Gender-fluid fashion: more than just a trend

Fashion’s so-called “gender-fluid movement” seems to dominate our popular culture: Harry Styles rocks colorful, patterned Gucci suits on stage; Jaden Smith models bold Louis Vuitton skirts in high fashion campaigns; and Billie Eilish sports bright, baggy clothing all over her Instagram feed. These examples are noteworthy because they challenge what we consider to be gendered fashion rules. However, these rules aren’t nearly as deep-rooted as we may think.

Today, baby girls are dressed in pink and boys in blue in order to display their gender, making clear how they should be treated. But as recently as the early 20th century, it was the norm to dress all babies in white dresses until at least the age of six. This was a matter of practicality, as white cotton could be easily bleached. The idea that “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” did not manifest until the 1940s, as a result of popular retailers which pushed these expectations. Evidently, the more you can demarcate clothing, the more of it you can sell. More notably, the association of a sex to pink or blue was arbritrary and could just as easily have gone the other way.

We also need to remember that high heeled shoes were originally made for men, and suiting as menswear is a relatively modern phenomenon. The origin of high heels dates back to 15th century Persian soldiers and soon became fashionable among male European aristocrats, who wore heels to appear taller and more powerful. At the same time, these male aristocrats wore gauzy, colorful ensembles and accessorized with wigs that gave the appearance of long hair. Wealthy men only began wearing dark colored suits in the early 1800s, after the industrial revolution.

As for women, it wasn’t until the 1960s that it became appropriate to wear pants to school and work. WWII meant women were taking men’s places in the workforce and consequently wearing men’s jumpsuits and uniforms. After the war ended, this trend persisted and became a part of women’s everyday dress.

In essence, we’ve landed at modern gendered fashion rules largely by chance, and so gender-specific dressing is entirely illogical. 

Before moving forward, it’s important to note the distinction between sex and gender, as well as to clarify what is meant by “gender-fluid”. Whereas “sex” is a biological differential, “gender” is a cultural construct created in the 1950s to acknowledge that one’s sex and gender does not always align. I say differential because it is a misconception that even biological sex is limited to either male or female. An estimated 1 in 100 people are born intersex, which broadly means their reproductive or sexual anatomy does not fit into strict interpretations of male and female. This can be due to any number of genetic, hormonal, or physiological discrepancies in the strikingly elaborate process of sex determination. And because sexually “deviant” people are commonly stigmatized, doctors and parents feel pressured to peremptorily name a baby as female or male, even if it requires surgery at the time of birth.

Gender-specific clothing can be used as a form of role-play — if you “dress the part” and follow the rules, you are more likely to be accepted into the community you wish to join. In this way, dressing a baby in either pink or blue affects how we are treated and, in turn, how we learn to behave. Thus, rules governing gender-appropriate attire can be extremely powerful.

To further complicate matters, gender ideals vary dramatically among cultures. For instance, though sarongs and kilts are considered traditionally masculine in Indonesia and Scotland, there is no comparable equivalent in American culture; the average American man would be ostracized for wearing a similar skirt in public. 

Both gender-neutral and gender-fluid clothing rose in order to disrupt such unforgiving gendered fashion rules. But while gender-neutral, androgynous, and unisex clothing are often characterized by loose garments in neutral tones meant to transcend suits and skirts, gender-fluid clothing aims to disassociate the belief that suits are for men and skirts are for women.

As the self-defined, gender-fluid actor Ezra Miller puts it, “Gender itself is not our enemy and it will never really be over because it’s a vital aspect of existence… but if you want it, we can see a world in which we are liberated from the bonds of it and nourished by the joys and beauty of it.”

Another celebrity fashion icon, Pharrell Williams explains his own gender-fluid philosophy: “I can’t wear no skirt. Nor am I interested in wearing a blouse. That’s not my deal. But things that are made for women that I feel will look good on me — that I like — I will wear.”

Though public awareness and approval of trans and gender-nonconforming people has increased in recent years, gender-bending fashion is by no means just a trend, or even a contemporary one at that. In the 1400s, Joan of Arc’s male attire factored in her conviction for heresy and execution. And before that, in 1500 BCE, the Egyptian Queen Hatsheput served as pharaoh wearing male regalia and a false beard. 

And it’s not the first time in recent history that gender-nonconforming fashion has risen in popularity. In the late 1960s, unisex clothing emerged as a baby-boomer corrective to the strict gender stereotyping of the 1950s, itself a reaction to women’s induction in roles traditionally held by men until WWII. Though the unisex movement of the 60s may have made women’s fashion more masculine, it never made them unfeminine. In other words, it was generally women buying unisex garments, not men. Instead, men at the time who wore unisex styles were often assumed to be homosexual. Paradoxically, men who were actually homosexual often dressed intentionally to fit in for fear of being ridiculed or even arrested. Thus, unisex styles of the late 60s raised many questions about gender but failed to resolve disparities.

Nonetheless, prominent brands like Zara and H&M have recently tried to take part in the purportedly new “gender-fluid movement” by launching their own unisex or nongendered clothing lines, though they’ve been largely unsucessful. These brands tried to commercialize gender rather than make the effort to understand what it means to the wearer. They tried to benefit from feigned progressive politics without more seriously supporting the communities which inspired such fashion.

For trans and gender-nonconforming people, gender is not merely a style, but an identity. As a result of their standing in society, these individuals face very real body insecurities and intense judgement based on what they wear. Though unfortunate, the reality is that it can be unsafe for them to make themselves known in public. Yet, opportunistic fashion companies often encourage pushing gender boundaries without recognizing the danger in doing so. By conflating expression and identity, the fashion industry diminishes individuals who choose not to express their gender through fashion and erases them from their own communities.

Despite issues in the fashion industry’s gender-fluid movement, it is still crucial that we continue to give a platform to trans and gender-nonconforming individuals because representation matters. As explained by model and trans activist, Ava Grey, “When queer-identifying youth see queer representation on the runway and in media, we become symbols of hope for them. We show them lives that have been able to move past the constant bullying and negative statistics.”

Though gender-fluid fashion may seem like the newest fad endorsed by celebrities and big brands alike, it has existed for thousands of years and varies through time and among cultures.

Trends may come and go, but there are real consequences for individuals who will continue to identify as trans and gender-nonconforming long after gender-fluid fashion is in vogue. Even as acceptance of some marginalized communities seems to advance, we are in dire need of greater diversification and representation in the fashion industry. The bottom line: clothing should be made for humans, not genders. 

-Tiffany Wong