Do Clothes Have a Gender?

Monday, January 18, 2016

The other day I had an email about a unisex, gender-fluid clothing line.

I headed off to take a look and was disappointed to discover just shirts and trousers. £200 shirts and trousers at that. To me they seemed less gender fluid and more, well, shirts and trousers really. They also came with no sizing or measurement guidelines at all, other than S/M and M/L sizes. How do I know which of those I am? Will S/M not go over my knees? Will M/L fall down when I walk? What is a gender fluid clothing line anyway, and do clothes even have a gender?

I’ve been thinking about gender in clothing for some time, I mean, not all the time. Just off and on when stories come up. The rest of the time I’m mostly thinking about what I’m next going to eat or what to watch on Netflix. When I first saw a story about a department store removing the mens and womens departments, my first thought was “but how will I find the dresses?” then I realised I would find the dresses exactly the same way I always did, in the “dresses” section.

men and women shoes copy

The fact is that whether an item of clothing is filed arbitrarily under the mens or womens section is no guarantee it’s going to fit you just because you identify as that gender. I’m a woman, I’m pretty sturdy, I have broad shoulders and chunky arms. I know all too well the utter panic of getting stuck in a dress that won’t go over my shoulders. This happens particularly if they have a side zip. Once on I’ll find they might be too big on my waist, but when I try and take it off over my shoulders I either need some kind of technique to dislocate my shoulder joints, or the help of someone else to pull it over my head and arms. I’d probably find a dress designed to fit the broader shoulders more common in a “masculine” physique much more accommodating. On the opposite end of the scale my broad hips and small waist, which you would think would be extremely “feminine”, are just too much for most standard fit clothes as according to clothing surveys your average woman these days has a less curvy silhouette. These problems are by no means unique to me, I’ve yet to meet any person, no matter how they identify, that doesn’t have some kind of body shape issue that means they avoid or look out for certain shapes of clothing. Whether it’s short legs, narrow hips, a long body or tiny feet.

Considering the obvious fact that one size does not fit all, and the great strides made in fighting gender stereotyping, why do we so easily accept that mens and womens clothing departments are the best way to organise our shopping?


We see a lot about it being wrong to gender stereotype childrens toys. We get cross when it comes to all the fitness or fishing magazines being filed under “Men’s Interests”, but when it comes to clothing we’re still seemingly happy to accept that if you’re a man and you want to buy a skirt, or even a sequined scarf, they’ll be in the womens section, and if you’re a woman that would prefer your t-shirts not to be skin tight you’ll probably need to head off to menswear, despite there being nothing inherently gender specific in any of these items of clothing.

To make a change to the idea that we have departments for men and women, especially in physical stores, would ultimately require a big change in the way we shop, the way we think about the sizing, shape, and fit of our clothing and in our attitudes to gender specific clothing. I’m not offering any answers, frankly if you want me to be in charge of co-ordinating this kind of thing I’m going to need a whole team of people and a pay rise, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

6 Responses
  • Rachel
    January 18, 2016

    Really interesting post – I’ve wondered about this myself. There are items of clothing that appeal to both genders (t-shirts being an obvious one, as you mentioned) and it does seem unfair for customers to have to find these in a department that isn’t ‘tailored’ for them. I’ve known male friends buy women’s skinny jeans, back when this first became a thing for guys and the menswear industry hadn’t caught up yet. Their only option was to buy women’s jeans. Perhaps their should be more unisex items of clothing as an alternative. I don’t think it would make a difference if shops got rid of clear department boundaries. Why not have just have a socks section, and a scarf section?!

    • Gemma
      January 18, 2016

      Absolutely. It gets more complicated with items like a pencil skirt perhaps, but it’s already pretty complicated anyway, and even if only women were buying them they still come in a huge twangs of shapes!

  • Janiece
    January 18, 2016

    An excellent thing to think about. Not only might a woman prefer a man’s fit or garment (like me with jeans) or vice versa, but there are non-binary people to think about too. I have a colleague who is gender neutral, not wanting to identify or present as one or the other. – where do they go shopping in a shop with man/woman departments? There are also intersex people, and trans people in various stages of transitioning. I love that you have thought outside the square on this (but then I’ve enjoyed your posts for years, I’m just a lurker usually).. I look forward to a more inclusive and flexible world of shopping i the future.

  • MM
    January 18, 2016

    A toga is a toga ia a toga! Personally I don’t give a fig who wears what, but sorry at £200 a throw for “Unisex Gender- fluid Clothing” I think not. I like it that anyone can wear anything across gender and be who they want to be. But the marketing concept you describe sounds potty to me! Look across history through all centuries we can see examples of clothing being “genderless”.

  • Mim McDonald (@crinolinerobot)
    January 19, 2016

    I’ve been thinking of this a lot lately. A friend is having a baby, no idea whether it’s a boy or girl, but I wanted something with dinosaurs on. Dinosaurs are cool and for everyone, right? Apparently not. Dinosaurs are ‘for boys’ on the whole, to the point where Boden at least tries with a pinky, flower-scattered Florasaurus range for girls because girls can’t have dinos alone. Don’t get me started on the fact that everything is either pink or blue.

    Retailers reckon this is what shoppers want, which makes me wonder if, for all the talk recently of people being more aware of gender issues, and of trans issues, there are an awful lot of people out there for whom gender, is fixed and a sign of MASSIVE DIFFERENCE. Which is a bit sad really.

  • Sophikita
    January 19, 2016

    I’ve been thinking about this recently as well, ironically because I’m pregnant! I could NOT find sportswear to fit as apparently the only women that do sport are already super skinny? *irony alert* Men’s department for t shirts and sweatershirts – I’ll be back as well because apparently men have longer arms too – bye bye women’s jumpers with too short arms. It struck me as completely ridiculous at a time when I am supposedly at my most “feminine” I cannot find women’s clothing to fit me!