthy clientele. Nowadays, the landscape is different, with many brands, from local to international, choosing not to adhere to gender norms in their designs. The significance of this might be much greater than we think.
Firstly, we know that fashion is a concept experienced and encountered daily by the majority of people, including those outside the binary of societal gender. From seeing clothes on store shelves to actively following what the latest designers showcase on the runways in fashion magazines and ultimately wearing them, most people regularly interact with the fashion industry. Therefore, inclusivity is fundamentally a right, opening the door for people to express themselves as they wish.
However, it's essential to express as much as understand these rights: genderless fashion is not just for those who prefer not to express themselves within binary gender identities; it's for everyone who desires it. This can be seen as taking a neutral stance on clothing. Making these options available for everyone is about having the freedom of choice and the freedom to exist as oneself.
For all these reasons, doesn't it make sense for fashion campaigns to accurately reflect the diversity of this society? Diversity can be defined as the inclusion of individuals from various social backgrounds, ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities, or abilities in any aspect of society, so fashion should be inclusive.
Additionally, the inclusion of diversity in fashion campaigns plays a significant role in making the general society more accepting. Because people will become accustomed to seeing a variety of individuals in the spotlight. This is why diversity in fashion is crucial. As Dr. Barbara Kulaga pointed out, 'As society evolves, norms change, and when norms change, fashion changes or vice versa. We are slowly beginning to see a trend where designers are moving towards gender fluidity, defined as a person's gender identity or expression changing over time. Identity is now seen with less of a binary perspective than it once was, and the fashion industry has begun to adapt to this by creating entirely gender-neutral collections or incorporating gender-fluid garments into their selections, breaking down gender norms.
Gender Inequalities in Fashion
Unequal Representation in Leadership Roles: When we examine the upper echelons of fashion companies, there is a noticeable lack of gender diversity. Leadership roles, such as creative directors and CEOs, are predominantly held by men. Despite women constituting a significant presence in the fashion workforce, they are not adequately represented in positions of power and decision-making. Although women make up the majority of fashion school attendees and over 70% of the fashion workforce, they hold less than 25% of leadership positions in top fashion lists. McKinsey notes that "less than 50% of recognized women's clothing brands are designed by women, and only 14% of major brands have a woman at the helm." Data on the presence of non-binary individuals in workspaces is not clear. However, it is evident that despite brands expressing more critical and creative thinking about gender relationships, gender fluidity has yet to be fully integrated into the fashion industry.
Wage Inequalities: Like many other industries, the fashion world grapples with gender-based wage inequalities. Women in the fashion industry, especially those working in roles like garment workers and tailors, often earn less than their male counterparts. This wage gap not only reflects economic injustice but also highlights a lack of sufficient value placed on female labor in the industry. According to a 2019 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) examining the garment sector in nine Asian countries, the average gender pay gap is approximately 18%.
Lack of Inclusivity: The fashion industry has been quite late in embracing gender diversity and inclusivity. Individuals who identify as non-binary and gender non-conforming are often marginalized in terms of representation in fashion campaigns and the availability of clothing that caters to different gender identities. Transphobia remains widespread in the fashion industry; for instance, the marketing director of Victoria's Secret resigned in 2019 following the hiring of the first transgender model.
Harassment and Discrimination: Reports of harassment and discrimination, including sexual harassment, are prevalent in the fashion industry. The #MeToo movement shed light on these issues, highlighting the need for safer and more equitable working conditions.
By embracing the concept of gender-fluid fashion, we can contribute to a world where self-expression knows no bounds, inclusivity is the norm, and we redefine style and beauty standards for everyone. Research indicates that 56% of Generation Z already shops outside the gender assigned to them. In another study, 41% of Generation Z participants identified themselves as neutral on the spectrum, with more than half defining themselves as something other than heterosexual. As these studies show, designs that don't conform to binary gender norms are paving the way toward a transformative future where fashion is not limited by gender.
Designing T-shirts that can be worn by individuals of all genders, not being afraid to use color and patterns, adding functional elements like deep pockets, buttons, and zippers that can be practical for everyone, and using natural fabrics adaptable to any style can be a beautiful starting point for creating gender-neutral designs.
As Coco Chanel said: “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street. Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening”.
- Rob Smith, Phluid Project, 2019
- Vice, 2021