Recall the experience of visiting brand stores, department stores, or online shopping malls to buy clothes or accessories. You can think of the clothing section divided into Women's, Men's, Girl's, Boy's, etc. by gender and age. However, in recent years, led by Generation Z, more and more consumers do not want to shop based on dichotomous gender. Neutral fashion, not masculine or feminine clothes, so-called “Genderless fashion” is emerging as a global trend. Through this article, let's find out exactly what genderless fashion is, what its history is, how its aspects are showing in modern society, and what social responses are.
Originally, genderless refers to someone who does not recognize himself/herself as a particular gender. Recently, in fashion, genderless means that there is no distinction between sex, such as masculinity and femininity. In other words, fashion that does not clearly distinguish gender in clothing is called genderless fashion. Through genderless fashion, which transcends the concept of men and women to express neutrality and emphasizes humanism, we can show ourselves as we are, not as ‘femininely’ or ‘manly’. The most common examples include men wearing accessories that were previously classified as women’s, or women wearing ties and formal pants that were classified as men's clothing.
As gender equality awareness has become stronger around the world and a social atmosphere that respects the diversity of sexual minorities has spread, the concept of gender neutrality has also been combined with fashion. As gender lessness has become a rapidly emerging global trend starting in the United States, many people in Korea are also getting used to it. As it will be mentioned later, the genderless collection of famous fashion brands such as Gucci, Balenciaga, and Thom Browne also contributes to the attention. People’s accessibility is increasing as famous celebrities wear these brand clothes and news spreads rapidly through media such as SNS. In addition, genderless products released in one size are also in contact with sustainability, attracting great attention from environmentally sensitive consumers. There are positive evaluations that the item is relatively environmentally friendly in terms of reducing inventory waste because it can be worn without boundaries by both men and women. In addition, one size or one design for all. The fashion industry, which was called the main culprit of environmental pollution by printing a large amount of clothes with numerous designs and sizes, is also showing great interest in solving environmental problems by voluntarily making clothes using eco-friendly materials. Since the trend of meaning out spending in valuable places began to spread among the MZ generation, which is the main body of consumer culture, companies began to listen to the needs of the consumer.
The History of Genderless Fashion
Then let’s find out what was in genderless fashion that existed in the past, the timing, the background of the spread, and the characteristics. First, in the 1920s, the first genderless fashion called the Garconne look became popular. Garconne refers to young women who live as free from society as men in economic activities, and is named after the novel 《La Garconne》 by French writer Victor Margueritte in 1922. Immediately after World War I, women launched a women’s liberation movement in earnest, including gender equality and demand for suffrage, and women’s entry into society became active in this atmosphere. The number of women who enjoy leisure life in the midst of improving their social status and rich life has increased. However, existing women’s clothes, such as corsets that tightened their bodies emphasizing their chest and waist, and dresses that were attracted to the floor, were very uncomfortable to wear. As a result, they found a much more comfortable and popular design, and eventually, short pleated skirts and flat tops that do not emphasize the chest made a bold appearance. Women started to wear wide skirts and low-heeled shoes, such as a leather skirt or pleats skirt, which was enhanced by making a lot of wrinkles around the waist. In the case of hair, a boyish style that imitated men’s attire was popular as women who grew and permed their hair to emphasize an antique look, which was a short bob bob style that falls straight. The preference for active clothing was to make underwear smaller and lighter in volume, wearing short-sleeved shirts that were considered masculine and pajamas in the summer. This fashion symbolizes women’s rights and freedom newly acquired by destroying the concept of traditional women’s clothing and borrowing some masculine images, and is also called a kind of dress revolution.
The unisex look of the 1960s is also indispensable in the history of genderless fashion. Unisex refers to the disappearance of the distinction between men and women in various ways, such as clothes and hairstyles, for both men’s and women’s. Originally, in 1956, this style was mentioned in the book 「The Sex Revolution of America」 by American sexologist, Solo King, who later influenced social and cultural phenomena and was used in various casual stylings in the fashion world. The 1960s was the time when the women’s liberation movement was developed, and women who sought novelty by insisting on women’s liberation began to adopt men’s styles. At that time, women were banned from wearing pants in public places such as schools and workplaces in France and the United States. Then French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent released the women’s suit, ‘Le Smoking’ in 1966, utilizing men’s tuxedo suits for women. Le Smoking was a revolutionary outfit consisting of a woman's long jacket, straight pants, pleated shirts, fluttering ties, and satin belts. Since then, as young women's entry into society has increased significantly, women have begun to wear jackets and vests and ties with men. Also, during this period, after World War II, a large number of young people emerged as the main agents of culture and leisure activities consumption, and a youth culture that praised and worshipped youth led the overall atmosphere of society. In line with this trend of the times, all fashion collections introduced unisex clothes including T-shirts and jeans that men and women can both wear; campus looks of the same style became popular among college students. But one thing we need to point out here is the difference between genderless and unisex. Unlike unisex, which means ambisextrous, genderless means that the sex and age of the person wearing the clothes are unpredictable. In other words, unlike genderless looks aimed at destroying gender dichotomy, the unisex look is that women are only wearing men's clothing style fashion. In this respect, there is also an argument that it is impertinent to call the unisex look a true genderless look.
And it was the Androgynous look that caught the attention of those who understood the limitations of the unisex look in 1980s. Androgynous is a word that originated in Greece, and is a combination of Andros which means men, and Gynacea, which means women. This means that women pursue male orientation with masculine clothing, and men pursue feminine orientation with feminine clothing. Looking at the history of Western clothing, it was customary for men to wear pants and women to wear skirts for centuries after the Middle Ages. However, in the 1980s, postmodernism, a total movement of Western society, culture, and art that escaped modernism, greatly influenced the fashion industry. People who are free from stereotypes about gender, age, and situation due to postmodernism’s disintegrationist mindset created the Androgynous look by compromising and mixing masculine and feminine elements. Unisex gives a neutral feeling that the boundaries of gender are broken, and androgynous means that women dress regardless of gender, just like wearing clothes that symbolize men, and men wear clothes that symbolize women. Women usually wore wide pants, ties, and shirts, along with jackets that are generous on wide shoulders, which are applied with classic men’s clothing, the mannish look. In the case of men’s clothing, decorative clothing with colorful colors and lace began to appear, changing in the direction of emphasizing soft and refined masculinity. This Androgynous sensation influenced men’s makeup as well as their attire, such as American singer Michael Jackson, who has a neat appearance and wore a heavy makeup.
A Fashion Trend Called Genderless
This fashion trend can also be found on the stage of K-pop idols, the representatives of the Korean Wave that led the country to the world. In November 2018, when Kai, a member of the K-pop boy group EXO, was active with the song “Tempo,” he wore a cropped T-shirt on the stage, and since then, cropped T-shirts have become popular among male idols. In his music video of the solo song “Advice” released in May 2021, Taemin of SHINee drew attention for his experimental fashion by wearing a tight choker, ring earrings, short hooded T-shirt and crop top with silver bobbed hair. After this, many boy groups representing K-pop, including SEVENTEEN, ASTRO, and TOMORROW X TOGETHER, started to wear cropped T-shirts on stage. On the contrary, female idols wear suits that include shirts and ties without revealing their bodies. From Brown Eyed Girls to Girls’s Generation, Mamamoo, WJSN and Weki Meki, numbers of female idols began to perform in pants suits. This change can be seen as closely related to the social atmosphere that tries to break down gender stereotypes. Kim Yoonha, a Korean pop music critic, said, “The K-pop market is an area exposed to sexual objectification, and it is also an extremely sensitive market for public response.” She pointed out, “The feminist movement that has spread in recent years has also affected the excessive sexual objectification of idols, and this movement is naturally reflected in the costumes.”
In fact, fashion brands are the most influential behind the spread of genderless fashion. World-famous fashion brands such as Gucci, Balenciaga, Thom Browne, JW Anderson and Maison Margiela have integrated the men’s and women’s collections. They also put male models on the runway wearing floral patterned dresses, lace shirts, pumps, Mary Jane shoes, and skirts. As the fashion industry has undergone various changes, the name Mirt, a combination of word men and and skirta, and Skort, a combination of skirts and shorts, have been created. Fashion brand PRADA and Louis Vuitton offered a variety of looks for those who want to try on Skort and Murt at the 2022 S/S Men's Collection. Alessandro Michele, a creative director of Gucci, launched the “GUCCI*MX” category on Gucci’s global site, which introduces genderless designs that do not distinguish gender. MX is a gender-neutral honorific term used to replace Mr. Mrs. Miss, which is the honorific term for men and women. This indicates that genderless fashion has become more popular, expands in a neutral way, and begins to permeate with a single attitude and values. In addition, this year, we were able to see a lot of genderless fashion at Paris Fashion Week, one of the world’s four major fashion weeks held at the Palais de Tokyo, Europe’s largest modern art museum. Indeed, during the Fashion Week, male models wore lace skirts or blouses, and some even went on the runway wearing jockstraps that looked like women’s underwear.
An example of genderless fashion acceptance in many countries around the world is the Japanese swimsuit brand, Footmark. In Japan, elementary, middle and high schools teach students swimming as a mandatory course, and 60% of public elementary, middle and high schools in Japan have swimming pools. However, there were students who did not want to wear swimsuits due to physical highlights, and for them, the brand Footmark introduced genderless swimsuits of the same design for both men and women. This swimsuit is designed to reduce body exposure with long sleeves, which protect skin from ultraviolet rays, and separate upper and lower bodies for comfort. Footmark explained that they paid attention to designing the swimsuit so that the outline of the body wouldn’t stand out no matter who wore it. In Japan, positive responses are continuing, such as “It's better to have more options like this,” and “Even if the sun is bright, you can safely wear swimsuits and teach.” Rob Smith, founder of The Fluid Project, a leading American gender-free fashion brand, emphasized the view of fashion items as products themselves rather than gender as the heart of the recent genderless trend in an interview with CNBC. He said, “We tend to separate everything by gender. However, the dress is a dress, the skirt is a skirt, and the lipstick is just a lipstick,” stressing the importance of changing genderless perceptions. PacSun, an American fashion brand that is especially loved by teenage consumers, has attracted attention by launching a new children’s clothing line called PacSun Kids that pursues complete genderless. The brand said on its website, “Clothes with clearly defined gender can limit children’s minds, interests, and imagination,” revealing the purpose of introducing children’s clothing without gender distinction. American sports brand Nike has released a genderless collection, allowing women to wear basketball T-shirts that were released for men. Aside from these, ZARA, a Spanish fashion brand, has launched an un-gendered line centered on shirts and outerwear, and Tthe denim unitied line launched by Swedish brand H&M also allows both men and women to wear a variety of denim clothes for common use.
The Influence and Social Response of Genderless Fashion
As many people are interested in genderless, more and more companies are keeping this in mind from the product planning and brand launch stage. Last year, Korean lifestyle brand, JAJU, released women’s drawers after seeing reviews left by female customers after purchasing and wearing men’s trunks. The women’s drawers they launched became a representative product, accounting for 10% of all women's underwear sales within two months of its launch. An official from SSANGBANGWOOL, another underwear company, also said, “Sales of women’s trunks increased 43% from March to May this year compared to the same period last year.” Female brands that emphasized sexiness are oversized products, and male brands that expressed strong feelings are focused on launching products that stand out in flower patterns and pastel colors, which are regarded as symbols of “femininity.” The first-generation women’s clothing brand ‘STUDIO TOMBOY’, released in 1977, revealed that the brand’s unique neutral design became popular not only with women but also with male consumers, making it breaking into the men’s clothing market. In fact, their men’s clothing, which has been introduced sparsely since 2019, received a good response, with sales rising 85% year-on-year in the first half of this year despite being sold together at women’s clothing stores. The number of fashion brands focusing on men’s and women’s common products, such as sports brands and golf wear brands targeting young people, has also increased. Golden Bear, a domestic golf wear brand that reflects street fashion, introduced the Unisex line by reflecting the characteristics of free-spirited people in their 20s and 30s. The overall design is to break away from the typical golf outfit and apply overfit and wide patterns. Futhermore, more than 1,500 genderless products can be found on large online fashion platforms such as W Concept, MUSTIT, and MUSINSA. Some products were even sold out shortly after their release, or the remaining inventory was quickly exhausted, so they have to apply for restocking notification. An official from Shinsegae International said, “Now is an era where fashion that satisfies oneself is important, not fashion to look good to others.” As consumers’ perceptions are changing, the fashion and beauty industry is also releasing products that do not have gender distinctions one after another.
In fact, the reactions to genderless fashion are quite different. Daily, we use the expression feminine or masculine all the time, and the criteria for distinguishing this are in a similar context to gender discrimination. It is an act of injecting certain values into one person to induce society’s standards to decorate women like women and men like men as the answer. Genderlessness is a fashion trend that opposes this view. Women don’t necessarily have to choose outfits that emphasize femininity, and men can wear accessories and skirts if they want. Genderless fashion eases people’s gender stereotypes and is supported by many people in that it can emphasize ‘me’ rather than masculinity and femininity. Currently, just by looking at various social media, such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, it can be seen that the number of hashtags related to genderless alone reaches more than 50,000. According to the Global Fashion Shopping Platform, Lyst, the search for genderless items, including the keyword ‘asexuality’ in the first half of this year, increased by 33% compared to the previous year. Moreover, many male office workers had to wear long pants to work despite the hot summer weather because of the stereotype that says wearing shorts is not a good idea. But then, due to the genderless boom these days, men's shorts have been released in various ways, simplifying their summer attire.
In response, Choi Hang-seop, a sociology professor at Kookmin University, said, “Allowing shorts does not simply mean a dress code, but is a symbolic indicator that the company guarantees the autonomy of its members.” He expressed his opinion that the spread of in-house shorts culture stemming from genderless fashion could have a positive impact on corporate image and organizational culture. Lee Minsun, an assistant professor of the department of fashion design at Konkuk University, pointed out that it is because there is a strong tendency to increase one's presence and value in a modern society where individualism and capitalism logic prevail. Referring to fashion being combined with changes taking place in society, she analyzed, “Genderless fashion is also in line with social changes that are prejudiced against groups that have been recognized as socially disadvantaged, such as sexual minorities, the disabled, and the elderly, and should be eliminated and equal awareness should be improved.”
On the other hand, there is a strong response of concern that fashion, which cannot clearly distinguish gender in our society, can cause confusion about gender identity. Baek Kwang-hoon, director of the Center for Cultural Communication, said, “There is definitely a healthy gender, and this creates a virtuous cycle in which children grow up and form a family. Even before learning the gender role, they can be stereotyped and ideologically accept gender.” Additionally, some argue that the act of humans trying to break away from their natural physical and mental gender stems from a somewhat abnormal accident. As such, experts are also divided over the expansion of genderless trends that began in the fashion and beauty industry to the cultural and social areas. Industry officials said that as inclusion and diversity emerged as important issues, they saw the continued growth of the genderless trend positively. They said that the issue transcends the concept of men and women and can naturally accept the characteristics and styles that have been considered exclusive to one gender in terms of taste. At the same time, some point out that the phenomenon of synchronization should be wary. Director Baek said, “As genderless becomes mainstream, talking about benign and traditional gender concepts can be framed as outdated or violent.” “In the case of children, adolescents, and young people, there is a strong so-called sympathy for certain cultural phenomena, so we should always be wary of what our thoughts are formed by the social atmosphere or a kind of cultural public opinion,” he concerned.
Just breaking down the boundaries of gender allows us to consider various directions in expanding and building our fashion world. The era of gender boundaries breaking down has come. There is no reason for women to choose costumes that reveal their silhouettes, and men can express their aesthetic standards and beauty to their heart’s content. The bold and attractive genderless fashion of those who are not limited to the existing social conventional wisdom, gender, but finding the trueness of myself, is encouraging many people. As there are various tastes and personalities, we must remember that we all need an attitude to respect each other’s values and escape from dichotomous thinking about gender.
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