The Definition of Gender Neutral Clothing

Here is another essay I wrote for my Fashion and American Culture course:

Gender neutral clothing has been a rising trend in the fashion industry, and that can be tied to the rising awareness of the fluidity in gender identity.


That leads me to wondering what makes a piece of clothing “gender-neutral?” In class, we learned about the characteristics that differentiate clothing for “male” bodies versus clothing for “female” bodies. We also learned that certain clothes are worn to emphasize more on certain body parts or shapes that help create the socialized, desired gendered appearance – for example, for men, it can be their bodybuilder shaped-muscles and for women, it can be the natural curves in their torsos and hips. In other words, nowadays, gendered pieces of clothing seem to be tighter and more revealing on select areas of the bodies. So, does that mean that the cuts of gender-neutral clothing should not be as form-fitting and and instead, more loose and concealing in construction since they’re not supposed to hold socialized implications of sexuality?


Another example that supports my argument is the costume design for characters in the show Quantico. With their long-sleeves and scoop neck collars, the uniforms are claimed to be gender neutral, but as you can see on the image above, characters who identified themselves as female wear the uniforms differently from the way they are worn when the uniforms are considered gender neutral (Stolman). The subtle change – the unbuttoned buttons on the front of the shirt – reveals, accentuates, and sexualizes the chest area, adding a feminine touch to their overall outfits. Despite the fact that every character is supposed to be seen equally, the costumes do not follow through because by revealing the women’s chest, they remind the viewers that the women in Quantico are still women in the end. I also can argue that gender neutrality is not a fixed trait in clothing either, meaning that one cannot determine an item of clothing gender neutral or not based on its design. An item of clothing can automatically go from being labelled as gender neutral to men’s wear or women’s wear based on how it is worn as well.


As I read more of the article, It turns out that gender neutral fashion does not only apply to the cut or fit of the clothes either. Apparently, an outfit can be gender neutral if one wears clashing gendered prints; NY Times used a music curator who would dress in his very feminine shirt “exuberantly patterned with daisies, roses, and butterflies” and combine it with a “manly” pair of camouflage shorts (La Ferla). In this situation, gender neutral fashion can be defined as the inconsistency in gendered clothing combinations – the outfit pieces are neither all men’s wear or all women’s wear. Therefore, my original argument becomes logically invalid because in this case, the cut does not matter in determining whether the outfit is gender neutral or not. Rather, an outfit becomes gender neutral when the pieces are not traditionally worn together in uniform and accordance to gender norms. Like gender identity, the definition of gender neutral clothing can be very fluid as well.


“In Fashion, Gender Lines are Blurring” by Ruth La Ferla

Quantico Review: Fun as Long as You Don’t Think Too Hard by Danielle Stolman

Here is an uber intellectual response from my professor, Professor Lane Hall-Witt, wrote:

As your inquiry suggests, it’s very hard to pin down a precise answer when we try to address this in terms of the clothing itself.  Does the key to “gender neutral” clothing lie in the fit and silhouette, fabrics and textures, colors and patterns?  Or does it lie in behavior, perhaps — in the decisions of individuals with “male” bodies to wear “feminine” clothing, of individuals with “female” bodies to wear “masculine” clothing, of individuals with “male” or “female” bodies to wear ensembles of “feminine” and “masculine” clothing, or of individuals with “male” or “female” bodies to wear “the same” clothing?  Is the “gender neutrality” of clothing or of dress a matter of certain kinds of performances that disrupt patriarchal norms and expectations?

One thing we always need to bear in mind, of course, is that our own clothes and our own bodies and our own performances receive their meanings not only from our own intentions — the meanings we ourselves invest in our clothes, bodies, and performances — but also from the interpretations and responses of other people.  It’s vitally important for us to self-identify and to base our actions in our sense of self-identification, because these claims can pose a challenge to others to step outside their conventional views and, at the same time, can issue an invitation to those same others to see us as the individuals we are and aspire to be.  In an interview excerpt we read earlier in the semester — “Gender as Performance” — Judith Butler cited a misreading of her very important book, Gender Trouble, that led some “to think that if gender is performative it must be radically free.”  In fact, performativity does not name a cost-free manner of simply being what we want to be, as if according to a whim; rather, it names the hard work and personal risk that comes with any attempt to challenge a cultural order that supports a social hierarchy.

I think it’s also important to maintain a certain wariness about the ideal of gender neutrality.  I mention this because of lessons that we have learned — and are continuing to learn — about the ideal of a “post-racial” or “color-blind” society.  Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has written an essential study of color-blind racism, Racism without Racists, that shows, among other things, that premature eradication of race as a category of historical understanding has left us ill-equipped to understand and confront the institutional racism that persists in our society.  Racial attitudes may show a marked improvement from the days when white supremacists proudly proclaimed their supposed “racial superiority”; however, what’s lacking is an appreciation of the historical processes that embedded white supremacy into the institutional fabric of American life — and of the ongoing work that will be required to undo the institutionalized racism that remains at the heart of our social order.


The long history of patriarchy has also embedded gender-based inequalities deep in the institutional fabric of American life.  “Gender,” we now understand, is a cultural “fiction” based on terrible misinterpretations of certain differences between human females and human males.  But gender — this fiction — has in fact had very real historical effects, one of which is widespread, institutionalized forms of discrimination on the basis of sex.  Think … “equal pay for equal work”!  We need to make sure we don’t fall into a trap of “gender-blind” sexism — of “sexism without sexists” — that may limit our ability to identify and mobilize against institutional sexism.*

*I think what he means here is that like race, gender is a socially constructed concept, and therefore, by using the word gender, we are acknowledging the system that is being built upon the concept of gender. Rather than acknowledging and appeasing to the power dynamics of the gender binary system, we should judge clothing in a gender-blind perspective.

Disclaimer: None of the images are created or owned by me.


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