Which brands will embrace the genderless evolution of high fashion?
How will retailers respond to a growing demand for gender-fluid fashion in the mainstream? Nerds’ James Benenson dives in.
With gen Z leading the movement, how long before gender-fluid fashion is commonplace? / Daniel Adesina via Unsplash
At its pinnacle, high fashion has always been driven by a diverse, hyper-creative and gender non-conforming core of individuals who’ve adopted a bold approach to self-expression, that isn’t confined to the male-female gender binary.
Way beyond a trend, this fluidity has a deeper footing, reflective of the diversity of expression that has always existed within the minority communities that have been forced to operate outside of the mainstream, while simultaneously holding the most influence over it, namely emanating from within inner-city Black, queer, trans and Latinx populations across the UK and the US.
Challenging gendered codes of dressing is not a noughties phenomenon. From the Bright Young Things of the 20s to The New Romantics and Leigh Bowery’s Club Kids of the 80s, and the gender-fluid adoption of streetwear spearheaded by female artists such as Missy Elliot and Aaliyah within US hip-hop culture of the 90s, questioning the traditional gender binary through style goes way back.
Nonconforming fashion: a timeline
In 2021, a report found that almost 90% of people said fashion images did not represent a spectrum of different bodies and identities, while 87.5% said they did not feel represented in advertising campaigns, fashion shoots and on the catwalk.
Last year, the V&A exhibition ‘Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear’ placed gender non-conforming creations by the likes of Grace Wales Bonner, Craig Green and Alexander McQueen side by side with historical points of influence spanning the Tudor and Victorian eras, and Renaissance Europe.
Turn the style clock back to Ancient Greece and Rome, and the togas and tunics synonymous with the time underline the relative infancy of our gendered approach to style, while from a cultural and political standpoint, highlighting the historical legacy of non-binary attitudes towards identity presentation, contrary to the flash-in-the-pan narrative often perpetuated by opponents to the current resurgence of gender-fluid expression in the culture.
Fast forward to December 2020 and Harry Styles appeared on the cover of American Vogue in a custom Gucci dress, as the title’s first-ever male cover star. This set the tone for the non-binary and high-femme direction that Styles has adopted since, splitting opinion as advocates praised the pop icon’s advancement of gender-fluid dressing, while others questioned the validity of a cisgendered, straight, white man dominating such a significant cultural conversation.
Indeed, Styles isn’t the only A-lister leading the charge, with a myriad of stars such as Billy Porter, Jaden Smith, Lil Nas X, Zendaya and Cara Delevingne increasingly turning out red carpet and cover looks that challenge binary norms.
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Gender and Gen Z: it’s a spectrum
Cut through the noise of award shows, style pages and social media clickbait and there’s a deeper shift in the culture underway, with an evolving spectrum of gender identities, largely dominant among the gen Z population. In 2019, 41% of the hundreds of global Gen Z readers Vice spoke to said they identify as neutral on the spectrum of masculinity and femininity.
In December 2022, around half of Gen Z were found to have purchased fashion outside of their gender identity globally, with a distinct shift of visibility not only on high-fashion runways but also in everyday shopping, with online searches for ‘genderless’ and ‘gender neutral’ fashion increasing year on year.
While the likes of Asos and Uniqlo have for some time adopted an increasingly gender-neutral or unisex attitude, independent retailers like Lazy Oaf and Lucy & Yak have long been ahead of the curb, cutting through binary norms by championing diversity in retail through sizes, models and campaigns that speak to a broad spectrum of ethnicities and body types.
More than a fashion statement: embracing fluidity
Rather than dissolving gender expression with a neutral or genderless take on fashion, this fluid perspective embraces a re-definition of what it means to be masculine or feminine – a markedly more affirmative approach that crucially, can be seen to validate the increasing number of young consumers who identify as trans and gender nonconforming, and for whom the vast majority of retailers continue to exclude, reflective of society at large.
As younger consumers increasingly embrace an expanding spectrum of gender expressions that do not align with the male-female binary that still prevails in the fashion industry, retailers will be called upon to adopt a more affirmative approach that looks beyond simply copycatting catwalk-inspired style trends.
Beyond the commercial opportunity, this is a space that offers both brands and retailers the scope to fulfill a deeper social responsibility rooted in diversity, inclusion and representation as it relates to the needs of their youngest and fastest-growing consumer groups.
Content by The Drum Network member:
NERDS Collective was founded by Luke Hodson In 2013 as a specialist agency that places brands at the frontline of street culture through hyper-nuanced consumer insights, cultural strategy, and creative content. In addition, the collective intended to spotlight and champion inner-city individuals and grassroots communities by finding ways brands can play a more meaningful role in their world.Find out more