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The Agender Agenda

AgenderAgender AgendaAgenderedClothing AgenderFashion RetailGender NeutralGender StereotypeSelfridgesUnisex+-

If you’ve walked past Selfridges recently you may have noticed that all the window displays are based on the theme of ’Agender’ - in essence the contemporary way of saying ’Unisex’. That is to say clothing and accessories which have been specifically designed with uniform appeal - to appeal equally to both / all genders, whatever your PC persuasion may be.


If we go back far enough in history - say to Greek and Roman times, by and large there was not a huge disparity between what the genders wore. The toga/tunic-style robes were worn by both genders, and both could be determined rather frock-like in appearance. As time has passed though, quite specific gender-biased clothing arose, initially with men’s hosiery and then pantaloons / trousers - where women were encouraged to wear ’more feminine’ and specifically ’dress-like’ constructions. Never was this more evident than in the Victorian age where men were expected to wear very stiff and formal suits (slimline), while women were expected to wear these enormous meringue-like / bird-cage constructions - bustles et al.


Clothing has often been tied into political movements and the state of a particular social group’s empowerment and freedom of action. One of the most universal of clothing items - the denim jeans, has been a uniquely empowering article - bestowing great freedoms upon the wearer. Jeans have now almost reached a level where they are universally acceptable attire, at least in the western world. There are yet still echelons of society and certain cultures which view jeans as overly casual and associate them with libertine ways and loose morals!


Yves Saint Laurent further addressed the balance of gender when he introduced the ’Le Smoking’ tuxedo suit for women back in 1966. Yves popularised and made it socially acceptable for women to wear that last bastion of menswear - the formal trouser suit. It can be argued that Marlene Dietrich was one of the earliest drivers / influencers for women wearing what had been determined then to be very much menswear / masculine. Since that time though - Grace Jones, K.D. Lang, Tilda Swinton and Janelle Monae have further harnessed the formerly male silhouette in their chosen style of wear.


From the other side, we have pop-cultural pioneers David Bowie and Boy George and fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, who advanced the boundaries of what men could get away with wearing so to speak - much of what Prince wears too has feminine overtones. Throughout history there have been articles on both sides of the gender divide which have railed against the stereotype. None more obvious than the Scottish kilt - which is very much a skirt-like format (feminine), yet held up to be a supreme example of masculinity.


In terms of ’masculinity’, formal suiting remained very stiff and structured right up to the 1980’s, when Giorgio Armani revolutionised the format by making the jackets a lot less rigid and less constrictive. Armani’s ’Deconstructed’ innovation was to remove the padding and various stiffeners from the jacket manufacturing process, which enormously increased the wearability and comfort of said article. You could argue that this was a feminising process, as these new changes greatly popularised this type of jacket in women’s fashion.


There was an article in the Daily Mail recently about a young girl kicking up a fuss with regard to the gender-bias in Clarks’ girls’ shoes. In similar yet contrasting ranges for boys and girls, a dinosaur motif was part of the boys’ range, where the girls’ equivalent was a butterfly motif. Said girl railed against the sexism of the industry and demanded that dinosaurs should be made available for girls too. There has been a PC movement of late to get stores to stop labelling and targetting toys specifically to boys and girls - arguing that toys should be unisex, and boys should be allowed to play with dolls, just as girls should be allowed to play with cars. The fact is though that effective marketing can only work with direct targeting of tropes and stereotypes. If you poll 100 girls and 100 boys, you will of course find some overlap, and some girls who favour cars over dolls and boys who do the vice versa, yet there will also be a median or majority value too - whereby most favour one over the other. Lego was criticised when it introduced its ’Friends’ range specifically for girls a few years ago. Yet the unassailable truth is that the ’Friends’ range has quadrupled Lego sales to the female gender. Lego is not prohibiting or limiting the sale of anything, but there will almost always be a degree of favouritism shown by one particular segment of consumers, and thus marketeers will logically target that segment. You need to consider manufacturing costs, stock levels etc. in how practically one can support gender neutrality as part of a total business solution. The truth is that sterotypes will likely typically prevail, and unisex / agender -specific items will always be an addition to the range, and most likely in minority supply.


When defining ’Agender’ clothing, there are a number of factors that need to be overcome. None more signficant than the typical major difference in shape between men’s and women’s bodies, and the need therefore for garments to be less fitted, and more accommodating of different shapes. The cuts need to be more flowing and straighter than those directly targeted at the individual genders (a greater use of elastic). We also have a signficant discrepancy with sizing - not just in the way that you have Women’s sizes determined on a 1 to 20+ scale, yet men’s sizes are usually defined on the S/M/L/XL scale. Even when similar measurement metrics are employed, the male and female numbers usually denote different sizes. For footwear, a women’s size 10 is roughly equal to a men’s size 8 for most scales. Only the universal European scale has the same values for the same numbers. I have often wondered how purple came to be defined as a woman’s colour? Pink / fuscia I can kind of understand, although currently there does not really seem to be any lasting taboo with any colour for any occasion of wear. Yet if you are buying sportswear, it seems that nearly all purple trainers are designed for female consumption - what would Prince say?


I have always loved the challenging of stereotypes, and am much in favour of people wearing anything they want to wear. There is still a stigma of a man wearing a lacy / frilly dress - still the route of much comedy from Monty Python, through Benny Hill and Kenny Everett to Little Britain. While you would never find me in a frilly dress (excepting fancy-dress parties), there have been various items of clothing I have liked in the past which were not made available to me per se. I love the fact that agendered clothing exists, but understand fully that this will always be beset by a number of compromises. In contemporary fashion, it has alwayws been streetwear that has been the most harmonised between genders. Footwear is now totally dominated by the designer trainer - popularised by French designer Isabel Marant more than 5 years ago - the ridiculously expensive Giuseppe Zanotti trainers owe much of their success to Marant - note also that the majority of Christian Louboutin’s range is now composed of pricey trainers. We also have the current popularity of the jogger / jogging bottoms - a hit with both genders and further evolved by Diesel into their JoggJeans range. Your typical streetwear wardrobe of hoodies + joggers + designer trainers is pretty much the eptiome of contemporary agender wear - however intentional or not ...

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