Meet a brand new unisex
“Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it's okay to be a boy; for girls it's like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, according to you, because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading.”
Does anyone still need to be told that it’s okay to wear whatever you want? Jaden Smith wore a dress to his prom, Buzzfeed announced earlier this year that “Men’s skirts are a thing, and they’re here to stay!”. The blue and the pink aisles are gone from Target, and it’s impossible to miss the gender debate if you spend any significant amount of time online.
This is not to say that these debates don’t matter anymore. Quite the opposite. If the personal has long been the political, then it’s about time that pleats, pintucks and the colour pink became pertinent topics.
Or should that be ‘politicised again’? In an essay on the evolution of the colour pink (not always “for girls”, as it turns out), Anna Broadway points out that in the 70s, fashion took a turn for the ungendered, but that when the children of the (sexual) revolution started raising their own kids in the 80s, a kind of nostalgia-meets-rebellion led them to favour pretty pinks for their daughters.
It’s no wonder that when most of us think of ‘unisex’ clothing, a lot of us still imagine a kind of space age aesthetic of cropped haircuts with straight-up-and-down outfits resembling all-white scuba gear – scrubbed, essentially, of any gender markers. Of course, what we're left with is closer to our idea of 'masculine' than 'feminine', because decoration in general has come to be seen as girly.
But when you consider all of the things that a gendered society has taken away from most of us, surely there's no need to add clothing options to that list? Of course white-on-white minimalism can be beautiful, and of course there's a lot to be said for representation that plays with stereotypes in the most blatant way possible – Nicki Minaj belting out lyrics about her sexuality and her earning power while dressed in hyperfeminine outfits, for example. And then, somewhere in between, there are all of the options we've been missing out on. There are the cuts that are supposedly suited more to one gender than another: shorter tops to show off girls' stomachs, and pants that sag at the crotch which are seemingly deemed male. There are the soft, luxurious textures often seen to be feminine, thanks to the fact that anything less than rugged might be seen to be less than manly. Between 'unisex' and the highly gendered clothing we're mostly used to, there's a range of textures, colours and cuts to be explored.
You might recognise the quote at the beginning of this piece from Madonna’s 2000 single ‘What It Feels Like For a Girl’, but it’s originally from Atonement author Ian McEwan’s 1978 novel, The Cement Garden. The next line is a question: “But secretly, you’d love to know what it’s like, wouldn’t you? What it feels like for a girl?”
But this is fashion quite separate from dressing up to discover what it feels like to be a gender that’s not the one assigned to you at birth – it's about shrugging off some of the expectations that the past few decades or centuries have seen fit to place on that identity. And so yes, we do still need to keep saying it: that this is about wearing whatever you want to, rather than letting gender norms tell you what should be kept out of your closet.
It’s just that this isn’t a boy dressing up as a girl or a girl trying to pass as a boy: this is about the fact that differently draped fabric isn’t going to alter your genetic makeup or the way that you view the world. Of course, what you wear is still going to change how the world views you. Clothes are every bit as much a part of self-expression as they have been – maybe more so – but the self that we’re expressing has its options open, and a its chances of being seen are getting better.