Progress, Misstated: Fashion's Conflict with Androgyny

When you think of androgynous clothing, what comes to mind? If you’re like Google Images and most Americans, you probably think of some kind of menswear-inspired piece styled on a female or feminine body. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this classic style of androgynous outfit. We always need an archetype. However, there has to be more to androgyny than this one hyper-prevalent image of it.

The reason behind this myopia is as obvious as it is frustrating: by and large, the fashion industry operates with a narrow if traditional idea of what it is to be androgynous. Because human civilization developed using the word “man” to mean “person,” our world operates with a biased idea of gender defaults. While no reasonable person could say that there is no such thing as the “normal” gender binary, Western society still treats masculinity as normative, meaning femininity is a deviation rather an equally-valid expression.

As a result, when we consider “androgyny,” a term that denotes a combination of masculine and feminine elements that form a whole, the balance becomes tipped in favor of including more masculine parts and fewer feminine parts. This imbalance is why a gender-neutral outfit or fashion line usually includes more masculine-coded pieces of clothing. Pants, for example, are seen as having no gender, because they are the basis for masculine clothing in the Western world. Historically, women wearing menswear or masculine-coded clothing has been associated with a fight for equality. Think the 1980’s power suit or most of Hillary Clinton’s wardrobe. Skirts and dresses, on the other hand, are seen as being so tied to femininity that in European and American culture, men wearing skirts hasn’t been in vogue since the Renaissance. This old dynamic of gender presentation continues to affect clothing today, and as a result, what we think of as genderless clothing is anything but an even split between masculinity and femininity.

So, when clothing companies are creating gender-neutral lines, they often fall into the same trap that Zara did earlier this year. They take drab-colored clothing that looks like especially baggy menswear, and they model it on a skinny man and a skinny woman. Bam! Androgyny. The t-shirt, originally a menswear item, and the trouser, which has a longer history but is now still coded as masculine, have the focus, while any feminine clothing, like a dress or even a fitted garment, is excluded. Maybe this failure can spawn a test: If the pieces are essentially men’s clothing modeled on models of multiple genders, it’s still menswear. 

This approach is lazy, faux-edgy, and perhaps even insulting. Are the curves of breasts and hips so irrevocably feminine that they have to be covered up? Why must they be disguised by baggy, shapeless clothing that merely mimics the dressing strategy followed in men’s clothing? This clothing being marketed as androgynous disappoints potential consumers because we are part of a culture currently engaged in a conversation about what gender, and the expression of it, really means. When companies like Zara release a line that is nothing but a repackaging of old ideas about gender, they aren’t driving any part of the discussion we want to have. They say “gender-neutral” but mean “masculine.” While these initial forays into androgynous clothing represent a step in the right direction for inclusive fashion, they are but a stepping stone towards positive change. Especially now, with the unprecedented power that independent designers have, androgynous style appears poised for a breakout.

There’s not a straight solution to this highly-nuanced problem. However, as history shows, there is one course of action that reliably promotes real change: consumers voting with their wallets. By investing in brands like Tilly and William, NotEqual, and Nicopanda, who promote more diverse kinds of gender-neutral clothes and encouraging designers who champion androgyny as more than just a trend, the world at large can build the conversation. Only then will we figure out what it means to wear gender-neutral clothes in our changing world.