Words by Olly DeHerrera
Olly Blue for a boy and pink for a girl” is so ingrained in our understanding of gender that it seems almost like an aspect of biology. It’s quite a well-worn classroom fact that until the Victorian era, these colour associations were exact opposites with pink being a masculine colour to dress young boys for its strong vibrancy. With cisgender male celebrities Billy Porter and Harry styles receiving high praise for sporting dresses, it’s hard to imagine a time where those wishing to blur the gendered lines of fashion faced not only prejudice but persecution.
1950’s New York woman Rusty Brown started dressing as a man, first as a disguise to get a factory job since she lost her war-time position as a machinist at the close of World War II, then in order to work as a drag king. “I have been arrested in New York more times than I have fingers and toes,” she told an interviewer from the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project in 1983, “for wearing pants and a shirt.” At that time, she says, “you had to have three pieces of female attire” in order to avoid being arrested for cross-dressing.
In 1969 the solicitation of homosexual relations was an illegal act in New York City (and indeed virtually all other urban centres). Gay bars were popular gathering places for young gay men, lesbians, and transgender people to socialise freely. On the streets of Greenwich Village, New York, a small and soon-to-be infamous bar by the name of The Stonewall Inn played host to the community. Many such bars were, however, subject to regular police harassment and police were particularly known to target those for their clothing. In the early morning hours of Saturday, June 28, 1969, nine policemen entered the Stonewall Inn, arrested the employees for selling alcohol without a license and—in accordance with a New York criminal statute that authorized the arrest of anyone not wearing at least three articles of gender-appropriate clothing—took several people into custody. This was the third such raid on Greenwich Village gay bars in a short period and thus began the Stonewall riots: a series of violent confrontations that began in the early hours of June 28, 1969, between police and gay rights activists. As the riots progressed, an international Gay Rights movement was born.
In the still ongoing struggle to remove sex constraints and gender roles from fashion, another movement has been stepping to the forefront of social gender politics. The term unisex was first used in 1968 in Life, an American general interest magazine. The idea of unisex clothing emerged in conflation with growing changes in attitudes to gender roles, in her new book Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution, the University of Maryland professor Jo Paoletti tracks how social changes brought about this concept of genderless clothing.
In many disciplines of study World War Two is looked at as a focal point in global modernisation, and fashion is no exception. The war made a massive impact on the way gender was understood; the role women played in factories showed many that there was no real reason that women couldn’t take on a “man’s” role and began to break down the social barriers of gender attitudes. Rusty Brown choosing to use gender clothing to reinfiltrate the factories she had dedicated her labour to during the wartime is a more radical example of the way women began to use fashion to resist their oppression. In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent introduced le smoking, a tuxedo for women, bringing into the mainstream what lesbians and transmasculine people had been representing for decades prior. In a 2014 interview with PBS Newshour, transmasculine fashion blogger, Rachel Tutera, described this socio-political fashion movement as “the right to be handsome”.
Unisex or ‘Gender neutrality’ is not only a facet to combat gender roles, but to combat gender itself. Within the LGBTQ community, “gender neutral” expresses not just a fashion movement but an identity and way of being in itself.
Androgyny goes beyond the cisgender models of the later 90’s ‘heroin chic’ movement who promoted androgynous trends with their flatter petite figures and ‘gender swapped’ hairstyles. Agender and other non-binary gender identities see androgyny as a social as well as a fashion concept. Androgynous fashion does not define or apply to all nonbinary people and is not a ‘quick fix’ to the gendering of clothing. People of all genders are increasingly advocating for the de-gendering of all fashion within the fight for recognition and dignity beyond the trends – and it appears they’re slowly being heard.
In 2015, fashion retailer Selfridge debuted their Agender fashion concept space in stores, calling it “the future of genderless shopping”. The section of their website states: “Agender literally means ‘without gender’, but it also suggests a plan of action or an ideological goal. This project sets out to move fashion forward and to reflect the realities of the way we live now”. In 2017 John Lewis took steps towards unisex fashion, announcing that its own-brand children’s clothes will no longer be divided by gender. There will now be no separate sections in the stores, nor completely binary labels on the clothes themselves; instead, the labels will read “girls and boys”. In 2018, the CFDA, the organiser of New York Fashion Week, added ‘unisex/non-binary’ as a new category.
As gender critical attitudes expand, they come to encompass all forms of identity. Gender neutral does not belong solely to those wishing to defy stereotypes within their own gender, neither does it only represent gender diverse individuals. Fashion crosses barriers and expands expression in a way that is very visible throughout history. In the words of Hollywood legend Orson Welles: “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn”.