The reality of gender neutrality

by Ari Gordon, Opinions writer
graphic by Julie Wang

From Harry Styles wearing a dress to the ever-increasing prominence of unisex runway shows, the fashion industry has finally decided to experiment with androgynous clothing. But are these trends representative of a positive shift in today’s climate of social consciousness and a desire to strip away gender boundaries? The answer is no, not really.

The historical stigmas between gender and fashion are still pushed today, but the offending parties are no longer explicitly sexist or intolerant. Instead, corporations are lauded for misplaced progress in gender-bending fashion, while still upholding the facade of a gendered nature in clothing.

In order to grasp the complexity of attitudes toward clothes and gender, it is important to see how previous ideas of intolerance manifest themselves in the present. There have always been two types of non-gendered fashion: unisex clothing and the far more controversial “cross-dressing.” 

Until the 18th century, people wore clothing regardless of gender, with functionality and class differentiation being the only purpose of any form of attire.

However, in recent history, most Western fashion has shifted fully toward all garments being gendered, largely due to the feminization of the clothing women wear, which took precedence over class. Unisex clothing generally became manly if women wore it, with feminine clothing conversely becoming off limits for men. Both groups faced social ostracization or worse for choosing to dress in either manner. Today, stigmas still surround those who defy traditional gender roles in their personal styles.

Both the industry presenting unisex clothing as an alternative to implied gender-specific clothing, and cross-dressing creating a world where wearing another gender’s clothes is accepted, uphold the root idea that clothing is gendered.

Clothing, of course, isn’t gendered, and there is no attribute of a garment that could reflect anything in the wearer. The wearers assign all association or importance to their clothes. It is logical to associate a piece of clothing with masculinity, for example, if masculine individuals overwhelmingly wear a garment. 

However, today that distinction is made at the piece’s inception — now, making “unisex” clothing or praising a man wearing “women’s clothing” gives the guise of being socially progressive while simultaneously solidifying the idea that clothing has gender.

This misguided way of breaking gender’s attachment to clothing is most apparent in something like the reaction to Harry Styles’ iconic Vogue cover in which he is wearing a dress. There is no fault in his (or his stylist’s) decision to wear a dress — in fact, it is quite progressive. Even Style’s response to the criticism of his decision reflects a relatively good understanding of the issues of gendered fashion.  

“What’s exciting about right now is you can wear what you like,” he explained in Variety. 

However, the response to his outfit, and worse, the reaction to the response, damaged his message and most of its positive impact. 

Unsurprisingly, he earned massive amounts of hate on the internet for the dress, receiving sexist messages such as “bring back manly men” to suggest his clothing makes him less of a man. But the optics of a counterargument created a trap: anything said to defend Harry Styles would be some form of “men can wear women’s clothing.”

Of course, men can wear any clothes they want, but the counterargument, just like the boundaries Styles is trying to break, ironically enforces the idea that clothing is gendered. The more Styles is highlighted for his bravery in wearing a woman’s dress, the more it makes it a special act to simply put a piece of “women’s” clothing on. That’s not to mention that the public goodwill only seems to reach an archetypal pop icon, where there has never been such notoriety when it was any other celebrity.

This isn’t by accident either, and I am confident that Vogue stands more to gain from the headline of a man wearing women’s clothing than no headline at all. Because, ultimately, the outlet will not change its fundamental outlook on clothing, it will just get praise for being progressive. Harry Styles is just a small example of how gendered clothing dominates the fashion zeitgeist with corporate pseudo-progressivism such as Vogue’s prohibiting change.

There is no doubt in my mind that clothing catered towards men and women will continue to exist, which is perfectly fine. But companies and celebrities must stop posturing to do any sort of significant change by making new “gender-bending” product lines or advertising those wearing “another gender’s clothing” because this just creates new categories that further ostracize those attempting to break boundaries. 

The only path forward for gender and clothes is for people to genuinely express themselves and stop waiting for companies and celebrities to do it for them.