The gender-neutral section of many retailers looks suspiciously like the men’s section…
If you type “gender-neutral clothing” into Google, you will be inundated with tens of thousands of hits – ads, websites, listicles of the 10, 12, 20 best gender-neutral clothing brands, and articles exploring just what gender-neutral clothing actually is? Unisex clothes gives you much the same response, albeit with a higher proportion of baby clothes. If we’re pitting terms against each other, gender neutral is the clear winner – while unisex implies some higher, overarching singular sex, gender neutral surely predicts the absence of gender. In a world where clothing truly is gender neutral, surely everyone is free to wear whatever they want? Men can wear t-shirts, women can wear t-shirts! Men can wear trousers, women can wear trousers! Men can wear sack-like, shapeless tunics, women can wear sack-like, shapeless tunics! Women can wear skirts, men can wear – well, you get the point (A note: for the purposes of this article, I shall be referring to traditionally masculine and feminine clothes as men and women’s clothing).
“Men can wear t-shirts, women can wear t-shirts! Men can wear trousers, women can wear trousers! Men can wear sack-like, shapeless tunics, women can wear sack-like, shapeless tunics!”
All of these websites that come up when the average consumer is looking for something pegged as gender neutral is what we have traditionally just referred to as… men’s clothing. If you are to look for gender neutral clothing on ASOS, what do you get? Other than watches, and accessories, a lot of trousers, baggy hoodies, and t-shirts. (A caveat here, as ASOS seems to buck the trend and go for “unisex” – if you search “gender neutral” the algorithm assumes you are just looking for neutral-coloured products). Scrolling through those pages, you’d struggle to find anything that would traditionally be described as feminine clothing – the closest I found was a bathing suit, but it was only the baggy, oversized shorts being described as such. ASOS, like a lot of other retailers, just seems to view gender neutral clothing as men’s clothing – don’t worry girls; it’s for you as well!
I, like a lot of women I know, have been wearing men’s clothes for a while now. The majority of my t-shirts are men’s, and the same goes for shirts, and some jeans. Especially if you are a woman who struggles to find clothes that fit, or just someone who likes a looser fit, more often than not, men’s clothes provide this (surely true gender neutral t-shirts should cling uncomfortably under the armpits, in the name of equality between men and women?). And it’s hard to see a difference between these clothes, marketed to men, and the ones now being shared equally between all the genders. So is gender-neutral clothing just a marketing tactic? When I worked in retail, and people would ask if an item of clothing was for men or women, I’d reply truthfully “well this is from the [insert section here], but it’s just fabric, so it’s really for everyone!”. This would normally get one of two responses – if it was a woman holding a men’s piece, they would consider it. If it was a man holding a woman’s piece, they would put it down, almost immediately. So, is this the true issue, then? Women, as a whole, have little issue wearing men’s clothes (and indeed, have fought for the right to do so, as with the humble trouser), whereas toxic masculinity stops men from wearing anything designed for a woman.
“So is gender-neutral clothing just a marketing tactic?”
If this is the case, the onus should still fall onto brands to provide truly gender-neutral options. If a female model wearing baggy jeans, a loose t-shirt, and Converse is gender neutral, so too is a male model in a skirt, corset, and platform shoes. More than that – the fear of anything feminine is holding men back from looking their best. While some online have scoffed at cis, white, men being praised for wearing makeup or nail polish, surely anyone willing to challenge the patriarchy for fashion, even slightly, should get an encouraging nod? Not a parade, but a nod, at least. And while men can do what women have been doing for centuries, and just put on women’s clothing, the prevalence of gender-neutral, unisex options currently around at the moment should surely be an encouragement for everyone to wear what they want, how they want it – not just a new way of marketing traditionally masculine clothes to women.