EPISODE 31: Why gender neutral clothing is about more than just colouring it beige
Gender Neutral, Sustainable product, colours, neutral colours, Unisex
Welcome to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you need help navigating the fashion industry sustainably, you have come to the right place. I'm your host Belinda Humphrey and my hope is to simplify the fashion industry so that businesses can make the best decisions for people, planet and product.
Hello, and welcome to episode 31 of the Fashion Unearthed podcast. I think around the time this podcast comes out, it'll be six months of weekly podcasts, which I feel really proud to have committed to actually doing that and getting them all done. For those of you who've listened along the way, thank you so much and even if you've dipped in and out here and there, or even if today is your first episode, thanks for listening. If there's a particular topic that you're interested in and would like me to speak about, send me a message on Instagram @belindahumphrey_or you can email me at email@example.com.
So today's episode is a bit less scientific, I suppose and something that I got thinking about again recently. When I became a mother of a little boy, I was thrown into choosing clothes and I became acutely aware of the options available and how stores structured their ranges from a personal point of view, and the language that brands use.
If you've been following along for a while, you'll know that I studied psychology at uni before quitting in my third year to follow fashion and while I don't work in that area, I've remained curious about it and just human nature in general. Also, yes, my parents were furious at that decision, but even after sewing since I was seven, I got sucked into having a so called "proper job" but that's a whole other podcast episode.
Anyway, as well as approaching this from a professional point of view when designing I often talk to one of my sisters about this, who has a girl and we discuss what we're seeing in kids ranges and who we're buying from and just generally what's happening in the kidswear market. And I read a statistic that said according to the latest studies, kids can identify genders by the time they're two and form their own gender identities by the time they're three. But how much of that have they absorbed from TV media, friends, or how stores are actually divided?
With the rise of inclusivity, we've seen more gender free ranges in adult brands as well. But are they really gender neutral? researching this, I came across a few Instagram posts. The first one saying "men and masculinity have always been seen as the default, which is why people think things associated with them are neutral, and others are excessively gendered". And one of the comments on that post was that gender neutral clothing is just masculine clothing in beige, black and green, which led me down a rabbit hole of other articles. This one from refinery 29, where they interviewed a 28 year old woman from London who said, "We have this idea of menswear inherently looking more gender neutral, especially when it's on a woman, which is problematic because any item of clothing can be gender neutral. Skirts and dresses are rarely if ever included in gender neutral fashion lines and despite Harry Styles wearing a Gucci dress on the cover of Vogue and Billy Porter wearing a Christian Siriano gown to the Met Gala, dresses and skirts are resolutely stuck in the women's section". She goes on to say "when gender neutral clothing lines only stock trousers and oversized sweaters, they don't challenge gender norms as much as they claim to".
My next stop on the rabbit hole that I went down was reading a random Reddit post another person commented "When will brands realised that by people wanting gender neutral clothing, we don't mean clothing that is devoid of any characteristics commonly associated with certain genders by many people. I see your endless collections of bland draping monocolour active wear, we mean recognising that floral prints or button ups or whatever you as a brand happen to make, and not just for or would only, suit people of certain genders and to stop perpetuating that".
Definitely food for thought. Why is it we might be more likely to notice a boy wearing a dress, but a girl it's just acceptable that she would want to wear overalls or not being into dresses and labels such as being a Tomboy is acceptable.
So back to this idea of gender neutral. When you really start looking at the ranges from this perspective. I think you do generally see what would be called masculine styling in colours which our society, which label as being masculine. But let's break it down into three areas colour, fit and quality.
Firstly, colour this is a big personal irk of mine, beiges and browns really had a moment there and every kid's brand who marketed their ranges as gender neutral more often than not were browns and greys. And as we've touched on, these are seen as more masculine colours and personally I think it would be more accurate to call it colour neutrals to refer to the hue rather than the meaning we apply to them as a society. Aren't all colours gender neutral until we apply meaning to them? In the 19th century, baby boys often wore pink because it was seen as a masculine colour while girls wore blue. Back then both girls and boys wore pink, maybe because it was seen as masculine and it was sort of in reverse back then. But on a positive note, there are kids brands that really do a great job of embracing the whole spectrum of colours, styles and tones, such as local brands, Sage and Clare, Halcyon Nights and without the need to tell people that they're gender neutral, because when you use all the colours, you let the customer decide what they're like.
If we're buying something for a baby, that we don't know the sex of why are we choosing greys, browns and beiges, rather than less neutral, bold colours? I read that in October last year, California become the first US state to enforce genderless retail. With a new plan requiring large stores to have a gender neutral section for toys and childcare. I'd be interesting to see what kinds of products and colours are sorted into this section. But one of the laws co-authors, Evan Low, stated that "the segregation of toys by a social construct of what is appropriate for which gender is the opposite of modern thinking".
Next up when we talk about fit, I think a lot of unisex or gender neutral clothing lines are based around traditional masculine fit. Even going so far as to explain that a medium is the same as mens small. Could we rename these sizes to be just based on silhouette? fitted, slim, oversized and let the customer choose? And then going back to kidswear just one example is it's interesting to compare the length of shorts in the girls section, even in the two to three year old sections, compared to the boys. It's a simple example, but a subtle signifier of behaviour expectations of little girls. It's acceptable that boys will be active and climbing everything, but do we think girls will be doing that in micro shots?
The final and third area I wanted to bring up is around quality and details. It's acceptable that boys and men's wear need to be durable. Whereas girls leggings can be lightweight, seemingly assuming that they aren't very active. Girls get leggings, boys get brushed thick track pants. This is just the start of it. When we look at adult wear women's wear get fake pockets, men get deep functioning pockets. Having worked in both men's and women's design for a long time. menswear is often better quality for a lower price, and there are never conversations around putting mock pockets in men's trousers to save money.
So as a bit of a summary I guess, what all this got to do with sustainability? Well, some of the recent conversations and articles I've seen popping up are talking about how gender neutral, unisex, even androgynous attire is about equality, and that if clothes fit into this definition, they can be worn by anyone. Therefore, I guess, being able to be passed on to anyone, or sold to anyone. But as we've discussed, the items are generally masculine. A ruffled blouse isn't seen as a common or acceptable item for a man to wear. But again, if you look back at history, things change. And, you know, many years ago more ruffles on men's shirts, the better.
So my point is, and I know it's taken me a while to get to it, is to question what you perceive as gender neutral. Why you might think that and think about the meaning of colour in different societies. Remembering that all of this can influence children as young as three, are you really thinking that it's neutral colour and not gender neutral?which is slightly different. And when you're deciding on a gender neutral range, what fit are you using for the basis? And again, what kind of fabrication and level of quality are you putting into a gender neutral range? and is this different to what you would normally use? I'd love to hear what you think about gender neutral ranges actually, or unisex ranges and if you've tried one, or if you're thinking about incorporating a level or a section of this within your main range, you can DM me on Instagram @belindahumphrey_ or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and as always, you'll find the show notes and any links on the website to in the podcast section. Thanks so much for listening. See you next time.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure that information is accurate at the time of recording, much like the fashion industry itself, this information may change.