Across time and places, fashion has always been a reflection of a society’s culture. The second wave of feminism saw women dressing up in traditionally masculine clothing as a tool to claim agency and rights. In today’s day, trends bleed through gendered boundaries. The Indian fashion industry is pegged to be increasingly gender-neutral. It is not out of the ordinary for a male Bollywood star to strut down red carpets wearing a skirt or a dutifully up to date fashionista to pose in her boyfriend’s blazer.
Indian clothing has largely been visibly genderless. From kurtas to angrakhas, Indian garments do not adhere to western binaries of gender norms. Historical sculptures show bare-chested people of all genders, covered only by a loincloth. Items of clothing like dhotis, pyjamas, kurtas and lungis are worn by people of all genders, even today. Gods and Goddesses from Hindu mythology wear similar styles of clothing and jewellery.
In the west, however, binaries did not start cracking until the previous century. In 1968, Pierre Cardin, Andre Courreges, Paco Rabanne and Mary Quant started the “Space Age” clothing line. The clothes had sleek silhouettes, bold graphics and new, synthetic fabrics that lacked historical gender associations. These themes of fluidity returned in the latter half of the century. Several internationally celebrated icons like David Bowie, Prince, Kurt Cobain and Grace Jones defied gender norms with their clothing.
Unisex and gender neutrality has become a buzzword for every company that aims towards inclusion and diversity. Androgynous clothing is promoted but in a heteronormative gaze. Cisgender male and female models are cast for clothing catalogues and fashion shows, but only as an act of token activism. So, what is unisex clothing?
International brands like Inhabit, Norma Kamali, Umit Benan and Equipment have turned towards genderless clothing. Even fashion giants like H&M and Zara are steering towards gender neutrality with the Denim United line and Ungendered collection. Luxury brands are not missing out on this either. Prestigious fashion lines Stella McCartney launched their Shared collection, and Gucci started The MX Project. The latter is described as “a hand-picked selection of clothing and accessories with a gender-fluid approach”. Brands rewrote the gender-neutral playbook to appeal to a limitless range, away from beige tones and boxy silhouettes.
However, gender-neutral is a slippery category because of how individualistic it is. The mainstream idea of menswear inherently looking more gender-neutral, especially when it is on a woman, which is problematic because any item of clothing can be gender-neutral.” Skirts and dresses are rarely, if ever, included in gender-neutral fashion lines. Most lines adhere to boxy, plain and mostly menswear silhouettes. Despite Harry Styles wearing a Gucci dress on the cover of Vogue and Billy Porter wearing a Christian Siriano gown to the Met Gala, dresses and skirts are stuck in the women’s section. A majority of gender-neutral clothing lines do not challenge gender norms as much as they claim to. Rather than having designated gender-neutral collections or pop-ups, it would potentially be more radical if clothes were not gendered at all.
Gen Z consumers are ready for inclusivity and fluidity in fashion. But how much progress is actually forward? Retailers and brands still separate their collection according to two genders: men and women. Furthermore, words like “unisex” and “gender-neutral” are used interchangeably to refer to genderless fashion while leaning towards one gender only. Many describe their gender-neutral collections as genderless or use “gender-free”, a term coined by non-binary designer and creative MI Leggett.
Furthermore, brands and designers are slapping “genderless” on pieces that clearly lean more towards men’s or women’s wear. The look of inclusivity and tokenism is more attractive than respect. Most genderless garments are either oversize, formless and shapeless or formfitting. Additionally, different people have had to face different responses to their fashion choices. Gender Fluidity is perceived differently in the media. American professional basketball player Dennis Rodman faced extreme criticism in the Nineties. On the other hand, British singer Harry Styles had a successful Met Gala in 2019 in a sheer Gucci shirt, following Marc Jacobs, who wore a sheer Prada top at the Met Gala in 2012. Even though men like Billy Porter, Shawn Mendes, the band members of BTS and Timothée Chalamet get celebrated for their genderfluid fashion, there is a long way to go in its commercialisation. Gender-fluid fashion lines do not find proper respect in the stores of gendered retailers. Most in-shop and online retailers divide clothes by two genders, even those who print gender neutral graphic t-shirts. This excludes the newer non-gender-conforming stores or longtime retailers that have launched dedicated shops. Many designers and labels get subjected to their pieces being divided by genders by retailers in order to sell them.
Gender fluidity and gender-neutral fashion is not just a trend. Approximately 56 per cent of Gen Z consumers shop outside of their assigned sex. The generation has a buying power of $143 billion and an influence of up to $200 billion. Millennials, on the other hand, have a buying power of $1.4 trillion annually. The generation makes up 30% of retail sales. Regardless of the generation covered, consumer spending and patterns impact the industry. Through casting of androgynous, transgender and gender non-conforming models and runway fluidity, genderless fashion is coming through.
Sartorially, the year 2020 and the pandemic has unintentionally given a rise to gender fluidity. A number of people found time to explore their genders in isolation, and most succumbed to the common uniform of comfortable sweatshirts or T-shirts and track pants or shorts when confined in our homes. Masculinity and femininity no longer define clothing. In today’s age, people term themselves on their own terms rather than a specific idea, culture, class or individuality. Fashion is an ever-evolving and ever-changing tool of self-expression that cannot be compartmentalised.
Here are some of the most widely celebrated gender-neutral fashion influencers in India, destroying the binaries of fashion and the society itself
2. Durga Gawde
3. Rishi Raj
4. Akshay Sharma
5. Jason Arland
6. Joan Dominic Rai