From March 12 to the end of April this year the Selfridges department store in London is introducing a new department, the Agender Project. Selfridges is transforming a large part of the store to gender neutral clothing by designers like Comme des Garçons, Gareth Pugh, and Ann Demeulemeester. This collection consists of items like T-shirts, bomber jackets, cardigans, trousers, and more garments that can be easily and stylishly worn by anyone. Beyond Selfridges, many clothiers are trying to make unisex styles happen. Lena Dunham’s production company is even working on a documentary about the Handsome Butch, Rachel Tutera, famous tailor and stylist for the LGBT community whose sense of sartorial elegance extends beyond gender norms. This concept of gender-bending style has gotten a lot more traction recently as more people have started identifying themselves outside of the traditional gender roles. Even those of us who do identify as male or female have started to take inspiration from the other gender’s styles. An increasing number of women have been shopping in the menswear department looking for men’s button downs or jackets à la Annie Hall.
What led us to attribute certain kinds of clothes to men versus women in the first place?
Most gender-specific clothing like high heels, skirts, and pants originated from the differences in male and female styles of living. In fact, some of these differences still exist in the fashion we wear today.. Have you ever tried on a button-down shirt meant for the opposite sex and had trouble buttoning it up? The buttons on male and female garments are on opposite sides because in Victorian times, men dressed themselves (and were primarily right-handed) and women were usually dressed by a maid so the buttons had to be easy for a right-handed maid. This tradition has somehow continued today because no one has bothered to change it.
High heeled shoes were actually originally intended for men. A small heel was added to shoes to make it easier to keep one’s feet in a stirrup while riding a horse (which is why cowboy boots still have heels today). In fact, because the heel was a sign you owned a horse, it quickly became a status symbol for men. It also meant you were a member of the privileged class since you could wear impractical shoes all day. The high heel also caught on for women in the 17th century; some argue it was a means of appropriating masculine power. After women of the court caught on to the idea, the designs became more gendered as a thick, stacked heel was common for men and a thinner, more decorative heel for women. By the Enlightenment era, men deemed them effeminate and impractical; they didn’t make a comeback until the rise of pornography in the mid-nineteenth century, never being adopted by men again.
Skirts and dresses are also tricky pieces of clothing that have lost male attention. Some men still wear kilts or sarongs, but most of those men refuse to refer to them as skirts. We even see images of ancient Greek and Roman men wearing skirts and still projecting masculine power. There are records of pants being denoted as barbaric by Europeans because of their popularity in the Middle East. Most theories state that men gravitated toward pants for ease of riding horses while women continued wearing skirts because they were easier to adjust once they got pregnant and let’s face it, it’s a lot easier for women to use the restroom while wearing a skirt.
Today, many designers have caught on to the unisex trend and incorporated designs that question these traditional gender expectations. Prada, Givenchy and Saint Laurent have all featured both men and women in their shows, the models and the clothing so similar that ‘guess the gender’ is becoming a favorite fashion week game. Designers have been experimenting with these ideas for years but will it catch on with mainstream retail beyond basics like the Gap? It will be interesting to see if this unisex trend becomes a movement or merely a phase.
Do you think the unisex movement will catch on? Let me know what you think on Twitter (@amymboone) with #UnisexMovement