Is John Lewis at the frontline of modern gender politics? It has never seemed so before, but judging by the reaction to the department store’s announcement last week that its own-brand children’s clothes will no longer be divided by gender, some people clearly see the retailer as radical. There will now be no separate sections in the stores, nor such binary labels on the clothes themselves; instead, the labels will read “girls and boys” or “boys and girls”.
The conversation over whether clothing should be more gender-neutral does not just apply to childrenswear – over the past decade there has also been a marked rise in gender-neutral clothing for adults. Some high-end designers such as JW Anderson, Rick Owens and Rad Hourani have championed gender-neutral clothing, while a raft of smaller companies run by young designers, such as Rich Mnisi, are pushing the idea that men’s and women’s clothes should be obsolete categories. This approach has also filtered down to the high street – H&M and Zarahave both created non-gendered ranges.
The British designer Katharine Hamnett has a long history of exploring non-gender-specific clothing, and her newly reissued collection features unisex shirts, sweatshirts and silk all-in-one suits. She says that, in the past, when women stepped on to more traditionally male sartorial territory – wearing military-inspired clothing, for instance – this “was about appropriating male power”. Now, she says, a move towards equality means women “may be feeling more comfortable with themselves”; in other words, they may have the freedom to wear what they like. (It is still far less common for men to seek out traditionally female clothing.)
Chloe Crowe, brand manager for Bethnals, a London-based unisex denim brand, says that when they have run pop-up shops, men and women in couples have come in and bought jeans that they can share. The company was launched in 2014 by Melissa Clement, a former senior denim buyer for Topshop, who borrowed her partner’s clothes a lot and wondered why men’s and women’s categories had to be different. The core styles of her brand – skinny, straight and relaxed – are cut the same for men and women. “It’s just clever pattern cutting,” says Crowe. “With denim, it can vary so much depending on your body shape. One woman is not going to [fit in] the same pair of jeans as another woman. I think it makes things a lot more simplistic, and it’s about the style and design rather than your sex.”
The growth of the brand follows more awareness and discussion around gender fluidity and what it means to reject the male/female binary. A study for the Fawcett Society last year found that 68% of young people believe gender is non-binary. “When Bethnals lauched, there wasn’t a lot [about gender],” says Crowe. “More brands have released gender-neutral clothing. It has filtered its way to the mass market. There seems to be a huge demand for it.”
“You don’t look at food and say it’s going to be eaten by a man or a woman, so why should it be any different for clothes?” says Tanmay Saxena, founder and designer ofLaneFortyfive. The clothing Saxena designs is mostly bespoke tailoring, including shirts and waistcoats; about 60% of his customers are women. The clothes are the same styles for men and women, in the same fabrics, and while the shirts and smocks are cut the same, only the fit for trousers is slightly different.
He has been working on the label for about three years, but formally launched it last year. “I couldn’t find clothes that suited my own style. The basic idea was I would make something that I can wear but at the same time, it has to be irrespective of gender. That idea was always in my head.”
The shirt company GFW Clothing – GFW stands for Gender Free World – has three fits, designed to fit different bodies rather than the broad terms “men” or “women”. Lisa Honan co-founded the brand online less than two years ago and opened a shop in Hove earlier this year.
Initially, she says, it was borne out of frustration at not being able to find shirts she liked. “I’d look in the men’s aisle and see great patterns and short-sleeved shirts, and then you’d go to the women’s aisle and they were blousy, they’ve got puffs or are lacy.” The men’s shirts, she says, didn’t fit her “because I’ve got a woman’s body. It got me thinking why is [there] a man’s aisle and a woman’s aisle, and why do you have to make that choice? You’re not able to make many purchases without being forced to define your own gender.”
Will we ever get to the point where we don’t have men’s and women’s sections in shops? “I would love that,” says Honan. “It’s about expressing your style and being able to choose what you want without having to be told that, because of your sexual characteristics, you have to shop in a certain way.”