Gender-fluid fashion: Blurring the lines between men's, women's clothes

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What’s the difference between men’s and women’s clothing? These days, the lines are blurred.

On runways around the world, designers are shaking up long-held societal and sartorial views of who should wear what. Take luxury designer Thom Browne. For his spring/summer 2018 men’s collection, the native of Allentown, Pa., re-envisioned the traditional men’s suit with high and low skirts.

“You start one way as a baby, but why shouldn’t you be able to choose your own path as opposed to culturally people telling you which way to go?” the designer told Women’s Wear Daily. “It’s about being open-minded to experience life the way you want it.”

A model presents a creation by US designer Thom Browne, during the Men's Fashion Week for the Spring and Summer 2018 collection in Paris, on June 25, 2017. (AFP/Getty Images)

Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele has infused his collections with pieces for men and women that are a hodgepodge of colors, textures, prints, fits and refreshed silhouettes. The message: Beauty is beauty -— regardless of gender.

Some mall brands and fast-fashion stores have joined the gender-fluid conversation. This spring, Swedish retailer H&M released a 19-piece unisex denim line made with organic and recycled cottons. At, hoodies, simple shirts, frayed shorts and more are pictured on both a male and female model and sized XS through L. Last year, Spanish clothing retailer Zara rolled out a 16-item gender-neutral collection of T-shirts, sweatshirts, denim basics and Bermuda shorts called Ungendered.

In 2015, Target announced that it would begin phasing out gender-based signage for toys, bedding and other departments. It kept them for size-related items like clothing but aims to offer balanced options for both genders.

In June, Arizona State University professor Kate Hinde sparked a Twitter storm when she moved NASA graphic tees from Target’s boys department to the girls department and tweeted a photo of it, driving home the message that girls can be scientists, too. Target responded by saying that it also sells NASA shirts for girls (although others noted that they were hard to find near the back).

“I don’t think it’s a fad. I think it’s cultural,” says Mary Wilson, assistant chair for fashion design art at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. “I think it’s an evolution of society itself. Look at how we’re almost becoming genderless in terms of identity outside of clothing. So maybe sooner than later we’ll be looking at each other as individuals and not as segmenting who we are by what we’re wearing.”

She’s noticed a gradual shift on campus.

“Students of Generation Z are asking to be allowed to design without being restricted by the traditional rules of gender,” she says. “I think they’re doing what feels good and what feels right to them, and it feels good and it feels right to a larger and larger segment” of consumers.

Even brands that don’t identify collections as gender-fluid see the benefit of offering neutral pieces that invite the customer to choose how they’re styled. The Pittsburgh-based e-commerce brand The Edie Company — a go-to for fuss-free V-neck tees, shirts, sleeved pullovers and casual dresses -— is rooted in three philosophies: to be timeless/neutral, comfortable and a blank canvas.

“These different components mean something different to everyone, based on what they’re looking for,” says Victoria Lopez, who started the company with her mom, Gloria, in 2015. “It’s about creating options for everyone.”

Some gender-fluid fashion statements fall flat. Supermodel Gigi Hadid and her boyfriend, singer/songwriter Zayn Malik, outfitted in print-mixing Gucci suits, appeared on the cover of Vogue’s August issue with the line “Gigi & Zayn shop each other’s closets.” Inside, the pair dished on gender bending.

“It’s not about gender. It’s about, like, shapes, and what feels good on you that day. And anyway, it’s fun to experiment,” Ms. Hadid said.

Her boyfriend added that when he likes a shirt of hers, he just borrows it. “If it’s tight on me, so what? It doesn’t matter if it was made for a girl.”

The magazine experienced a backlash, with many labeling the feature an example of appropriation. Genderqueer writer Jacob Tobia penned an editorial for Cosmopolitan that called it an elitist attempt to be “edgy.”

“What’s so annoying about this new and sanitized ‘gender progressive’ aesthetic is that it curates gender-fluid identities for those in the cultural elite in a way that totally whitewashes the lived experiences of gender-nonconforming people.

“Unlike how this new Vogue cover shoot presents it, the lived experience of being gender-nonconforming is rarely that fun and glamorous.”

Supermodel Gigi Hadid, with her boyfriend singer/songwriter Zayn Malik, appear on the August cover of Vogue dressed in Gucci. The magazine received backlash for not featuring people who identify as gender-fluid in a story about all-gender, or genderless, clothing.

Vogue followed with an apology, stating that it “missed the mark” and looks forward to continuing the conversation — “with greater sensitivity.”

Sara Bauknecht: [email protected] or on Twitter and Instagram @SaraB_PG.

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