The first time I ever felt true sympathy for a character in a movie was when I watched the clueless Zach Galifianakis defend his choice of fashion accessory in the 2009 movie The Hangover. “It’s not a man-purse. It’s a satchel,” he says sulking, “Indiana Jones wears one.” I laughed at him, but my 13-year-old fashion-obsessed heart wept for this poor boy who had no knowledge of what a major faux-pas he was making.
Today, six years later, things have changed in the fashion industry. The firm line that divided male and female fashion has started to wobble, allowing for a transition of traditionally gender-specific clothes into gender-neutral ones. As acceptance for transgenderism grows, cross-dressing has made its way into high fashion. Rigid rules that once specifically dictated female and male beauty have disintegrated into little shimmery letters that now spell, “Wear whatever the hell you want.”
History contains endless moments of the redefinition of fashion. Women and trousers, for example, have had a long and rocky history. Constantly floating in and out of high fashion circles, trousers started off as a work garment for women during World War II and then embarked on a long struggle of acceptance – the US Senate took as late as 1993 to end its ban on lady trousers. Today, it is a part of mainstream fashion to the extent that a whole generation has grown up without questioning that women and men both wear pants. A more recent example of barrier-breaking fashion in mainstream culture is, of course, 17 year-old Jaden Smith’s recent conversion to the skirt. In a move that broke many deep, entrenched layers of beliefs, he donned a skirt in two separate campaigns and pulled it off flawlessly (as have Kanye West and Jared Leto before him).
And so, things are changing. In the past couple of years, we have made staggering progress in how we think of gender norms and boundaries. A quick analysis of BuzzFeed, our friendly neighborhood online publication, reveals just how big a part of mainstream Internet culture acceptance of homosexuality, transgenderism and transsexuals have become. However ditzy and problematic BuzzFeed can be, its influence on how people perceive issues such as these cannot be discounted. This massive circulation of thought has now slowly churned itself into action: men are wearing skirts, and that’s okay.
All said and done, however, gender-neutral clothing is a new concept. It is simply not the kind of change that will fit right into the average person’s life, like a new ice-cream flavor or pizza topping. No, this is a change that uproots the very basis of many of our core identities. It’s a change that brings along many other new things to think about.
It’s always easy for me to lose sight of why gender-neutral fashion is important. Of all the things we could possibly think about in terms of defying gender norms, fashion seems so very superficial. It seems like such a trivial thing to worry about – clothes and shoes and accessories. But in doing so, I underestimate the huge gateway that gender-neutral fashion creates for gender equality. Celebrities have begun to espouse gender-neutral fashion in a passionate, determined way. Take, for instance, comedian Ellen DeGeneres, whose recently launched fashion line ED sells gender-neutral clothing for kids. The impact of somebody like Ellen telling little children that they don’t have to be defined by traditional clothing rules is massive. These children will grow up knowing that they can wear what they truly want to wear. They can wear what makes them feel most like themselves, whether boy or girl or neither or both.
Fashion has, throughout history, evolved from a social obligation into an expression of individual identity. It may not be the most pressing political matter in the world, but it is playing its own part in ensuring that men and women feel equal. Gender-neutral clothing is forging its own pathway towards creating gender equality. “In Fashion, Gender Lines Are Blurring”, announces a 2015 New York Times article headline, even as it subtly asks us, “Are these lines blurring anywhere else?” And wonderfully, the answer might be yes.
This article was written by Shreya Shreeraman. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Lily Mark