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How Fashion Impacts Gender Identity and Expression

Dec 06, 2021

How Fashion Impacts Gender Identity and Expression

The fashion industry impacts how we express our gender identities more than we think. Whether you’re femme, butch, androgynous, or something in between, the way you present yourself is limited by the clothing that’s available on the market.

While androgynous fashion is becoming more popular and therefore more widely available, it is still both limited, and divided into gendered categories. For non-binary people, this can make shopping for clothes a confusing and difficult experience. Even if clothes are androgynous, you still generally have to go to either the men’s or women’s section to get them, even if you don’t identify that way. That’s a major problem and we need to make fashion more inclusive for people who don’t fit within the gender binary.

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What is Considered Androgynous Clothing?

Androgyny is dressing in a way that doesn’t adhere to the gender binary. It means you don’t dress traditionally masculine or traditionally feminine. Your style fits somewhere in between. This often looks like wearing clothes that are common for men and women, such as button up shirts, boots, baggy jeans, blazers or tailored trousers. Sometimes, it’s also used to refer to men who wear more feminine clothing or women who wear more masculine clothing.

Why is Clothing Gendered?

Clothing has been gendered for hundreds of years. Prior to this, clothing actually varied depending on a person’s class rather than their gender. Tailors used to cater to all genders, but predominantly the upper classes. Around the 17th century, seamstresses started organizing themselves as distinct from tailors, catering only to women. It was at this point that clothing for men and women began to diverge, and tailored clothing like suits became seen as masculine.

Clothes Aren’t Meant to Be Bound by Male and Female Identities

At the time, women were looking for a way to earn money in the field, which made sense for a time when most employment wasn’t open to women. If a woman’s husband died, she needed to find a way to support her family. But now, there’s no real reason to separate out clothes by gender.

What is the Issue?

Separating fashion into male and female categories excludes so many people: butch women, femme men, non-binary people, agender people, drag kings and queens, and more. For people who identify outside the gender binary, shopping for clothes can be at best uncomfortable, and at worst exacerbate their gender dysphoria. It’s unnecessary and harmful to the queer community.

Deconstructing The Binary

More and more people are dressing and identifying beyond the gender binary. However you identify or present, we can all refuse to be confined by how society sees gender, and for many in the LGBTQ+ community, this can be very freeing. Gender is a spectrum and so is presentation, no matter how you identify. It can be fun to try styles you wouldn’t normally think of. If you’re a woman, take a look around the men’s section and see if anything catches your eye. If you’re a man, do the same in the women’s section. You might be surprised at what you find when you broaden your horizons.

Gender Presentation

Gender presentation is different to gender identity. You can identify as a man, a woman, or somewhere in between, but that doesn’t mean you have to dress in the traditional way for that gender. You don’t even have to identify as butch or femme. Style should be fun and you should feel free to experiment. Push yourself outside your comfort zone and give something different a try. You never know, you might find you really like it!

Nonconforming Choices

Nonconformity is all about rejecting the categories the world wants to put you in. You shouldn’t feel confined to shopping in one particular section of any store, or dressing in a particular color or style. Men can wear dresses and skirts, or wear pink, or embrace frills. Women can wear suits, or baggy clothes, or dress modestly. Break free of what’s expected and try something new.

What About Gender-Neutral Clothes

Gender-neutral clothes are clothes that can fit into either traditionally male or traditionally female styles. Straight-cut jeans, plain t-shirts or button-ups, or belts or chain necklaces can all be considered gender-neutral. If you’re just starting to step out of your comfort zone, this may be a good place to start. These are easy to mix with your current wardrobe to add an androgynous edge, without being obviously defiant of gender categories.

Where to Shop?

Often, eschewing gendered clothing means embracing clothes made for a different gender. But that doesn’t have to be the case. There are a few brands paving the way for a more gender-neutral approach to fashion. Collusion, Wildfang and Telfar make clothes for everyone – not for a specific gender. These, and many other brands like them, don’t organise their clothing by gender, and often show their clothes on models of different genders, so you can get a better idea of how the clothes will look on your body. It may require a little more research, but it’s worth it to support the brands that are working to deconstruct the binary.

How to Deal with Criticism

For many people trying out androgynous fashion for the first time, you may be concerned about being criticised or judged for not conforming. It’s totally valid to feel a little shy when you’re trying something outside your comfort zone. First, focus on how the clothes make you feel when you’re alone. Look at yourself in the mirror and see how you feel. Do you feel more confident? Do you feel a different part of your personality coming out? Focus on those feelings. Then, you can try them out when you’re popping to the shops, or seeing your LGBTQ+ friends. Take your time.

Express Yourself

Ultimately, it’s about being your authentic self. So, experiment and try new things, but be open to the fact that you may feel most yourself in specifically gendered clothing – whether that matches the gender you identify as, or were assigned at birth, or not. Wherever you end up with your gender presentation is valid. But you don’t know if you never try. And often, people find they feel good in different styles when they’re in different moods or situations. There’s no harm in playing around and trying something new.

Find Your Inner Circle with HER

However you identify or present yourself, having an inclusive and supportive queer community around you can help you feel more comfortable exploring and embracing your authentic self. On HER, you can connect with other LGBTQ+ people to chat, to date, or just to connect with likeminded people. Whatever you’re looking for, you can find it on HER.

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Robyn is the CEO & Founder of HER the world's largest brand for LGBTQ womxn & queer people. Also runs London Queer Fashion Show. Find her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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