Is John Lewis at the frontline of modern gender politics? It has never seemed so before, but judging by the reaction to the department storeâs announcement last week that its own-brand childrenâs clothes will no longer be divided by gender, some people clearly see the retailer as radical. There will now be no separate sections in the stores, nor such binary labels on the clothes themselves; instead, the labels will read âgirls and boysâ or âboys and girlsâ.
The conversation over whether clothing should be more gender-neutral does not just apply to childrenswear â over the past decade there has also been a marked rise in gender-neutral clothing for adults. Some high-end designers such as JW Anderson, Rick Owens and Rad Hourani have championed gender-neutral clothing, while a raft of smaller companies run by young designers, such as Rich Mnisi, are pushing the idea that menâs and womenâs clothes should be obsolete categories. This approach has also filtered down to the high street â H&M and Zara have both created non-gendered ranges.
The British designer Katharine Hamnett has a long history of exploring non-gender-specific clothing, and her newly reissued collection features unisex shirts, sweatshirts and silk all-in-one suits. She says that, in the past, when women stepped on to more traditionally male sartorial territory â wearing military-inspired clothing, for instance â this âwas about appropriating male powerâ. Now, she says, a move towards equality means women âmay be feeling more comfortable with themselvesâ; in other words, they may have the freedom to wear what they like. (It is still far less common for men to seek out traditionally female clothing.)
Chloe Crowe, brand manager for Bethnals, a London-based unisex denim brand, says that when they have run pop-up shops, men and women in couples have come in and bought jeans that they can share. The company was launched in 2014 by Melissa Clement, a former senior denim buyer for Topshop, who borrowed her partnerâs clothes a lot and wondered why menâs and womenâs categories had to be different. The core styles of her brand â skinny, straight and relaxed â are cut the same for men and women. âItâs just clever pattern cutting,â says Crowe. âWith denim, it can vary so much depending on your body shape. One woman is not going to [fit in] the same pair of jeans as another woman. I think it makes things a lot more simplistic, and itâs about the style and design rather than your sex.â
The growth of the brand follows more awareness and discussion around gender fluidity and what it means to reject the male/female binary. A study for the Fawcett Society last year found that 68% of young people believe gender is non-binary. âWhen Bethnals lauched, there wasnât a lot [about gender],â says Crowe. âMore brands have released gender-neutral clothing. It has filtered its way to the mass market. There seems to be a huge demand for it.â
âYou donât look at food and say itâs going to be eaten by a man or a woman, so why should it be any different for clothes?â says Tanmay Saxena, founder and designer of LaneFortyfive. The clothing Saxena designs is mostly bespoke tailoring, including shirts and waistcoats; about 60% of his customers are women. The clothes are the same styles for men and women, in the same fabrics, and while the shirts and smocks are cut the same, only the fit for trousers is slightly different.
He has been working on the label for about three years, but formally launched it last year. âI couldnât find clothes that suited my own style. The basic idea was I would make something that I can wear but at the same time, it has to be irrespective of gender. That idea was always in my head.â
The shirt company GFW Clothing â GFW stands for Gender Free World â has three fits, designed to fit different bodies rather than the broad terms âmenâ or âwomenâ. Lisa Honan co-founded the brand online less than two years ago and opened a shop in Hove earlier this year.
Initially, she says, it was borne out of frustration at not being able to find shirts she liked. âIâd look in the menâs aisle and see great patterns and short-sleeved shirts, and then youâd go to the womenâs aisle and they were blousy, theyâve got puffs or are lacy.â The menâs shirts, she says, didnât fit her âbecause Iâve got a womanâs body. It got me thinking why is [there] a manâs aisle and a womanâs aisle, and why do you have to make that choice? Youâre not able to make many purchases without being forced to define your own gender.â
Will we ever get to the point where we donât have menâs and womenâs sections in shops? âI would love that,â says Honan. âItâs about expressing your style and being able to choose what you want without having to be told that, because of your sexual characteristics, you have to shop in a certain way.â