Okidoks people, can we talk about gender neutral clothing? Is this a case of political correctness gone mad or just a bit more about overcoming traditional gender stereotypes? Over the last few years there has been a pretty steady rise in brands, both high-end designer and high street, offering gender neutral clothing for adults. Although this rise has also been noted, albeit not as swiftly, in kids clothing too, there has been a lot of media chatter on gender neutral clothing in 2017. Particularly recently when the very British retailer John Lewis removed their gender specific labels from their own brand of clothes. Instead of being labelled with either Boys or Girls, all clothing will be labelled as Boys & Girls or Girls & Boys. Simple …. hmm not quite so.
Where John Lewis was met by some customers and commentators with applause and optimism, they also received a bit of a British backlash and anger at the rise of the “PC brigade”. Was there so much of an outcry when they introduced a unisex range for babies earlier on in 2017? ….Eh …. that will be a big mahoosive no! One thing that is apparent is where their clothing labels have been unified, opinion has been left clearly divided.
Let’s take it back a bit …. I mean what exactly is gender neutral clothing? Surely this is just the new word for unisex. Gender neutral, unisex or blurring of the clothing stereotypes is nothing new. It has always been around. Hello … men in kilts people! (I first of all was going to remind you all of that time that David Beckham wore that sarong skirt ……. but perhaps given my nationality let’s just stick with the kilt).
Unisex Vs the rise is consumerism
In the middles ages men and women both wore unisex tunics and in fact the only difference in the tunics themselves was if your social status allowed you to wear sumptuous velvet or linen. By Victorian times men had started to wear trousers and it wasn’t until mid way through the 20th century that it was seen as less scandalous for women to wear trousers too.
Unisex clothing for kids has always been sold, just not labelled or PR’d as unisex. Babies wore baby clothes …. end of. It wasn’t actually until the post war era and the rise of consumerism that whole boys wear blue and girls wear pink became a thing. My questions include these, would it have been received better by all if John Lewis’ collection was not labelled as gender neutral? Is the collection more one-sided towards unisex dinosaurs and spaceships and less towards pink and sparkles? Is that because there is a more relaxed view about girls wearing army combat t-shirts than a boys wearing a pink sparkly one. Yes to all of the above!
This blog post has made me consider how gender specific my clothes were as I grew up and a number of moments struck me. The hand me downs of my brother’s that I wore …. let’s move swiftly on. Then, in my teens I really wanted a pair of Levi 501’s and at that time they had not been customised to fit women. So, I went to the men’s section of the trendy jeans shop and bought some myself. I don’t know if it was the Brad Pitt or Nick Kamen TV adverts that persuaded me or the fact that supermodels were wearing them, but to me Levi 501’s weren’t just men’s jeans…. they were amazing, fashionable and pretty damn sexy. Fast forward a couple of decades are where are we now?
Pop culture influences and blurred lines in the FROW
Wake up people, cultural attitudes are changing and running parallel from department stores to runway shows, there has been an evolutionary not revolutionary shift in gender style rules. Pop culture definitely played its part my childhood and then early adult style. I am just going to throw combat trousers and All Saints out there. Musicians have always had the platform to celebrate their individual style to wear anything and make it accepted, cool and inspirational …. without a few obvious exceptions (grabs mic “meat dress on the red carpet”). Ground breaking music acts including David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Boy George, Pink, Madonna, Annie Lennox and more recently Grimes have all blurred the boundaries of gender in their style.
Successful female artists and role models continue to enjoy wearing traditionally masculine lines, are inspired by chic menswear looks and also have perfected androgynous poses. On the other side, successful male artists like Harry Style and Pharrell Williams, have not been shy about opting for clothes from the ladieswear rack or rocking Prada’s his and hers collection or Gucci’s pussy bow men’s shirts. Clearly, our pop culture is more open to these style options so is it just the word gender neutral that annoys people most?
For me the word neutral makes this area of clothing sound beige when it needn’t be. Many brands have brilliantly designed more unisex kids clothing that is bright and colourful. I point directly to the premium Scandi company Polarn O’Pyret who have done a pretty awesome job at gender neutral clothing for years. Their ranges are anything but beige and are not even described as gender neutral. Even better! Thankfully the newly labelled collection from John Lewis is also not on the beige scale. It is mainly bright, colourful and modern.
Personally I think they have done a great job with the designs. For me as a parent of both a boy and a girl, surely this move to including a more unisex style of clothing actually gives me more options when it comes to the clothes I choose for my child. It signifies a change to buying clothes that suit my kid’s style rather than, as my son puts it, if ” they have a wiener or not”.
The wider gender neutral or stereotype questions
Gender stereotypes aren’t just in clothing. They are on TV, in books and in toys. I don’t know if any of you saw “No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?” on the BBC. On this programme they explored how our children learn and how what they learn shapes their future and furthermore just how much gender stereotypes affects this. It is little wonder that there was an outcry when ASDA brought out sloganned t-shirts for boys that said “Future Scientist” and the girls range said ” Hey Cutie”. Actual WTF! I love that my kid’s school is pushing their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) curriculum and surely there should be brands offering t-shirts saying Future Scientist for both sexes!
Gender neutral and unisex clothing is great but let’s not obscure gender differences. I am yet to be convinced on the wider gender neutral discussion specifically about giving ourselves a pronoun like ze or marking ourselves as gender neutral when it comes to our driving license. However, I am clear that when it comes to fashion, let everyone have a choice in their style whether they be a girl, a boy or non-binary. If they come to that style from some positive role models then even better. Just as I want my kids to have goals that blossom with their strengths and skills and not what society dictates, I also want my kids to have the freedom to choose their style even if it fights traditional sexual stereotypes.
Following on from this last point I did find it interesting that around the time that the John Lewis new labeling was announced, an English school received significant press for ridiculously banning their girl pupils from wearing skirts at all. Instead all pupils should wear trousers. Did this help add a little more middle England or Daily Mail loving flame onto the gender neutral clothing argument? I can see why.
Gender neutral clothing remains as the new unisex and 100% I prefer this term. Clothes are cut the same from the same cloth and it does not mean getting rid of gender from all clothing. It just means there is less focus on boys being dressed in functional clothing and being sloganned as cheeky, tough or adventurous. For girls there is less of a style implication to settling on tighter fitting and often impractical clothes which are sloganned as cute, princess or worse still dressing them like provocative mini-me adult. Listen, lets not forget, boys will still be boys and girls will still be girls but let them also gravitate naturally to what clothing they personally like and not be decided by what a shop has the clothes labelled as.
I found it interesting to note that at the time of publishing this post that on the John Lewis website clothing is still categorised under Girls or Boys sections. In their move to remove stereotypes in store, John Lewis is by no means saying that your child is gender neutral if they buy these Boys & Girls clothes. If you still want to choose a girls sparkly top with Shine written on it you can. Likewise if your boy still wants a raglan top with an owl printed on it, this is still there too.
Who is next?
Gender neutral clothing is a conversation that is not going away and we are likely to see more retailers making similar announcements. Last week for example, Clarks which has been widely criticised for their sexist children’s shoe ranges, arguably aggressive gender marketing and shoe naming, have announced their plans for a range of entirely unisex school shoes. That will be a massive u-turn then! This will fall in line with a more gender neutral ethos that is being brought out on their website and also in stores.
Clothing allows us to express ourselves differently every day and first and foremost remains a fairly important part of individuality and not just our social and gender identity. Surely the availability of more unisex clothing can only be a good thing. At the end of the day what you and your child wear is your/their choice, regardless of gender. Gender is not just about what you have between your legs. Gender doesn’t set your style either, your personality does! No colour coding required. Good on you John Lewis and the other brands out there who are helping along the way.