Gender-neutral clothing has a long history. Across the world and the millennia, items such as tunics and togas, kimonos and sarongs, have been worn by both sexes. Momo Amjad of The Future Laboratory – a strategic foresight consultancy based in London – cites several examples of third-gender communities with a long past. Among them are the traditional Māhū people in Native Hawaiian and Tahitian cultures, the pan-gender roles of nádleehi people in the Navajo Nation, and the eunuchs, intersex people, asexual or transgender people known as the Hijra across South Asia.
“Clothing was not always split along gender lines,” explains Stevenson. “In feudal England, fashion followed class status and land tenure. Male and female dress across class stratifications was very similar. It was only through the breakdown of feudal society into a market society – where men started to dominate the workforce – that clothing shifted into male and female categories. Male fashion revolved around shifting notions of the suit, while female dress remained aspirational and flamboyant; a marker of her husband’s success.” And it is largely since the early 20th Century, and the rebirth of the debate around gender equality and female inclusion in the world of work, that Western fashion has been marked by, as Stevenson puts it, “overt and repressed desires to emulate the clothing styles associated with the opposite gender”.
Now it is normal to see women in suits and, increasingly, pussy-bow blouses for men, for instance at Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci. But the recent attention to non-binary style is more than stylistic experimentation, news that will be balm to the more than one in 10 millennials who now identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. “The new wave of non-binary is intimately bound up with significant shifts in society’s expectations around gender roles, and our understanding of gender equalities,” says Stevenson. “If society is no longer organised around a gender binary, we no longer need these distinctive categories.” In this brave new world, the role of fashion cannot be understated. “When a platform such as fashion invites ‘The Other’ to be presented, it opens doors,” says Sissel Kärneskog, a non-binary “humanwear” artist.
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