Will gender-neutral clothing ever have mainstream appeal?

A look from J.W. Anderson's collection for Loewe.

A look from J.W. Anderson's collection for Loewe.

With the exception of the T-shirt, clothes are designed for guys or gals, but never both. What we consider ‘menswear’ and ‘womenswear’ are long established social constructs – but a new league of designers are hoping to change that. They are taking the androgynous trend one step further by releasing unisex collections. 

Saint Laurent’s Hedi Slimane has released his first unisex collection, ‘Psych Rock’, which features embroidered ponchos (that are far nicer than they sound) and skinny trousers. Australian-built, London-based designer Richard Nicoll has done a unisex line called ‘SH/e’ and closer to home, New Zealand brand Kowtow has won over a cult-like following with its unisex organic cotton basics.

At a mass level, American Apparel depicts unisex fashions in their ads, with men and women wearing the same plaid shirt. (There are no prizes for guessing who has more buttons undone.) The movement has even inspired a soon-to-be-released doco, The Handsome Butch, by Lena Dunham’s company A Casual Romance Productions.

J.W. Anderson for Loewe.

J.W. Anderson for Loewe.

The blurring of gender lines in fashion wasn’t always cool, of course. Androgyny didn’t become mainstream until the ‘90s, popularised by pioneering designers such as Helmut Lang and Jil Sander and a few trailblazers before them. David Bowie had a profound impact on the way we see gender within a fashion context. And on the creation side of things, Anne Demeulemeester, never one to follow the trends, redefined notions of gender with her unisex tailoring and silhouettes. Her goal was to study the sexes – “to take them away from the roles that history makes them play”. Miuccia Prada, too, has shared her thoughts on genderless fashion. The designer told Style.com, "More and more, it feels instinctively right to translate the same idea for both genders.”

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These days, women dressing like men – or ‘borrowing from the boys’ – has become a commonplace as colour blocking. And on the flip side, more fashion-literate men are shopping in the women’s department. In between Yeezy wearing Céline blouses and J.W. Anderson (who recently dreamed up a knock-out unisex collection for Loewe) shaking up traditional notions of masculinity with dresses, skirts and shoulder baring tops for blokes, the future of menswear is looking, well, rather feminine.

Androgynous fashion (a la Agyness Deyn’s gorgeous new line Title A) isn’t to be mistaken for unisex fashion, but the former definitely paved the way for the latter. While the androgynous look sees both sexes mix and match items from each other's wardrobes unisex dressing doesn't discriminate – it eliminates gender norms entirely. This smattering of unisex designs on fashion’s periphery does signal a subtle shift – but will they ever have mainstream success? Could a lucrative market for asexual fashion be on the horizon?

Considering the appeal of gender-neutral fashion, we don’t see why not. What makes it relevant to today’s #minimalist #normcore-loving crowd is the fact that is eschews trends completely. Often involving basic, boxy and conceptual pieces in a wider range of sizes to canvas a larger number of bodies – the movement signals easier dressing for all and more room for self-expression when wearers aren’t bound by gender constraints. When you take labels out of the picture, the focus on situation and function increases.

Then there’s the other, perhaps more obvious, pro of gender nonconforming fashion – that if you live with someone of the opposite sex, embracing it essentially means doubling your wardrobe. As giver of sage advice Vivienne Westwood says, “Take beautiful pieces from your wardrobe or from that of your friend or partner and style together with your old favourites.”

Back in the ‘60s, our visions of the future usually involved full-body jumpsuits, spacesuits and other unisex ensembles. Yet now that the future is here, why is a man in a free-flowing dress still considered taboo? The way it is isn’t the way it has to be. And when things do change, we’ll start by thanking Bowie.