Fashion has always been at the forefront of adapting to the changing world. When Billy Porter stepped out on the 2019 Academy Awards red carpet wearing a glittering and sumptuous gown by Christian Siriano, the look was quickly stamped into the best-dressed hall of fame. Social media could barely contain its elation. For several decades, brands used androgyny as a marketing tactic, slapping unisex on loose hoodies and track pants—essentially equating the non-binary to the genderless. The invisible barrier between the men and women section at apparel stores had been receiving resistance, and a fashion revolution was underway, one that would accept and love genderfluid dressing.
For genderfluid, transgender, or non-binary individuals, choosing their attire goes beyond a simple purchasing decision; it may be a way to express their identity. Unfortunately, this association of looking like the gender you identify as is problematic at its root. The lack of genuinely androgynous garments in the market today means that gender non-conforming individuals have to dress in stereotypically male or female clothing to avoid getting misgendered. It invalidates the fact that gender is a spectrum. In a world where living with the gender binary set in stone is exhausting in the first place, they may feel misunderstood or pressured to look masculine or feminine in order to ‘prove’ their identity. At times, dressing to conform to their sex can be dysphoria or discomfort inducing.
Dressing norms are aggressively enforced in schools and professional settings. Gender stereotypes are imprinted into children from birth—blue is for boys, pink is for girls, echoed in sayings like “who wears the pants” and sewn tightly in the layers of fluffy pink tulle that girls are stuffed into on their first birthday. In schools, a quick skim of the dress code will reinforce this idea. Boys are expected to have their hair trimmed; girls are expected to don the cumbersome uniform of cycling shorts, pleated skirts, and hair ribbons. In several institutions, women must wear sarees, dupattas, and salwar-suits in the name of upholding tradition. Rule-books will often passively attack the autonomy of clothing using the word ‘decent,’ which in itself is a double standard. Discrimination against those breaking the binary only compels the people under scrutiny to hide their identity and opens them to harm that takes forms such as ruthless bullying and transphobic slurs.
History shows that the distinctions that we have constructed between “male” and “female” clothing are entirely arbitrary. Notably, high heels were introduced to make men in the 15th Century ride horses better and then moved on to help them appear more imposing in confrontations with other men. But with time, they became feminine altogether, and now are an essential symbol of it in their own right. This conversion that happened over time led to high heels being wholly abandoned as an accepted item of footwear by men, and now men look down upon such clothes—”they’re too feminine” after all. The seepage of femininity into male garments was a much later phenomenon, led by the icons of rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s and ’70s. Loud prints and patterns, bedazzled jumpsuits, and silk blouses were seen on iconic personas like Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, and Jimi Hendrix. Freddie Mercury carried the glam-rock dressing style into the ’80s, lifting outfits from the women’s rack. Even today, celebrities are the carriers for bold changes that influence and alter clothing history. Designer houses make what stars want to wear, and affordable brands adapt it for the masses.
For celebrities, the increased freedom of choice has translated into some truly unique personal branding. Harry Styles has challenged masculine stereotypes by incorporating flowy silhouettes and decadent feminine fabrics like satin into his wardrobe. Sam Smith, with the announcement of them being non-binary, displayed a shift in their red carpet looks, donning accessories and tuxedos in non-traditional colours. Billy Porter wants to make every appearance on the red carpet a political statement, until nothing is baffling about a man in a dress, just as nothing is surprising about a woman in a suit. Stars like Ruby Rose and Lily-Rose Depp have often appeared on the red carpet wearing straight-cut, sharp and masculine pantsuits. Lady Gaga, known for her experimental fashion choices defying gender stereotypes has recently launched her gender-neutral makeup—Haus Laboratories.
The LGBTQ+ community has always been a pioneer in making experimental attire choices; consequently, a fluid wardrobe has become associated with sexuality. Making non-traditional choices can raise intrusive questioning, bullying, and harassment. Transgender individuals should not have to worry about “passing” for their gender, and change comes with conforming individuals picking up clothes off the rack irrespective of who it is marketed for. Disheartening news of harassment and murders every day in the LGBTQ+ community is, at some level, a consequence of the refusal of the fashion industry to accept that clothes are not gendered. Even gender-conforming individuals experience the frustration that comes from assigning clothing to sex. Women’s clothes tend to be cheaper in cost and quality if you buy from typical “fast fashion” retailers. In contrast, men’s clothes tend to be dull, limited in styles and variety but tend to be more expensive, in the very same outlets. Because of the quick fads that come and go in women’s clothing, there is a lack of basic options—finding a plain white t-shirt in a department store is a Herculean struggle.
It is incredibly utilitarian to make and market clothing that is not limited to a particular gender, so why are brands not doing it? For years, our wardrobes have been severely influenced by profitability for the fashion market. Women were handed purses after removal of pockets. Now, handbags are a US$118 million industry. Making clothing accessible regardless of gender ensures we purchase and adapt it the way we like it, irrespective of how it’s marketed. Recently, there have been positive changes In the industry, though. H&M has “Divided,” a separate section from Men and Women, and keeps apparel that anyone can wear; if the size is correct, of course. With mindful choices, when purchasing a new item, we can support the cause of inclusivity without harming sustainability. The future is a safer haven for all those people who shy away from personal expression because their identity is not conventional for today, and fashion is a significant contributor towards this.
While the trend of shifting towards neutrality on the spectrum by most garments has benefits that help all people, it can be thought of as an evolutionary change. It is something that “had to happen” eventually, as civilisation evolves with and around us. As we become a society that is defined by ambition more than necessities, we can think about such changes as well. These may seem superficial on a personal level but are not so for many people around us. Inclusivity and egalitarianism are important priorities that are influencing young buyers in the present world. Therefore, such a change is as warranted as other dressing changes have been throughout our past; for instance, the simplification of attire in general for utility and practicality.
“Garments are constructed products. They don’t have genitalia, yet we design, market and make them as if they do.”, says Burlesque performer Adam Kassar. Attire is complicated self-expression made simpler. It allows people to defy and rebel against something they do not accept but are subjugated to. It has always changed and evolved, and it never did so due to the effects of superficial vanity alone. It has always been bigger than one’s appearance and will stay so, even if you do not think about the clothes you wear any more than deciding what to wear each morning. As it always has been with society, norms will change, and the opposition against it is also part of the process. Hence, to get closer to inclusivity and the dismantlement of gender roles, we need to go against the past’s arbitrary norms while facing opposition for doing the same. It is all part of a change, and it will become a part of the struggle for a better future for all of us.
Written by Pahal Duggal and Yatharth Sood for MTTN
Edited by Tanya Jain for MTTN
Featured Image by Swagat Sarkar for MTTN