Can unisex fashion trends be tied to gender equality

Fashion designers and boutiques are now selling clothing that is gender-neutral or can be worn either by men or women. This trend has been covered by both The New York Times Style Section as well as The Guardian.

There was also the transgender Caitlyn’s Vanity Fair Cover and Miley Cyrus’ self-identification as gender fluid.

Before we toast a post-gender world, it is important to distinguish between marketing and real progress towards gender equity. Fashion can certainly advocate for social changes. Style can also exploit social movements by aestheticizing them to make them seem cool and profitable.

Subcultures and fashion subvert the mainstream.

We must understand fashion in its historical context to fully appreciate it. We can’t comprehend clothes without the context of their meaning or the industries that make and market them.

In the research, I have studied how subcultures of the United States use clothing to create communities that are critical of mainstream values. There’s been a long tradition of blurring gender lines in dress to show equality between the sexes and freedom from sexual roles.

Women’s rights activist Lucy Stone is wearing bloomers that bear the name of their creator, Amelia Bloomer. Wikimedia commons

The New Harmony utopian socialist community was founded in 1824 and allowed both men and women to wear trousers. It was borderline-scandalous for the era but representative of their vision of gender equality. Amelia Bloomer, a women’s rights activist in the late 19th Century, famously argued that women should be allowed to wear bloomers under their dresses.

Unisex styles, in less political contexts, such as the counterculture of the 1960s, distinguished hippies from middle-class society. This allowed hippies with similar values to identify one another, but it could also be dangerous. Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and others discovered during the filming of Easy Rider that men with long hair were frequently asked if they were boys or girls – not in a friendly manner. The violent ending of the film was based on these real-life experiences.

In the 1980s, when hip-hop was a cultural phenomenon, both male and female breakdancers (also known as b-boys and b-girls) wore tracksuits or other athletic clothing to perform, blurring gender lines for a common physical ability.

These examples were all organic and outside the fashion industry. These examples show how people, especially those at the margins, adapt and remix the clothes they have available. They create new styles and meanings through a process that anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss called “bricolage.”

Fashion industry motives

When the fashion industry promotes unisex styles, like the Peacock Revolution in the late 1960s and the groovy style in the 1970s, it is always about making money.

While unisex fashions today may appear as another benchmark for equality, it is rarely progressive when viewed through the lens of a profitable fashion industry looking to make a profit.

Fashion is a business that relies on exoticism and beauty. Designers have always exploited those who are oppressed to achieve this twin ideal.

In 2010, Rodarte, a company that specializes in haute-couture, released an entire line of clothing and cosmetics which was inspired by women who worked in the factories along the border between Mexico and the United States. These women, who are often victims of violence based on gender, were the inspiration for lipsticks like “Factory” and expensive clothing they couldn’t afford.

In 2008, Erin Wasson, a model and fashion designer, claimed that the poorest people have the best style. When I go to Venice Beach, and I see homeless people, I think, “Oh my god, they are pulling out crazy looks, and they have pulled crap out of garbage cans.”

The fashion industry has been using African Americans in this manner for a long time. The 2008 cover of Vogue, which featured Brazilian model Gisele in the arms screamed basketball player LeBron James, was a subtle echo of images depicting vulnerable white women being threatened by animalistic men of color. Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams video is a colonial fantasy. Blacks are absent from the African setting. Fashion magazines are known to hire white models and “black them up”.

Model Jack Huang wears a unisex outfit at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia. “Unisex” via

All of these examples repackage racial and social differences as “exotic”. They are designed to appeal to the eyes and create a clear division: There is us (the mainstream consumer) and them (the outcasts that we are fascinated by, disgusted by or thrilled about).

It is possible that the fashion industry’s current interest in unisex clothing or gender-free clothes may be similar. Transgender models such as Andreja Nef and Hari Nef appear on the runways and in fashion magazines. However, the true difficulties faced by transgender people are not often acknowledged. It is especially true for transgender people of color, who are victims of horrifying amounts of violence.

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