- Fashion and its changing shapes have long stirred controversy.
- Once it was women in pants who drew a frenzied backlash. Today it’s the choices of people who identify as nonbinary, and challenge the norm in what they choose to wear and how they want to shop.
- Sped up by social media and the influence of international celebrities like Harry Styles, nonbinary fashion is becoming more prevalent and driving retailers to figure out how to catch up.
- For more stories, visit the Tech and Trends homepage.
Fashion and its changing shapes have long stirred controversy.
Once it was women in pants who drew a frenzied backlash. Today it’s the choices of people who identify as nonbinary, and challenge the norm in what they choose to wear and how they want to shop.
Amidst the furor, a few — too few — mainstream brands have had the foresight to design clothes for people who don’t sit neatly in the gender binary, and for an expanding group of young shoppers who prefer to dress across gender lines.
The communities these companies see have always existed, even when they weren’t acknowledged.
And now their choices are helping reinvent how we think about everyday dressing.
Sped up by social media and the influence of international celebrities like Harry Styles, nonbinary fashion is becoming more prevalent and driving retailers to figure out how to catch up.
Women first started wearing pants regularly in the early 20th century to widespread condemnation.
Those who wore bloomers (a precursor to pants) and trousers came to represent a larger cultural shift called bloomerism, which described women engaging in more masculine pastimes like drinking, smoking and gambling.
The threat became so overwhelming that cities passed laws banning women from wearing pants. The fear was that if women wore pants, what would be next? Men wearing dresses while they’re bossed around by their wives? What even is a man if women can wear pants?
Familiar sound? History suggests retailers that cave to backward-looking ideals risk falling behind those that see nonbinary shoppers are a deeply rooted part of the consumer landscape.
The community at 1.2 million may appear niche, but brands with gender neutral clothing are marketing to the entire LGBTQ population. Building a reputation for inclusivity also appeals to a broader segment of young shoppers, who seek out such brands and are also more likely to shop outside their gender identity.
While much of mainstream retail has ignored these shifts, companies such as Target, Nordstrom, Uniqlo Co and Hennes & Mauritz AB are slowly changing that, providing a model for the way forward.
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That path runs through the culture wars. Republicans have this year pushed through dozens of state bills that do everything from rolling back gender-affirming healthcare to banning transgender girls in sports
And similar to a century ago, how people dress is also under attack.
Several states have introduced — and Tennessee has passed — laws criminalizing drag performances. Texas’s Department of Agriculture last month started requiring staff to dress “in a manner consistent with their biological gender.”
Cultural change though often precedes political change and already you can see that in how retail racks are starting to shift as people embrace their individual gender identities.
For many nonbinary people clothes are more than a necessity or self-expression — they are a kind of armor.
For most people outfits to mark the first day of work or a first date are often carefully selected to exude confidence.
For a community whose humanity is under threat, clothing offers protection and affirmation.
What better feeling than when a pair of jeans hangs from your hips in just the right way or a loose crop top flutters at your waist?
For nonbinary people, that feeling is part of their survival kit, MI Leggett, founder of the genderless and sustainable fashion brand Official Rebrand, told me.
Leggett’s Official Rebrand, which incorporated in 2017, redesigns excess and defective stock from brands into new pieces that don’t fall into the gender binary.
Some clothes have explicit messages such as “God is trans” while others are designed without a particular feminine or masculine silhouette to show gender’s expansiveness, says Leggett, who uses them and the pronouns.
They said wearing clothes that affirm their gender makes them feel like “a much better version of myself.”
Yet shopping as someone who doesn’t squarely fit into the gender binary can be stressful. At best shoppers zig zag across departments from men’s clothing to women’s and even children’s, looking for something that fits their bodies and tastes.
Once they’re ready with a stack of options, they typically have to choose between men’s and women’s fitting rooms, and risk getting confused looks or someone telling them they’re in the wrong dressing room.
Often they leave exhausted, disheveled and without a purchase. Shopping online doesn’t provide much relief when it comes to fit and style either.
This is despite the fact that luxury designers have experimented with unisex fashion for decades. In the late 1960s, Parisian designers like Pierre Cardin and Andre Courtreges, inspired by the Space Age, designed clothing pieces with simple silhouettes.
As recently as 2020, Marc Jacobs introduced a polysexual collection of clothing for “girls who are boys and boys who are girls [and] those who are neither.”
From Stella McCartney to Gucci, high-end companies have rolled out lines that lie outside of the gender binary.
The irony of luxury companies conceptualizing gender neutral clothing is that LGBTQ people face higher rates of poverty, unemployment and homelessness.
They often have trouble finding work, and many find stable income in service jobs at restaurants, cleaning companies or gig work.
So when companies like Target or H&M release gender neutral lines, it helps make shopping much more affordable. Target’s Pride Collection comes out once a year but features gender inclusive pieces that can be worn anytime, including binders, an undergarment people use over their chests for a flatter look.
H&M’s Unisex store features t-shirts and hoodies that are not designed for a particular gender; same for its Denim United line.
PacSun’s 2021 The Color Range was a collection “curated without a specific gender in mind.”
Still, some of these lines have drawn criticism from LGBTQ people. Target revamped its Pride collection with several LGBTQ designers after its 2021 edition was called out of touch, performative and confusing.
Few of these moves have come without homophobic and transphobic backlash. When Target introduced a gender neutral kids clothing line, people vowed to boycott the company.
Some shoppers at H&M have railed against its move to unisex fitting rooms. The risk of rolling out such lines is losing some customers or facing a public relations nightmare — something the maker of Bud Light experienced recently after a collaboration with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney.
But Nora Kleinewillinghoefer, an associate partner in the consumer practice of consulting firm Kearney, told me successful brands are blending gender neutral clothing into their stores so that they are available to anyone, and building it into their larger strategy.
Organizing stores around product categories (rather than gender) can help normalize gender neutrality.
Nonbinary people have always found a way to shop whether it’s weaving together a look using clothes from men’s and women’s departments or frequenting thrift stores where the gender binary is less enforced.
Sports retailers like Nike have become mainstays in many closets in part because they do not cater to one gender over another.
You’d be hard pressed to find a nonbinary person without a Nike sports bra in their drawer. The question is which are the next big brands that will be sitting along side it.