Is gender-fluid fashion actually inclusive?

Fashion labels that are endorsing gender-fluid clothes are not helping the LGBTQIA+ community.


Niyati Karia, Writer

Artwork by Prishi Jain

With Equipment, a New York fashion label, launching a gender-fluid collection for Spring 2020, several articles and listicles have spoken about gender upheaval. They claim that big fashion brands and high-end designers have dismantled gender stereotypes by reimagining ways of styling, thereby blurring and bending traditionally gendered clothes. The world of fashion has given its consumers a plethora of clothing options. Now, even queer bodies can identify themselves with this fashion. Is then the future of the fashion industry aligned with the gender-fluid movement? I think it’s safe to disagree.

Pierre Davis, the first-ever transgender designer rightly says, "the playing field isn't level in the world and it is even more difficult in fashion." After the Peacock Revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s, men's wear fashion has come to the forefront which has broadened the definition of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity.’ The industry started realising that sheer chiffon and silk shirts, silhouettes and flamboyant prints are not only limited to feminine dressing style. The men’s style has, to an extent, normalised the queer fashion and helped in the movement to fight against gender expectations and roles.

Brands like Gucci and Prada in the contemporary world have started recognizing that fashion has always been surrounded by gender politics. To fit with the on-going trends, the mainstream fashion brands have started pushing gender boundaries. Is then the fashion fully inclusive and has integrated gender-fluidity in the mainstream industry?

Fashion has an enormous power to influence societal norms. The way we perceive our body and ourselves reflects in the way we dress-up. Fashion is the gateway to solidify identity changes. We deal with it every time we get dressed. It is the tool which helps in gender expression and identity. For several decades now, the conventional way of designing clothes is done by searching the bodies that fit the clothes. That is why all the models look alike! Instead, clothes should be made to fit the body and not the other way round. To the contrary, fashion has witnessed orthodox ideas promoting the structures of division into male and female dominating and holding the centre-stage. It is the gender-bending fashion which prevents individuals from getting forced to fit into the boxes created by the gender-norms. The gender-fluid fashion introduces a new order in society which not only advances fluid gender expression but also enhances one’s creativity and individuality.

It is imperative to acknowledge the fact that there is a thin line between gender-neutral/unisex clothes and gender-fluid clothes. The former styling of the clothes tilts towards hegemonic masculinity which involves power dressing for women. The unisex clothes have been promoted yearlong which merely helps women to equate themselves to the stature of men to some extent as fashion has the power to change the normative understanding. But, they are not all-encompassing. If the feminine-coded clothes are worn by men, they are subjected to slurs as being feminine – traditionally viewed as inferior. To blur the lines between this dichotomy, the fashion should be fluid – which challenges the norms of manliness. It strives to disentangle the normative association between gowns and women, tuxedos and men.

Are brands then reacting and contributing to the gender-fluid movement? Ahead of Pride month, remarkable fashion labels had launched merchandise with the ‘rainbow-theme’ to celebrate one’s authentic self. However, the charade was limited to just that month. Many brands have endorsed non-binary apparels, but only in the confines of runways and glamour shows. Gender is used as an instrument to showcase clothing in vogue. There is something underhanded when the same everyday gender-fluid clothes collection are not stocked on the shelves/sites. The claim is further substantiated when the collection refutes inclusion in true sense when the brands continue with the same estranging categories of men and women’s wear that they have been using for eternity now.

The brands should be legitimately inclusive by giving due representation to the queer-identifying youth as models for advertising purposes. Brands are seen as a symbol of hope for the LGBTQ+ community as they move past the constant bullying, and normalise the queer fashion.

Famous brands like Zara and H&M have engaged with this movement on the surface level. They have not delved deep enough to talk about the real-life issues where gender-fluid fashion is masked by vulnerability and abuses. The brands should be legitimately inclusive by giving due representation to the queer-identifying youth as models for advertising purposes. Brands are seen as a symbol of hope for the LGBTQ+ community as they move past the constant bullying, and normalise the queer fashion.

However, brands have failed to robustly support the gender non-confirming people by only monetizing from the fashion – leaving it to be nothing but a trend. They often gloss over the fact that clothes are not just fashion, but are a lot more than that. Fashion means something to the wearer. A five-year-old girl identifies with that princess dress she donned on her birthday. The office-going woman feels powerful in her suit. Clothes give identity. Brands recognise this, and are exploiting it for monetary gain.

It is also paramount to understand that big brands may say that they design gender-fluid clothes for all, but their target market is often restricted to the rich and affluent. It is not brave to assume, then, that these brands do not intend to sell these clothes to the people at large.

Brands have been using gender as a gimmick to promote themselves and gain mass appeal. They have created this illusion of being progressive in terms of gender politics and fashion. Perhaps, they have failed to robustly contribute in the on-going gender-fluid movement. Long-overdue gestures of being inclusive and diversified are nothing but selective attempts to be ‘woke.’ Labels need to go one step further to include articles of clothing which are indeed worn by the people in every-day life to affirm their identities.

There have been few Indian brands like Anaam and Huemn that are breaking the binary norms. With the increasing sensitivity and awareness about the experiences of the LGBTQ community, fashion is one area where there needs to be an urgent relook for improvement. It is time that the Peacock Revolution is given impetus in full-swing. Designers need to manufacture clothes regardless of gender, for the mass at large, and make a more substantial investment in the lives of the communities.