Non-binary finery: can genderless fashion move beyond a label? | Australian fashion

“Genderless” has become a buzzword in fashion – especially during queer festivities when brands are particularly eager to pitch themselves to LGBTIQ+ communities.

Models wearing robes made for booking.com by Australian designer Jordan Gogos, as a fundraising initiative for queer youth charity Minus18. Photograph: Booking.com

On 26 August, companies ranging from high-street retailer Dangerfield to Booking.com partnered with Australian queer youth charity Minus18 to release non-binary finery for Wear It Purple Day. Even Westfield shopping centres have a curated Wear It Purple collection.

But what does the genderless label actually mean, besides brands being able to double their market for every item?

Sometimes, it’s not terribly clear. Often, genderless collections from brands like Bonds and Uniqlo are just unisex tracksuits and streetwear, rebranded as though it’s radical for women to wear trousers in 2022. Rarely do they include gender-affirming gear like chest binders and tucking lingerie.

So when it comes to courting trans and non-binary customers, there is a danger that the gender-inclusive label can be empty pinkwashing – branding that lulls shoppers into a false sense of security without offering anything material such as fit, function, and knowledgable customer service.

In 2021, Afterpay — naming-rights sponsor of Australian fashion week — launched a “genderfree” online shop. The infinite-scroll interface features quotes from queer and trans luminaries like Alok Vaid-Menon (“Any article of clothing should be for anyone who wants to wear it”) alongside items from brands like Levi’s, Jeffrey Campbell, Birkenstock and Shein.

Yet inclusive intentions only stretch so far. Most of the items listed in the Afterpay shop only fit limited sizes and shapes, and once you click through to a merchant partner’s site to complete your purchase, the gender binary resurfaces like a pop-up ad: the Levi’s website, for example, is divided into men, women, kids and accessories.

Erin Spencer (they/them) and Bec Cerio (she/they) run Sock Drawer Heroes, a Sydney-based online retailer catering to the trans and gender-diverse community. As well as stocking gender-expression gear such as binders, gaffs, and packers, they also provide community resources and transition info.

“With anything we sell, we offer a certain amount of support to the person we’re selling it to. It’s great for companies to offer gender-free stuff but it could also give a young person the wrong idea about how they will be treated when they go and buy it,” Spencer says. “They might walk in [to] buy this gender-free item and still get misgendered.”

The Sock Drawer Heroes team wearing t-shirts made in collaboration with Wear It Purple.
The Sock Drawer Heroes team wearing t-shirts made for Wear It Purple day. Photograph: Sock Drawer Heroes

For non-binary designer Rae Hill (they/them), it’s always positive to see more brands thinking of trans and non-binary customers and more products at various price points.

“You get to this tipping point though, where big brands that don’t really have the queer and trans experience start to capitalise on something that they’re seeing as a niche,” they say.

Often what that means on the runway, Hill says, is a “unisex look that essentially strips all the creativity and fun out of gender”.

“I don’t think we should take the gender out of fashion,” Hill says. “Instead of ‘genderless’, there needs to be more of a fluidity of gender.

“The gender of a piece of clothing is whatever gender you feel when you wear it, and not that you have to fit into the gender of that piece.”

There are practical ways that designers can support fluidity and inclusivity. Hill’s brand, Origami Customs, specialises in gender-affirming swimwear and underthings handmade in Montreal. There are no sizing limits, and each item can be customised for the individual: a pair of undies, for example, can be made in different fits, fabrics, gusset widths and closures to accommodate different mobility and sensory needs – and whatever’s in your pants.

Models walk the Gogo Graham runway during New York fashion week in February 2022.
Models walk the Gogo Graham runway during New York fashion week in February 2022. Photograph: Fernanda Calfat/Getty Images

Hill describes their work as practical: clothes that you can “cut down a tree in” and wear to lounge by the pool, looking like a snack. Other trans designers include Gogo Graham, whose fantasy armour fashion, made from upcycled materials, draws inspiration from Studio Ghibli; Carmen Liu, a lingerie brand catering to trans women and girls; and Rebirth Garments, whose riotously patterned club-kid looks sit in sharp contrast to the bland minimalism that major brands often associate with gender inclusivity.

Beyond aesthetics, Hill urges customers to consider the core values embedded into the clothes we buy – from the social and environmental impact of manufacturing through to where corporate profits flow.

Cerio cites PayPal as an example of a company that will “whack a rainbow logo on” without backing it up. For years the company engaged in highly visible pride campaigns while simultaneously drawing criticism from LGBTIQ activists for their onerous policies around name changes; though in April of 2022, they committed to reviewing their policies after a US Senate inquiry. Worse still, she says, some companies court trans and gender diverse customers while donating to anti-trans politicians.

Fashions on the field, the longstanding racing fashion event, will replace male and female categories with ‘best dressed’ and ‘best suited’ at the 2022 Melbourne Cup.
Fashions on the field, the longstanding racing fashion event, will replace male and female categories with ‘best dressed’ and ‘best suited’ at the 2022 Melbourne Cup. Photograph: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

Spencer suggests companies could start with staff training, and rejigging the gender categories instore and online. “The cheapest thing they could possibly do is just change the language,” they say. That’s already happening at a few major retailers (including Bonds and Dangerfield) and even at the races: the Melbourne Cup’s long-running Fashions on the field competition announced on Wear It Purple day that it will do away with male and female categories, instead awarding the Best Dressed and Best Suited racegoers.

Rather than approaching trans and gender diverse communities as just another market to capture, fashion labels could also take the opportunity to rethink how they design for different bodies, the language they use around gender, and how their labour practices and manufacturing processes impact marginalised groups. Instead of a genderless label, it might mean refashioning the agenda to move beyond seasonal marketing campaigns, and into year-round inclusion.

Katheleen Knopf

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