As long as fashion has existed in the way that we know and love it, it has been codified. Codified by seasons, designers, fashion shows, styles, and most recognizably: gender. Even before children are born, we begin pre-ordaining their gender identity through clothing (think pretty in pink and baby blue onesies galore). As many of my fellow Gen-Z-er’s are aware, breaking down binary conceptions of gender is slowly becoming normalized through non-binary language. While language is a key aspect of making this shift, clothing and style are the primary ways gender expression is visually conveyed to the public. It comes as no surprise, then, that designers are rapidly embracing genderless fashion and helping us to reimagine long-held relationships with our beloved garments.
Gender identity exists on a spectrum, with “male” and female” marking opposing poles. In fashion, genderless and androgynous collections have been at the forefront of blurring the boundaries between the theoretical male/female binary. Whereas genderless clothing adheres to a unisex morphology, androgyny is most notably apparent in the “mismatching” of gendered clothing on gendered bodies. Take the rise of men in skirts, for example, (see our very own John Frasca’s “‘Skirts for Men!’: The Revolution”) which was sparked by designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood back in the 80s. While androgyny connotes donning men in traditionally female attire and vice versa, genderless refers to the liberation from gender categorization. In the 1960s, designers such as Pierre Cardin—who produced Space Age, egalitarian chic that defied traditional gender labels, as well as staple unisex pieces such as the poncho—helped guide genderless clothing into a brief moment of success. However, it wasn’t until Rad Hourani produced the first-ever unisex couture collection in 2007 that genderless collections finally broke into the fashion realm. Since then, Hourani’s work has been marked by what it is not. His emphasis on neutrality (genderless, raceless, ageless, nationless…) makes him a cultural revolutionary in the realm of fashion, transcending not one but all binaries.
Very few people I know strictly adhere to these marked boundaries of male/female clothing. Even my most cis-het friends have been known to don a garment or two from their opposite-gendered department. So why does the fashion realm insist on maintaining these archaic gendered lines? From strict men and women’s departments at your local Macy’s, to men versus women collections that walk the runway—the gender binary is drawn loud and clear throughout the language and embodiment of fashion. But that doesn’t articulate the way in which gender is actually lived and felt. The fashion realm at large hasn’t quite received that message, and is, for the most part, still lagging behind the handful of designers actually spearheading our advancement into a gender-fluid fashion utopia. The rest of the fashion world will have to pick up the pace to keep up with brands and designers such as Jacqueline Loekito, Wilde Vertigga, Aries, and Ssense (to name a few).
Nigerian-born designer, Adeju Thompson, is one designer at the forefront of this movement. The brand-name Lagos Space Programme alludes to the future through an emphasis on tradition and culture. Drawing on their Yoruba heritage and identity as queer and non-binary, Thompson’s most recent Fall 2021 collection (titled “Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Ènìyàn,” a Yoruban proverb which translates into “we greet dress before we greet its wearer”) draws on traditional Yoruban fabric techniques all the while embodying what it means not to subscribe to a binary gender. Through their line, Thompson seeks to contribute to centuries-old African design techniques, such as adire, a timeless dyeing technique that doubles as a form of storytelling. Inspired by this notion of wearing stories, they have adapted this technique into what they dub “Post-Adire.” Thompson’s references to Yoruban tradition posed alongside their forward-thinking approach in representing the gender spectrum, produce a future-oriented collection that embraces all aspects of one’s identity: from pride in one’s heritage to non-traditional takes on masculinity and beauty. Thompson expresses this in an interview with Vogue: “‘My biggest anxiety…is embodying a persona that feeds into how the West expects me to present myself. I am not one-sided. I appreciate and am inspired by cultures from all around. That is my reality.’” Blurring the lines between tradition, history, and the future as well as what it means to be beautiful, masculine, and queer in the 21st century, Thompson urges us to shed our Western-imposed expectations at the door and embrace clothes as a means of storytelling—ultimately signaling to the world that we will not yield to binaries and are instead an embodiment of our multi-faceted identities.
Whether or not the fashion world is ready for this shift to fluid fashion, Gen-Z may propel us there anyways. With a buying power of $143 billion and 56% of Gen-Z consumers reporting that they shop outside of the gender department corresponding to their gender identity, brands and retailers will have no choice but to adapt to this shifting scale of gender-fluid clothing or risk being left in the past, collecting dust with the fading legacy of rigid gender binaries. Designers such as Rad Hourani and Adeju Thompson are no longer merely pushing the gendered boundaries of fashion, but are quite literally diminishing them. Gender exists on a spectrum and it’s time that the entirety of the fashion realm recognize that. While this doesn’t mean we have to completely discard typical “male” or “female” fashion, it does mean we should start blurring these boundaries to properly reflect the lived realities of this spectrum. It’s high time we normalize a more gender-inclusive world, and what better way to accomplish that than to target the most gendered industry of all: fashion.