By Olivia Belande,
This week, on a long Toronto rush hour drive home from Seneca’s Newnham campus, I had the pleasure of listening to British Columbia based podcast Love To Sew. The current episode I was playing featured Italian sewist Emilia Bergolgio (@emilia_to_nuno on instagram), and the topics of discussion ranged from tailoring choices, preferred fabrics to genderless fashion. It was this, the mention of genderless fashion and the thoughts that followed, that interested me deeply in exploring the niche a little more. On the podcast, Emilia mentions that there is a slight gap in the “androgynous/unisex” clothing market– a gap which stems from the unavailability of true androgynous clothing.
How can this be? What is true androgynous clothing? Where does this market exist? To answer these questions and more, let’s first examine what androgyny is by definition: the quality or state of being neither specifically feminine or masculine : the combination of feminine and masculine characteristics : the quality or state of being androgynous (Webster). If the state of being andorgynous is one of not subscribing exclusively to either gender, and so many fabulous Canadian brands have offerings that are tailored towards those who do not wish to assign themselves to a gendered box, then what’s the issue? Where does the marketplace “gap” come into play?
The problem with androgynous clothing lies directly in the aforementioned offerings that brands have been pusing towards their more fluid clientele– being that those offerings, somehow, are still distinctly masculine, and in fact not truly androgynous. When searching for androgynous/unisex wares, one should not be surprised to come across many a broad fitted button up shirt, a square trouser, perhaps a strong shouldered sports coat or wingtip dress shoe. My commentary here should not be mistaken for disdain, as I find that many androgynous fashion focused brands do put out stunningly crafted, quality pieces. These pieces, though, when styled with one another, contribute to a strongly masculine shape. What options do the folks who would like to wear a dress or heel have?
In the podcast, when speaking about the ways in which those who wish to cater to the androgynous fashion community can better themselves and in turn better their offerings to clientele, Emilia speaks about the idea of degendering all items a brand offers. Instead of navigating a brand’s website through men’s, women’s, and unisex categories, one may instead be able to search for the item they want via category of garment, like skirts, trousers, sneaker, handbags. This way, there is no inherent gender conformity that comes with selecting items.
Jaden and Willow Smith in androgynous attire
To play devil’s advocate, I will inquire to you, dear reader: can we really blame these companies for not offering pieces that are, as I’ve put, “truly androgynous”? When exploring the deeply rooted history of androgyny, it may be easier to understand why current offerings are as stale as they are.
The tale of androgynous dress is one that fashion historians typically say began in the 1800s, just around the time of the industrial revolution. As women began to join the workforce in groups larger than had ever been seen before, and shared the same factory floors as their male counterparts, the standard working wardrobe began to change. Gone were the days of a fitted dress and a thousand and one layers of underwear worn daily to tend to home and children, and here (there) were the days of women needing to wear trousers and a fitted dress shirt (Russell, 2020). Despite this, stories of androgynous folks far predate the industrial revolution– Mulan, anyone? Or perhaps you’ve ever heard of Androgynes, a mythological creature in Greek lore who was stated to be half man, half woman. The idea of Androgynes has been borrowed many times over into several different cultures, and can be seen in Indian, African and Judaic folklore (Encyclopedia).
In America, Amelia Bloomer (b. 1818, d. 1874), began making headlines for her popularization of what would later be known as… The bloomer (Boissoneault, 2018). Amelia was a figurehead in the women’s suffrage movement, owning and operating a newspaper written by women, for women. Word of an editorial written in her paper would spread quickly– Turkish style pantaloons could be worn under a short dress, and the outfit would still be modest, though much more breathable and comfortable. Amelia had no idea that the trend would catch on, and women who weren’t in the workforce began experimenting with the idea of wearing pants (later called bloomers) in casual settings. After the industrial revolution came the great historical figures of non-binary dressing. Take Luisa Capetillo, for example (b. 1879, d. 1922). Luisa was an established Peurto-Rican author, seamstress and was known as the first woman in Puerto Rico to wear pants in public (Spiegel, 2019).
Bearing this brief history lesson in mind, perhaps it is easier for one to understand why androgynous fashion leans so heavily in one direction and not the other. We, as humans, are creatures of long standing habit, and find comforts in creating and recreating the things that are already familiar to us. For so long, it seems, the idea of androgyny has been one of liberating the feminine presenting person into something “stronger,” more “robust”.
Still, can this be considered any excuse? As designers and allies of the LGBTIQIA2S+ community, it is crucial that our messages are one of inclusivity and acceptance across the spectrum of all gender expressions. In recent years, our communities have seen the pioneering of gender neutral washrooms, gender inclusive grooming products, the acceptance of genderless colour schemes… and still, in one of the most quickly changing industries in the world, we have dropped the ball on genderless clothing. How is it that fashion is so far behind in its inclusivity for the very people who keep the industry alive? True androgyny within fashion cannot be attained until all folks of all gender identities have unabridged access to fashions that are inclusive, ethical and desirable.
“.” Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Sep. 2021 .” Encyclopedia.com, Encyclopedia.com, 2021, https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/androgynes.
“Androgyny.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/androgyny.
Boissoneault, Lorraine. “Amelia Bloomer Didn’t Mean to Start a Fashion Revolution, but Her Name Became Synonymous with Trousers.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 24 May 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/amelia-bloomer-didnt-mean-start-fashion-revolution-her-name-became-synonymous-trousers-180969164/.
Russell, Aidan. “The History of Androgynous Fashion up to Contemporary Times.” Fibre2Fashion, https://www.fibre2fashion.com/industry-article/8750/the-history-of-androgynous-fashion-up-to-contemporary-times.
Spiegel, Taru. “Luisa Capetillo: Puerto Rican Changemaker.” Luisa Capetillo: Puerto Rican Changemaker | 4 Corners of the World: International Collections and Studies at the Library of Congress, 18 Nov. 2019, https://blogs.loc.gov/international-collections/2019/11/luisa-capetillo-puerto-rican-changemaker/.