Actor and second-generation celebrity Jaden Smith recently made headlines with a decision to model a womenswear collection for a major designer. “I don’t see man clothes and woman clothes,” the 17-year-old told British GQ Style. “I just see scared people and comfortable people.”
For a growing number of shoppers, and especially consumers as young as Smith, the distinction between clothing for men and for women is blurring.
Of course, fashion has had similar moments before. The past few decades saw a range of unisex and gender-reversing fashion design.
Picture the minimalist turtleneck jumpsuits designed by avant-garde Rudi Gernreich, the outsized khakis and polka-dot tie that Annie Hall paired with her crisp white shirt or the men’s double-breasted, skirted suit that Jean Paul Gaultier sent down the runway in 1985.
But even if the unisex trend has existed, it has never had a sense of permanence. After all, there are stores for women and stores for men, and floors in department stores devoted to one sex or the other.
Times, however, have changed, and our stores will have to adjust.
With growing acknowledgment about the spectrum of gender norms, introduced in part thanks to attention to celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, retail giants should and are rethinking how they market clothes. Zara recently introduced “ungendered,” a collection of subtly colored denim T-shirts and hoodies. Ellen DeGeneres has worked with GapKids to develop a line of non-girly clothes.
By many measures, these concepts are not so different from the clothing trends that have been in place for years. Companies such as North Face and American Apparel have been producing functional, neutral clothing for years. Jeans, a staple of many people’s wardrobes, can be marketed in many ways, and even highly traditional retailers blur gender lines. We may call a cut of jeans for women the “boyfriend” style, but it’s still a gender-neutral design.
What seems to have changed most is that retailers are reflecting consumer needs and marketing gender neutrality more openly than ever before. It’s becoming more visual. High fashion is also following the gender-free trend. Last year’s runways had many gender-blurring ensembles, like theatrical use of corsets and lace on men.
As a lecturer in textiles and apparel, I work with students — the next generation of clothing designers — to prepare clothing designs that are ready to be shown to the world. It’s clear that students are increasingly interpreting this moment in fashion with gender-neutral clothing as a turning point.
Several express how they view the roles of men and women from an artistic perspective, seeing gender and its relation to fashion as an interesting topic from this point of view. Clothing is one of the greatest societal informants on gender, and some believe through art we can re-inform how we see the world, and in fashion, gender-neutral clothing plays an important role.
Blurring the lines of gender in fashion is something our up-and-coming students try even as they design bridal gowns.
One student explained he designs with a particular consumer in mind, who “likes to walk the line of gender between male and female.” The student refers to this as pan-gender: someone who wants to be male one day and female the next and doesn’t like to conform to societal ideas of gender.
As with other things that come in and out of vogue, some of the gender-bending designs we are seeing today will no doubt be transitory. That’s the nature of fashion. Still, the acceptance of nontraditional gender norms in clothing is also about respect. And that is something that never goes out of style. Stores and retailers would be wise to adjust.
Jessica Ciarla is a lecturer of textiles and apparel at The University of Texas at Austin.
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