The Unisex Conundrum

Remember H&M’s spring 2016 ad campaign? The one where the man and the woman are wearing the exact same clothes and making the exact same pose in every photo? It was a campaign for H&M’s unisex denim line. And when it comes to unisex clothing, they really hit the nail on the head: same clothes, same poses, nothing overtly feminine or masculine. It was clothing that prioritized comfort and functionality over gender roles.

But trying to make a unisex clothing line in any material other than denim doesn’t seem as easy. Another clothing giant to recently release a unisex line was Zara in 2016. The line consisted of hoodies, baggy jeans, sweat shorts, and oversized plain t-shirts. In short, it fell victim to the trap into which almost every “unisex” line falls: it was just men’s clothing in women’s sizes.

Unisex clothing has it modern roots in fashion of the ‘60s and ‘70s that strove to push back against the rigid gender roles of the 1950s. Runway fashion became more streamlined and simple, blurring the lines between men and women’s clothing. Women started regularly wearing pants. YSL came out with the iconic Le Smoking, a sleek tuxedo for women, and the collarless, necktie-less Nehru jacket became en vogue for men. But there were three major problems with the unisex movement in Western fashion: 1) “The appeal of unisex fashion was the sexy contrast between the wearer and the clothes, which actually called attention to the male or female body” (Paoletti, Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution); 2) The movement made women’s clothes a bit more masculine, but never made men’s clothes more feminine; and 3) It didn’t last.

The trend came back in the ‘90s with the grunge movement and persists, however demurely, today. The most recent stir in blurring the lines of gendered clothing was Jayden Smith’s campaign with Louis Vuitton in early 2016 in which he wore a skirt. Other fashion-forward men like Marc Jacobs and Kanye West have donned statement skirts in the past couple years. The recent SS18 collections from designers like Burberry and Gucci have had strong unisex leanings. However, if you visit either of their websites, the clothing is divided (unnecessarily) into men and women’s sections. Perhaps because of sizing. Perhaps because of cultural norms.

Not only does unisex clothing have a place in the modern fashion world, but it’s also a necessity in a world in which more and more people don’t necessarily fall into one of two clear-cut categories: male or female. Allura Duffy, junior VMA major, chooses to shop primarily at thrift stores, partially because of price and partially because of her androgynous aesthetic. Duffy, who identifies as all genders, describes her style as “whatever is comfortable for [her] body. Trends don’t really affect the way I dress myself.”

“The biggest issue I come across when shopping is sizing,” says Duffy. “I usually fit a men’s small because I have more broad shoulders, but for more petite people, they’re going to drown in clothing like that. I tend to buy gender neutral clothes in women’s sections if I can’t find the right sizing for men’s clothing that works for women’s wear.” Duffy also talks about current trends in androgyny. “The men’s sections of Uniqlo, H&M, and Primark tend to be just like the women’s sections. And I think that the trend of long-cut shirts is a slow transition into men wearing dresses.”

So the androgynous clothing trend is alive and well in current fashion, at least on the surface. This past August, Vogue’s cover story, highlighting the closet-sharing between Gigi and Zayn, focused on our “new generation who doesn’t see fashion as gendered” (Vogue, August 2017). But an attempt to find affordable, not boring unisex clothing yields little to no results. Zara’s affordable line was just oversized basics. Other brands at the forefront of unisex fashion didn’t seem realistic. Muttonhead, a unisex Canadian outerwear brand was traditional male clothing (hoodies, t-shirts, button downs) made in sizes XS-XXL. Tilly and William, though affordable, didn’t seem practical for anyone who’s not a stick-thin model living in New York City. Brands like 69 and NotEqual, though they seem to successfully tack down the androgynous look by being neither traditionally male nor female looking, were nowhere near affordable for the average consumer. Other brands were so unconventional that they appeared to play up their fringy-ness as part of their trademark. Toogood London and Merwe, which both fell into this category, didn’t seem from their websites like much more than art projects. Beautiful and well-done art projects, but art projects nonetheless.

But the fashion world is constantly changing. When hotly discussed trends start to gain traction in the world of H&M and Vogue, this is not just a fleeting trend. Mainstream unisex clothing, however in the distant future, is the way in which the world is moving. “There’s no doubt that eventually the eradication of gendered clothing will happen. It starts with the deconstructing of gender roles that’s been going on for years and years,” says Duffy. And change like this isn’t easy to stop.

Art by: Stefan Schmidt