Is the Fashion Industry Capitalizing on 'Gender Neutral'?

by Kevin Schattenkirk

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday February 28, 2021
Originally published on February 27, 2021

As fashion brands like Girlfriend Collective, Entireworld and PANGAIA release gender-neutral collections, questions arise about whether designers and companies are missing a larger point when gendered clothing categories still exist. A feature by Refinery29 examines the implications behind gendered and gender-neutral clothing categories and how they ultimately stall progress for the non-binary fashion movement.

Girlfriend Collective's "For Everyone" collection, launched earlier this month, has generally been received well. Among some of the products in the line are, as Refinery29 points out, "a range of outerwear and loungewear made up of baggy joggers and matching sweatshirts, boxy tees, ultra-stretchy leggings (a signature for the label), and retro fleeces." The line is specifically sold as gender-neutral, available in a wide range of sizes and promoting a casual "sofa-friendly" aesthetic.

Companies have also embraced gender-neutral sweats as a symbol of inclusivity and diversity — and certainly, other manufacturers and industries have followed suit. The "lack of gender inherent in sweats," as Refinery29 says, is often used as a means of getting consumers to shop. As PANGAIA said to the Refinery29, their sweats are "to be used as decided by the wearer, regardless of their gender."

Where the problem lies for the non-binary fashion movement is in how "genderless" clothing is positioned as an alternative to "masculine" and "feminine" clothing — and how we've been conditioned to think men's and women's clothing is supposed to look. For the movement, progress isn't altering a given piece of clothing's design to make it less masculine and more "genderless." Rather, the primary concern is: Removing labels that expressly imply who — men, women, transgender individuals — can wear which pieces of clothing, and who cannot.

Anita Dolce Vita, editor in chief of queer style magazine DapperQ, said, "This [current moment] is about clothing [upon which] we can't project any of our traditional notions about gender when really the conversation should be about why anything is gendered. It's taking us further away from thinking about a skirt or pearls or heels being genderless, and it's also reverting to the idea that masculinity is the default for neutral."

A recent example, the image of Harry Styles in a dress drew the ire of pearl-clutching conservatives — pundits Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens, most notably — who vociferously refuse to relinquish rigid constructions of gender identity. Styles told Variety, "To not wear [something] because it's females' clothing, you shut out a whole world of great clothes. And I think what's exciting about right now is you can wear what you like. It doesn't have to be X or Y. Those lines are becoming more and more blurred."

Styles is by no means the first male-identifying pop star to wear a dress and create shock — he was preceded by Kurt Cobain, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie, among others. That's not to denigrate Styles; instead, his "controversy" demonstrates that a larger conversation on gender performativity is still necessary at this point.

One gender-neutral brand, re—inc, founded by U.S. women's soccer stars Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Meghan Klingenberg and Christen Press, is upfront about its mission: "built to challenge the status quo." The company also, as Refinery29 states, "[centers] the bodies and beliefs of the same queer and POC people that founded it."

Klingenberg explains that re—inc emerged because the founders saw a scarcity in the clothing industry, that "[in the past] things haven't been made for us, for our bodies, and for who we are." Rather than having their gender-neutral clothing default to traditionally masculine or feminine designs, the company's guiding principle is, as Klingenberg says, is to have people "feel totally comfortable in their own skin."

Ultimately, where progress can take hold is, as Refinery29 says, "a categorical un-gendering of fashion that dismantles societal expectations for how people should present themselves."

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.