De-gender your Clothes, Break your Rotation
by Issy Falkiner (she/they)
Steven Acres (he/him) @steven_acres
I recently asked some friends of mine, “What is something we all do every single day?” The obvious answers were shot out quickly – drink water, eat something, breathe, shit, look at our phones, et cetera. It took about ten minutes of distracted conversation to get the answer I was looking for: we get dressed. We all get dressed every single day. It’s the one thing we all do consistently, in such a consistently different way. I have one friend who has established an extremely reliable uniform for their life and wears a rotation of the same thing, regardless of what the day calls for. I have another friend whose wardrobe is a series of steel bars covering an entire wall of their bedroom, hanging what looks like the costume departments from Clueless, Trainspotting, and Mars Attack mashed together (it works). My wardrobe is in my kitchen, because we don’t have enough storage space. It’s mostly filled with unfinished sewing projects that are unwearable. We all have our own flavour, I suppose.
The next few times we met, we kept circling back to the conversation of getting dressed and how much we had been thinking about it. For some of us, nothing had changed. We already took getting dressed reasonably seriously and felt we had to think about it each day. We were already aware of the assumptions people make about us based on what we cover our bodies with. The rest of the group reported that they were suddenly very bored of their clothing options and were feeling emotionally flat going about their business in the same rotation of T-shirts and jeans they’d owned for years. This is the fun bit: the entirety of the latter group were men. The former, however, was made up of women and non-binary folks. It’s no surprise that the men amongst us were feeling fed up and limited by the sartorial options available, considering how uncommon it is in Aotearoa to see the general population of men wearing more feminine clothing.
It is exactly this point that drove me to start designing gender-neutral fashion in 2020 (@hams_studio_). Back then, my boyfriend and I were sharing our clothes a lot, having just moved back from overseas. When he would borrow my clothes, he would be hit with something to the effect of “I love seeing a masc man in a dress!” or “Men in womenswear are so sexy!” When I would borrow his clothes, I would either not hear a single comment about it, or simply receive a pretty standard “you look nice today”. It’s become so common to see women wear “men’s” clothing that no one seems to take much notice – surely there's an argument for having flexibility both ways. We need to make it so normal, so boring, so ordinary to see a man in ‘womenswear’ that no one comments on it unless the outfit itself merits it. The world of ‘menswear’ is, by-and-large, limited. I think that was the kicker for this group of friends I spoke about – they were all bored of what was available to them.
That one friend I mentioned – the one with the steel bar wall wardrobe – is one of the lads and the only one who didn’t become depressed at how little he had to wear. Why? Because he has challenged the identity of ‘man’ through his clothing for a long time. He is the go-to for everyone I know when an outfit needs to be borrowed for an event. He is the best-dressed man I know. Why? Because he doesn’t dress like you’d expect a man to. He’s managed to divorce the notion of gender from the clothes he puts on his back, and he’s spoken openly and often about how much more fun he has with clothing now he’s un-done that bit of capitalistic programming in his brain. Interestingly, he has also spoken about how much more secure he feels in his gender identity and expression of masculinity since incorporating ‘womenswear’ and intentionally genderless fashion into his wardrobe.
Suffice to say, clothing doesn’t have a gender, it only has what society gives it. Every single person I have seen challenge the notion of gendered clothing has ended up enjoying getting dressed much, much more. You can also imagine how it might make transitioning slightly less scary for our transgender whānau. Or, how the currently polarising cost of ‘mens’ and ‘womens’ wear might be equalised. Or, how much textile waste (the second biggest polluter, globally) might be saved by reducing the designs needed to appeal to retailers. You can imagine how much more fun the lads would have getting dressed if they could express their gender identities through playing with different clothes more.
If we can accept that gender identity is linked only to the individual and that it has no bearing over where they shop or what they wear – surely we would all start feeling more at home in our clothes. I will be the first to acknowledge that it takes a lot of work to design something that works for as many body types as possible, but that’s work designers should be putting in anyway. Bodies are every bit as varied among men and women as they are across the entire spectrum of humans, regardless of gender. If we all took the approach that we’re designing clothing for all human bodies, rather than male or female bodies – we’d end up with a far more inclusive and approachable industry, where everyone could find clothing that works for them. Each morning when we get dressed, we’re making microchoices about how we intend to be perceived. Sometimes it’s conscious and sometimes it isn’t – but those choices are made either way. Let’s make it fun, normal and accepted for all of us to challenge our assigned-at-birth gender identities through our clothing.