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Are You Being Served? The Fashion Industry’s Inclusion of Non-Binary Buyers

The move towards a more inclusive and diverse fashion landscape has pushed a number of social and political agendas into the public eye. The visibility of bodies, specifically bodies which have historically been shunned or eradicated, is a key site of debate. By many accounts, the fashion industry has proved an ally to marginalised groups, although there’s still progress to be made.

The inclusion of non-binary gender identities is one example of a battle being forged but not yet won. Crucially, this issue highlights a difference between awareness and understanding. While it’s encouraging to see collections which are labelled ‘gender neutral’ or ‘genderless’, as well as a few other terms now entering mainstream circulation, it’s important such terms are appreciated for their true value within the LGBTQ community, rather than their marketing appeal.

According to the LGBT Foundation, the umbrella term ‘non-binary’ involves identifying as ‘having a gender which is in-between or beyond the two categories ‘man’ and ‘woman, as fluctuating between ‘man’ and woman’, or as having no gender, either permanently or some of the time’. The term ‘genderless’ or ‘gender neutral’, which fall under the term ‘non-binary’, is most commonly in reference to being neither male nor female. Various gender identities, like ‘gender neutral’ but also ‘gender-fluid’, ‘third gender’ and ‘genderqueer’, also fall within this category. While the fashion industry seems happy to align itself with a language of ‘gender neutral’, ‘unisex’ or ‘androgynous’, it overlooks a whole host of other experiences within gender non-conforming groups. A greater understanding of these nuances is vital to improving the extent to which fashion is serving the needs of the community.

Runway shows, magazine covers and campaigns have been important spaces for non-binary identities to receive popular attention, but here the focus is on the creation and labelling of fashion lines intended to delineate from the traditional gender model. There have been various attempts by high-street brands like Zara, H&M, River Island and ASOS, none of which merit any great enthusiasm.

Zara’s ‘Ungendered’ collection, featuring sweaters, hoodies and jeans in monochromatic shades, received considerable attention when in launched back in 2016. In many respects, the line epitomised the high-streets approach of ‘genderless’ fashion. Whilst each item looked perfectly acceptable on both the male and female models, the lacklustre designs were akin to any standard urban-inspired casualwear.

The erasure of almost any signifiers of gender demonstrates a misunderstanding of all non-binary gender identities as existing entirely outside of gender. Clothing can be key to performing and affirming a myriad of interpretations of gender, whether fixed or fluid. Where gender is permitted, these collections tend only to sanction traditionally ‘masculine’ styles, and since women’s wardrobes have long borrowed from their male counterparts, this is hardly revolutionary. It therefore prevents any expression of femininity, an essential reference for femmes, transwomen, androgynes and other gender identities, and ultimately fails to disrupt any normative associations between clothing and sex.

Greater successes, however, can be found away from the highstreet. There have been a number of independent brands emerge with the sole intent of designing for non-binary individuals– Riley Studio, Art School, One DNA, to name a few. Gender Free World, for example, diverges from a strictly gendered shopping experience by allowing individuals to shop based on body shape, as opposed to ‘men’s’ or ‘women’s’ categories.

Credit: Andrew Styczynski - The Sun

Signs of progress have also been apparent in childrenswear. Several years ago, John Lewis was the first major UK retailer to remove binary labels from all its children’s clothing. Rather than simply eradicating skirts and the colour pink, this instead discourages oppressive gender norms which limit the expression and acceptance of non-binary identities. By opening access to clothing of all colours, styles and fabrics, there emerges the sartorial space for gender-fluid identities to exist and express.

Instead of pursuing a well-intentioned-but-misguided venture into genderless clothing, it would be far more advisable to address the issue of how we position clothing within shopping environments to ensure accessibility regardless of sex or gender identity. The concluding of separating ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ sections in physical and online stores is fundamental to transforming shopping into an enjoyable and safe experience. Key to accommodating all non-binary identities is, first and foremost, the creation of public realms in which self-expression may occur without fear of judgement or violence. With ongoing cases of verbal and physical against the LGBTQ community, frequently incited by clothing choice, it is paramount that legislative changes match the efforts of the fashion industry.

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