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Men and women’s clothing sections are holding us back

We need to bin the labels and just wear what we want to

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Image Credit: Robert Couse-Baker

In some hopeful albeit brief moments, I truly believe our culture is on the precipice of doing away with identity binaries. We’re getting to the point where making an assumption about someone based on surface level stuff is pretty embarrassing.  Despite this positive dismantling of categorisation that has been gradually building, we are held back by institutions that remain committed to the traditional norm. The one that cropped up for me most recently was the hard-line divide between men and women’s clothing sections.

I am, for the most part, a cisgendered woman who shops almost exclusively in the men’s section. When I was initially trying to figure out what I liked to wear, the women’s section provided little to no answers. The horrors of trying to find a plain white t-shirt in Primark that didn’t cut in under the arms and didn’t present my bra to the world are still pretty potent. In general, retail men’s clothing is better made, a bit cheaper and, speaking as someone not quite at the cutting-edge of fashion, satisfyingly plain.

There is a key difference, I think, of shopping in the opposite section when you identify as LGBTQ+. A straight woman probably doesn’t flinch at heading for an oversized hoodie in the men’s section. But for anyone who has ever ventured to ‘the other side’ in order to find clothes better suited to their gender expression can tell you the first few times are nerve-wracking experiences. It feels as though you are putting yourself on display and inviting questions. I remember sweating it out in the men’s section of a T.K.Maxx dreading the moment that someone would ask who I was buying for. Even though this was several years ago and the worry has since worn off, the sentiment remains: stick to your section or risk looking weird.

We have an obligation to the next generation’s battle against social, patriarchal expectations to remove all the obstacles that we can. Removing clothing binaries could be an instrumental part of this process.

Rather than adding to the categories of men and women and ‘everything in between,’ let’s just get rid of the categories.

Outside of personal choices, the disparity between men and women’s clothing is pretty stark. Unburdened by the pressure of overconsumption and fast fashion, men’s clothing is often, in my experience at least, better quality. As I mentioned, it isn’t uncommon for women to shop in the men’s section for practical reasons (the reverse is almost unheard of) because the clothes are more robust and last longer. Financially, it’s a good decision.

Of course, a counter argument to this is the issue of sizing, to which I’d say if you don’t already see that as a prominent issue, especially in women’s ranges, then it probably won’t affect you.

Very slowly, the world is coming to grips with the idea of gender as fluid, exciting and exploratory, and one of the easiest ways of expressing this is with clothes. Surely, with the way our culture is progressing, doing away with the men/women divide is the logical next step.

This year, London Fashion Week is sporting a gender-neutral theme in its fully virtual line up. According to Sky News, ‘the event will showcase menswear, womenswear and everything in between.’ Whilst this isn’t exactly a new idea, highbrow fashion has been playing with gender exploration for years, it will be good to see household names alongside brands specifically tailored towards an androgynous audience. It does beg the question though, if the top names in designer fashion are doing it, what is stopping it from trickling down to highstreet level?

The luxury of freely exploring your identity through clothing shouldn’t be reserved for those that can afford the huge price tag. Feeling comfortable in what you wear would be made so much easier if we did away with duality and made androgynous clothes shopping the new normal. Clothes are just pieces of fabric, they don’t determine what is underneath.

Some companies like H&M and Zara have launched gender-neutral ranges in the past which have been successful (although I genuinely read a Guardian piece the other day that started with the line ‘Is John Lewis at the frontline of modern gender politics?’ and for that, we should all be worried). For me however, this idea often comes across as an eye-grabbing initiative that still qualifies a third category of the ‘other’ under the temporary idea of ‘what’s new and marketable.’ Rather than adding to the categories of men and women and ‘everything in between,’ let’s just get rid of the categories.

I’ve also seen some brands try a half-assed attempt to demonstrate that everyone can wear everything by having a second, female model in their men’s sections. Of course, there is never any second, male models demonstrating the women’s lines. Decisions like this demonstrate perfectly the unwillingness of middle-priced chains to break away from the grip of institutionalised normativity.

The growth and appeal of second-hand clothes shopping on sites such as Depop has had an enormous impact. Seeing all types of clothing on all types of people makes a difference and shows that it is possible to shop outside of your square.

The reality is, I admit, that this is a bit of a pipe dream and we are still a long way off from it coming to fruition. But we shouldn't be. Shopping for new clothes is stressful enough without the added pressure of staying in line with a prescribed idea of what you should don. Let’s get rid of the sections and just wear whatever we like best.

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