New feature: Fashion and gender

// 14 May 2011

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Androgynous trends come and go, but high-street fashion remains for the most part strictly divided into womenswear and menswear. Lorraine Smith searches for an alternative

No matter how much it protests otherwise, fashion is a many-gendered thing.

Of course, when I say ‘many’, what I actually mean is ‘two’.

As pointed out by Lisa Wade at Sociological Images, there is rarely an option these days to buy clothes that are categorised as anything other than men’s or women’s.

Unisex sign.jpgMany modern garments are in actual fact unisex, but retailers still make us enter specific shops, floors or sections of their website in order to purchase according to our gender. Why are t-shirts and the vast majority of leisurewear sold for male or female customers when most of us would probably find it easier to simply purchase based on style, colour and size? Why are women sold fashion suits but not formal ones? Why is it only Vince Noir who eschews Topman for the rather more varied choices available in the supposedly girly Topshop?

While fashion has always been pretty specific about which gender wears what, these ‘rules’ weren’t always the same as they are now. If you venture into a 21st century clothing store, you’ll see that only women should wear frills and bright colours, but the reverse used to be true even as recently as the 1960s! Corsets are usually seen as a female garment, having been frequently worn in the past to give a woman’s body a more fashionable shape, but we forget that they also provided hope to many chubby men who longed for a more athletic figure. Prior to the 19th century, it was not unusual to see wealthy, fashionable men wearing stockings and heels which are now almost always marketed as for women and girls, plus it is only since the 1940s that pink has been considered a ‘girly’ hue, with babies wearing dresses of no specific colour up until that point, regardless of their gender.

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Picture of a Unisex sign with the male and female figures overlapping, taken by Flickr user bartmaguire.

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