Non-binary fashion: a historical overview to contextualize trends

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The way the industry handles the end of gender stereotypes may vary, but they must adapt if they want to stay in the game. Which brands are leading this evolution?

by Marina Colerato cover Antoine Caecke translated by Pronoia Tradutória

Have you ever paid attention to the way clothes are presented in science fiction movies? Think about the costumes in the Matrix or Aeon Flux, for example, and you will notice that the lines between male and female are blurred. For Hollywood, when it comes to the way we are going to dress in the future, there is no great difference between masculine and feminine clothing, as was the case during the Victorian period in the West, where men and women wore practically the same clothes.

Gender binarism in fashion took hold during the Industrial Age, when men began to wear suits and abandon colors, while women were stuck with dresses. For them, it would have been absolutely scandalous to wear pants, and this difference in clothing styles began to represent a difference between the sexes, including in Asia.

“Those differences in dress came to symbolize the supposed differences in the sexes: Men, like a suit, were serious and practical; women, like a flouncy dress, were frivolous and superficial.” — Marc Bain

Ann Kroon
Ann Kroon

Women started to question this distinction during the feminist movement and the struggle for women’s suffrage in the late nineteenth century. Amelia Bloomer, suffragist, editor and activist, challenged gender binarism in fashion and society by wearing pants, previously considered the exclusive property of men. Since then, there have been periodic attempts to break these social codes that are so strongly represented by clothes, usually alongside the rise of feminist movements.

The fight against gender norms today is a continuation of the struggle for goals not achieved in the 1960s and 70s. Social rights movements, the gay movement, the LGBTQ community and counterculture have always questioned gender roles, in relation to how we act according to gender, or how we dress to represent the gender that we have been “given”.

The fashion industry and gender

In the history of fashion, some subversive designers have dared to question these norms. Jean Paul Gaultier, for example, caused an uproar by putting men in skirts on the catwalk for the first time in 1985. Ann Demeulemeester, Martin Margiela, Comme des Garçons and Helmut Lang all promoted androgyny during the 1980s and 90s.

O legado de Gaultier foi tema de exposição no Grand Palais de Paris em 2015. Foto: Pierre et Gilles
Gaultier’s legacy was the theme of a show at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2015. Photo: Pierre et Gilles

“I don’t believe that fabrics have a gender.” — Jean Paul Gaultier

Hood By Air, Rick Owens, Saint Laurent and Gucci are some of the brands currently addressing this issue. The latter presented their first menswear collection under Alessandro Michele as creative director in March 2015, with patterns, shapes and accessories traditionally considered as feminine. The collection was well received, especially because it is a traditional brand that has presented suits, suits and more suits, season after season.

Na esquerda, passarela de Verão 1997 de Ann Demeulemeester. Na direita, moda andrógena de Helmut Langem em 1994.
On the left, Ann Demeulemeester’s Summer 1997 catwalk. On the right, Helmut Langem’s androgynous fashion in 1994.
Jean Paul Gaultier, Inverno 2012
Jean Paul Gaultier, Winter 2012
Verão 2016 de Maison Martin Margiela pelas mãos de John Galliano: androginia clássica da marca nos anos 1980 e 1990.
Maison Martin Margiela, Summer 2016, under creative director John Galliano: the brand’s classic androgenous style of the 1980s and 1990s.
Verão 2016 de Hood By Air e Inverno 2016 de Rick Owens
Hood By Air, Summer 2016 and Rick Owens, Winter 2016
Primeira coleção de Alessandro Michele para Gucci
Alessandro Michele’s first Gucci collection

Various brands have attempted to break the binary mold, including when it comes to models. As well as male figures featuring in women’s campaigns, there are an increasing number of gender-fluid models, such as Goan Fragoso and Elliot Saillors, starring in fashion shows and campaigns. Days after the attack on an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Marc Jabocs released the first image of a campaign featuring the (now former) darling couple of fashion, Carlos Santolalla and John Tuite, known as “the first gay couple” to sign with a modeling agency.

Carlos Santolalla e John Tuite na campanha de Marc Jacobs
Carlos Santolalla and John Tuite in the Marc Jacobs campaign
Goan Fragoso transita entre papéis de gênero
Goan Fragoso moves between gender roles
Elliot Saillors: de mulher sexy ao tomboy
Elliot Saillors: from sexy woman to tomboy

Even though there is a huge gap between the fantasy of the catwalk and the reality of clothing retail, for both luxury and popular stores, retailers do endeavor to follow this trend. In 2015, in a pioneering initiative, Selfridges created a department where the clothes were not separated by gender. Fast-fashion brands such as C&A and Zara also entered the debate, raising questions about the extent to which advertising strategies can be considered sincere and beneficial to the subject. For the LGBTQ community, mass adoption of the issue by the fashion industry can be problematic, but it does the job of putting the subject in perspective.

“On one hand, genderless lines in mainstream fashion encourage everyone to accept more diverse forms of gender expression, which creates positive change for the queer community. On the other, the industry seems focused on masculine style for all genders, erasing feminine identities and perpetuating a standard that femininity is still very narrowly defined and only acceptable for a limited scope of identities.” — Anita Dolce Vita

The crucial objective is to generate debate, and we should not expect this to change. It is a social reclamation reflected in fashion. The way the industry responds to such demands may vary according to the target audience, but they must adapt if they want to stay in the game.

The importance of queer fashion and independent brands

While the industry is still finding its way, queer and agender fashion have been blazing a trail for some time in the underground scenes of the fashion capitals. Verge, the largest queer fashion event in the world, was held in parallel with New York fashion week in September 2015, presenting eight independent designers who have challenged gender binarism. The event gained plenty of media attention, particularly because it was held in the middle of the official fashion week, where androgyny was identified as the key trend.

Katya Moorman - VERGE Fashion Show 2015
Katya Moorman – VERGE Fashion Show 2015

In Brazil, the movement is also flourishing in the hands of small brands and independent designers. New brands are committed to serving everyone, of any gender, in the same way and with clothing that can be used with any outfit.

Tricoma is a brand from São Paulo that produces custom knitwear. They offer a small range of numbered sizes, designed to suit different body types without defining gender. Tricoma makes a point of working with color in their designs, reaffirming that a colorful palette should not be exclusively for women.

Tricoma
Tricoma

BEN reinforced its position as a brand willing to serve gender-fluid customers at the summer 2017 Casa de Criadores (House of the Creators) event. With a unique and cutting edge aesthetic, the brand combines technology and craftwork to create clothing for young people who no longer feel obliged to perform a specific gender role.

BEN

Trendt is already known in the market for taking a different route; the minimalist route. Essentially, Trendt fashion is described as feminine, but Renan Serrano, the brand’s designer, creates unarguably agender items such as shirts, and proposes questions with his own style.

“With this new way of dressing, I generate neutrality using an unprecedented visual style, which makes people want to approach me and find out who I am. I make sure I respect people’s visual space by using a neutral outfit which, with a few innovative details, can influence the subconscious and demonstrate new ways of thinking.” — Renan Serrano

Camiseta pannels da Trendt
Trendt pannels shirt

Beira promotes amplitude. A clean style, expansive in size, able to hide bodies in the background. The brand began with unisex clothing and today is enjoying the versatility of this concept.

Beira
Beira

The future, gender fluidity, and the importance of children’s fashion

When it comes to gender fluidity, opinion is still divided, reflecting a certain level of conservatism: on one hand, giants like Luisa Via Roma believe that agender spaces and agender stores are the future, while on other, stores such as Neiman Marcus do not even address the subject.

History shows us that binarism is arbitrary: everything depends on our own will. Helping society understand that there is no aesthetic distinction between genders is a challenge. Rethinking the children’s segment is a strategic move in this regard, and many companies no longer differentiate between clothes for boys and girls.

Before the 20th century, children of up to 6 years of age were usually dressed in white, for practical reasons. Variety in terms of color and shape only began to gain ground in 1918. Jo B. Paoletti, American historian and author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America, recalls that advertisements from the time described blue as a more subtle color, therefore more suitable for girls, and rose a stronger and more austere color, more suitable for boys. It was in 1940 that the colors were inverted, with pink for girls and blue for boys.

Currently, the children’s market is promoting brands that free children (and colors) from the gendering of clothes. Quirkie Kids launched the #setcolorsfree campaign; Shava offers items with “neutral” prints such as astronauts, ninjas and dinosaurs; and in Brazil, Iglou Kids and Matiz are also addressing the issue.

Na esquerda camisetas de astronauta da Shava. Na direita, meninos de rosa na Quirkie Kids.
On the left, Shava astronaut shirts. On the right, boys in pink from Quirkie Kids.
Iglou
Iglou

These companies, usually started by parents disappointed with children’s fashion, are active in the transformation of fashion, clothing and gender for future generations. They encourage other parents and caregivers to reflect, offering clothes based on the child’s world, not the desires or conceptions of adults.

We need to take great strides in order for this kind of fashion, less established by aesthetic standards, to be noticed beyond the catwalks. There is no doubt that the fashion industry’s role has always been and always will be one of support; following the changes made by the people. As society questions its obligations and stimulates evolution, fashion watches, joins the dance and follows the flow. Let’s show them that men in skirts, women in suits, gender fluidity – and above all, freedom – represent the future of fashion.

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