Gender Neutrality Q&A


What is gender neutrality?

The gender neutrality movement aims to deconstruct societal gender constructs. It is the movement to avoid distinguishing roles, ideas, institutions, clothing, and more according to someone’s gender. Proponents of gender neutrality are attempting to break gender boundaries and strict gender roles apart. Gender neutrality is the absence and, more importantly, the dissolution of the gender spectrum. It is the ability to define oneself in whatever terms and ways one chooses without society’s backlash or judgement of straying from imposed norms. It seeks out the absence of human opinion on the relationship between sex and work, sex and clothing, etc.

Gender itself is a societal construct which is strong-handedly placed on all and predicates many aspects of one’s life. Gender neutrality stands for the non-appearance of these strict societal ideas which position people into tight corners of appropriateness. It views humans as independent and thoughtful individuals who should be able to employ free will onto all aspects of their life. It aims to eliminate gender as a descriptor of individuals, of careers, of clothing, and of policy.

As parents begin to more commonly raise their children in a gender-neutral home, as universities begin to recognize neutral as a form of identity, and as fashion labels begin to form gender neutral clothing, gender neutrality starts to take shape in societal conversations of gender and the absence of such gender.

 

How does it differ from gender fluidity?

A highly important distinction lies between gender fluidity and gender neutrality. Gender neutrality is the lack of a gender spectrum. Gender fluidity differs from this concept. Instead, it is the ability to move along the spectrum as a result of free will and independence. Gender neutrality is a concept and movement that can be applied to many things like clothing whereas gender fluidity is an identity. It refers to a person’s gender identification as transforming over time. Those who identify as gender fluid do not place themselves in a strict gender identity. They embrace personal change.

Gender fluidity is a mental, physical, and emotional shift in a person, much more than simply emphasizing feminine features one day and masculine the next. Dot Brauer, director of the LGBTQA Center at the University of Vermont, identifies as gender-queer and works at the University to create freedom of identification in all aspects. Brauer states that “others' perceptions and an individual's interpretation of their own gender play a part in how gender is conveyed. Identity is this weird thing that exists between us people. It's like this perception, thought space, between us and other people” (CNN).

Gender fluidity is also more than the clothes one puts on each day. Clothing and experimentation with clothing does not make someone gender fluid. An example of this occurred in a recent cover shoot executed by Vogue with Zayn Malik and Gigi Hadid. The accompanying article entitled “Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik Are Part of a New Generation Who Don’t See Fashion as Gendered” quoted Hadid as saying she “shops out of Zayn’s closet” and vice versa. The presentation of the article as an example of gender fluidity is what sparked rapid dispute in the community. People pointed out a misunderstanding of the term. Various news outlets reported critics as “particularly vocal about Vogue appearing to equate wearing clothes made for the opposite gender with actually identifying as gender-fluid” (CBS News).

 

How have other designers approached gender neutrality?

Within the past few years, gender neutrality has become a more recognized notion in the world of fashion. Renowned brands such as Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci have taken on the challenge to redefine fashion in new terms. Burberry has taken steps to remove the bounds of male and female lines through transformation of their fashion shows. Burberry’s creative director Christopher Bailey explained the brand’s move to get rid of the menswear fashion show as a result of “everything just [feeling] a little bit more blurred, rather than having things in little boxes.” Further, designer Rad Hourani presented a gender-free show this past January which featured models wearing masks in a show of gender-less fashion. Gender should not be confined to a tick box one checks on applications or a skirt marketed as female.

New York based designer Vaquera is noted for having “a realistic and modern understanding of gender.” Vaquera’s designers hallmark models who encompass a variety of gender identities. They understand that fashion must work past gendering and instead allow for anyone to wear anything they want no matter how they identify and no matter how society markets clothes currently.  

Most recently, Zara was met with much controversy and criticism over their “Ungendered” line. Creating this new label, the fashion retailer marketed sweatpants, jeans, and hoodies as breaking the gender barriers of clothing. Yet their blandness and not distinctively non-binary clothing sounded a roar of individuals unhappy that this was the attempt at ungendered.

 

What are the next steps?

So how do we move past the notion of gender neutral clothing being bland, without shape or definition? How do we infuse the fashion with the boldness its name should inspire as it paves a new path of gender freedom?

Women have been wearing trousers and jeans for decades. The late nineteenth century began this transition from women wearing tight corsets and dresses to more “masculine” attire. The Bloomer, a wide fitting pant wore under a knee length skirt, became the symbol for women’s rights in the 1850s and was the start of a fashion revolution. World War II created a necessity for women to wear less restrictive and more casual style clothing as they took on roles in the workplace. From the 1920s onward, women wearing pants took on a more represented and advertised style.

Yet this shift has yet to make movements in the opposite direction. Men wearing skirts or dresses is not viewed as normal or a natural part of culture. It is questioned, and sometimes aggressively. Now is the time where we shift this, seeing men in these styles of clothing as wholly accepted. Now is the time where we shift the dynamics of gendered clothing into a world where any individual can wear any item. “Anybody can wear whatever clothing they want. There is a guy wearing a dress. Why is he wearing a dress? Because he can if he wants to. There is no other answer.” (f@b model Tobé Obiaya '21)

Gender neutrality in the world of fashion can greatly expand at the insistence of designers being knowledgable and understanding of the movement, being confident to create designs for the every person. NY Times writer Ruth La Ferla stated, “Whether mingling sexes on the runway or creating a single garment intended for both sexes, they [designers] are speaking to a sympathetic public” in her piece “In Fashion, Gender Lines Are Blurring.” She quotes Justin O’Shea, the buying director for Mytheresa.com, as saying “The modern consumer wants to be part of a bigger picture, part of a movement.”

In being a part of a movement, the fashion industry holds an important role in reshaping societal gender constructs to allow for an absence of such. Clothing is employed as an exterior feature of our interiority; it functions as a physical manifestation of our emotions and mentality. As said by f@b Outreach Director Katrianna Okamoto '19, “Fashion has always been a form of self-expression. We are now coming up with new terms outside of the gender binary to encompass whatever form of self-expression people need to present themselves confidently and accurately to their personal perceptions.”  

 

How did we approach this topic?

1. How we picked the models?

As a team, we worked to have a diverse range of models. The e-board selected from a model call list put together at the beginning of the semester. From over one hundred individuals, we reached out to a number of them in order to find models who would be just as excited and involved in the theme as we were. We reached out to ask if they were interested in helping  depict gender neutrality and met with those who responded, forming small focus groups to ask them about the topic, get their thoughts, and make sure they were comfortable in being involved. The models in the shoot were all very active in making gender neutrality not just a chosen theme but a well-informed and researched attempt. 

2. Why we picked the shoot location?

The List Art Building was chosen for the interesting architecture and appeal it added to the photoshoot. We worked to find a space which offered a clean and crisp canvas so that we, as a group of board members, photographers, and models, could paint our thoughts across the space. However, we did not want to impose our understanding in the setting. We sought to have the models be the hallmark to infuse their ideas of gender neutrality into the location and allow the clothes to speak for themselves. We hoped for a space with an unimposing background and playful mixture of materials, lights, and lines. List presented an open ground for creativity and thoughtful discussion, mixing more defined features with the softness of the neutral clothing.

3. How did we chose to pose the models?

On the day of the photoshoot, we actively reinforced removing gender from not only the clothing but also the models’ poses. We worked to create poses which distinguished the physical manifestations of societal gender constructs. We did not want any particular model displaying dominance in a power position but rather have all the models be empowered and equally share these poses. The models also appeared as connected through small motions of hands on shoulders or crossed pinkies. This was to create not two distinct figures but a deeper connection between individuals. 

 

What did our team have to say?

In our piece, we attempted to move past the minimalistic and unimaginative look of past gender neutrality initiatives. We hoped to encourage open dialogue and inspiration surrounding gender neutrality with the choices we made within the photoshoot.

The day of the shoot found many excited to see weeks of preparation come to life. The day of the photoshoot also found many inquisitive, if not nervous, leaping into this incredibly significant topic. “When people attempt to represent a still new and not widely accepted concept, there is always challenge and the threat of challenge to overcome” (Rachel Gross ’18.5). Yet as models began to dress in the clothing, the idea became more tangible as a task we were meant to take part in. We had brought this concept to life: from research of the topic, to the journey for clothes and personal interviews done with all involved. Gender neutrality became not a theme of the photoshoot but a purely driven and fundamental call to action.

The fashion began to inspire conversation amongst everyone at the shoot. Gender neutrality’s idea of removing gender was placed in the context of fashion from multiple perspectives on the day of the shoot. Cinque Meeks '20, a model for the shoot, stated, “It is important to stop assigning different things to different genders. In doing that, fashion items will stop being defined by societal genders and instead be seen as for everyone.”

“Free of stereotype, free of bias, free of labels,” Brianna Kendall '20, social media director of f@b, understands gender neutrality as a unifying idea. She stated, “We need to create a space where people are free from judgement based on which identity they do or do not fit into.” Clothing functions as a form in which people can find self-confidence and create these spaces where passion, creativity, and uninhibitedness abound. “You can see how powerful it is when people feel comfortable and confident in what they wear, without concerns of not falling into gender binaries,” explained Jenny Fan '19, co-director of f@b. “Gender neutrality is what we should be striving for in society. We need to realize that gender is a spectrum and it’s ok that we appear one way or another. We are not stuck in a binary and we have to respect those who choose to be separate from what society deems as male or female" (Axel Getz '18).

This piece is meant to offer its audience a chance to introspectively reflect. How would you define gender neutrality? Is there a definition at all or does it exist as a definition-less concept that society should begin to take account for?

Rachel Gross '18.5 f@b editor-in-chief

 

Additional Reading:

Steve Garbarino: Blurred Lines: Why Gender-Neutral Fashion Is the New Normal
Prudence Wade: Why is fashion still so gendered?
Ruth La Ferla: In Fashion, Gender Lines are Blurring Georgia Illingworth: Can Fashion be Truly Subversive When It Comes to GenderRoberta Smith: MoMA Plunges Headfirst Into Fashion