Fashion Forward: Can the Retail Industry Ever be Ungendered?

In March 2016, high street retailer Zara released its first ever "Ungendered" clothing line, aimed to be accessible to all gender identities.

Consisting of sweatshirts, tracksuits, t-shirts jeans in neutral shades of black, grey and white, consumers were suitably unimpressed at what was essentially clothing usually targeted at men made available in women's sizes. Far from the bold and cutting-edge image that Zara presented in its advertising campaign, the collection was bland and safe, picking up on familiar trends of women wearing masculine clothing such as 'boyfriend' jeans and oversized sweatshirts.

Anita Dolce Vita, owner of the LGBTQ+ fashion website DapperQ, claims, "On the one hand, genderless lines in the mainstream encourages everyone to accept more diverse forms of gender expression, which creates positive change for the queer community. On the other, the industry seems focused on a masculine style for all genders, erasing feminine identities and perpetuating a standard that femininity is still very narrowly defined and only acceptable for a limited scope of identities."

Although the blurring of gender distinctions in fashion is certainly nothing new - as demonstrated by icons of the past such as David Bowie, Tilda Swinton and Marlene Dietrich - the past two years have undeniably witnessed the explosion of gender neutral clothing in the mainstream retail industry, evident not just in high street shops such as Zara, but also in designer stores, following a greater understanding of gender as a social construct as LGBTQ+ issues are beginning to be recognised in the wider media. Whereas Jean-Paul Gaultier's decision to have men model skirts in his 1984 show was highly controversial, catwalks of 2015 - including Saint-Laurent, Burberry, Gucci, Nicopanda and VFILES - have witnessed the blur between binary gender styles and cuts. Also in Spring 2016, Jaden Smith was revealed to be the face of Louis Vuitton's womenswear range, pictured alongside female models wearing women's clothing.

Clearly the unravelling of 'clear-cut', gendered fashion has a place in today's retail industry; the question is how far it fulfils its job description. As discovered with Zara, some gender-neutral clothing lines are disappointingly bland, associating gender neutrality with masculinity. Yet while some brands may fall short, it is undeniable that we are in a period of increased exploration and understanding of gendered and ungendered clothing. Quite the opposite of Zara's basic approach, Selfridges have been keen to fully embrace the possibilities of fashion, as shown by their in-store and online 'Agender' concept campaign. Bright tops, dungarees, shirts and dresses are marketed at men and women alike, and men and women in the striking shoots that accompany the campaign model the same items. Creative Director Linda Hewson defines genderless fashion as being about "wearing whatever you want [...] It's not necessarily androgynous or unisex, but rather an approach to the fashion spectrum that makes the selection accessible to everyone. It's not about harnessing a trend but rather tapping into a mindset and acknowledging and responding to a cultural shift."

“As gendered issues do become more widely discussed in the media and in everyday society, the retail industry has no choice but to adapt.”

The fact that designer brands and stores such as Selfridges have embarked on campaigns revolving around gender neutral fashion, with it becoming increasingly stylised and for lack of a better word - fashionable - suggests that this is just the beginning. As gendered issues do become more widely discussed in the media and in everyday society, the retail industry has no choice but to adapt. This trend shows no sign of stopping any time soon, with gender neutral kids clothing brand Polarn O. Pyret creating practical and stylish designs for the future generations, an idea that John Lewis's new gender neutral kids range takes inspiration from. Fashion is already facing forward, and with the momentum that has been building over the past few years, we can expect 2018 to be the year that genderless fashion comes into its own.

This article was originally published in the fourth print issue of PHASER.