Breaking down the stereotypes hanging from clothing racks, doing away with gender-specific styles and colours, and providing a space where everyone – from the earliest age – feels free to choose the kind of clothes they prefer is a trend being picked up by retailers in ever-growing numbers.
“HEMA wants to give children the opportunity to be who they want to be,” says the Dutch clothing and homeware retailer, well-known for its competitive prices, with a chain of 700 outlets in the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Germany, France, Belgium, Spain and the United Kingdom.
“HEMA does not want to decide for customers whether children’s clothing is specifically for boys or girls. Customers can decide for themselves.”
The change will be complete for the 2018 summer collection, when the clothes will “no longer be specifically labelled for boys or girls…but for kids”.
The British department store chain John Lewis, with a history dating back more than 150 years, has become a pioneer in the sector. “At the beginning of 2016, we introduced non-gender specific labels in our own brand children’s clothing, and this was followed by the removal of ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signage in our shops, which was replaced with photos of children modelling our clothes,” the company explains.
The layout, nonetheless, remains the same: “In our shops, girls and boys clothing are still positioned in the same way as they have always been and online customers can search by ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ if they choose to.”
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“At the moment, the shopping experience is extremely binary and also reinforces gender stereotypes by categorising clothing based on imagery, colour, styles and sizes, and associating them with a particular gender. This is damaging not only to ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ but also to those who identify somewhere else along the spectrum and as neither. I think, instead, places should carry a range of sizes, fits, colours, and styles for anyone, without specifying who should be wearing what. We need a gendered clothing revolution!” says Santina Sorrenti, a queer [gender nonconforming] rights activist and founder of the G(end)er Swap project.
The idea behind Sorrenti’s G(end)er Swap initiative is to create a safe and non-judgmental space, in the form of clothes swapping pop-up shops (currently limited to the UK), where trans, non-binary, gender nonconforming individuals can access clothes that match their gender identity.
“G(end)er Swap is not only an LGBTQI+ support service but it also is a mechanism to spread awareness about the binary and gendered nature of public shopping spheres and how this needs to change,” explains Sorrenti.
“It is important to have non-gender specific clothing because bodies vary in height, size, proportions, and consumers vary in their tastes for colours, patterns and styles. Making gender the binary division of clothing is arbitrary. It makes shopping difficult too. A more rational shop floor division might be trousers, shirts, dresses, skirts, knitwear, polo shirts etc.,” explains Caroline Osella, a reader in anthropology at SOAS, University of London, recalling how she used to buy red trousers and bright yellow T-shirts for her son in Italy because all the UK seemed to offer for boys between the ages of five and ten were dull, quasi-military colours.
Another brand offering fun shirts and T-shirts for everyone is the UK-based GFW Clothing (Gender Free World). They sell online and also have a kids section. Their philosophy is explained on their website: “It is unfair that gender can limit and restrict your choices. Our shirts are designed with a gender-neutral sensibility to fit body shape.”
Meanwhile, the US-based LGBTQI+ company FLAVNT Streetwear seeks to build self-confidence through clothing, and also sells online.
The importance of respect and freedom as of an early age
“Clothes do not simply express who we are, they make us who we are. Our sense of who we are – to ourselves, to others, in society – is completely bound up with what we wear. How we move our bodies, whether we feel discreet and backgrounded, upfront and visible, tough and rugged, dainty and fragile, playfully clownish: clothing has the power to make us feel all these things,” insists Osella.
“We should all have the opportunity to experience each part of our rounded nature, and to do that we all need access to a wide range of clothing styles and colours,” she says.
Why are gender inclusive theories not put more into practice?
“Sex/gender, like ‘race’, has been a very convenient political tool for making hierarchies, organising folks into structures and living formations which support the aims of power/capital. It has been made to appear ‘natural’, through both a strong European discourse around ‘nature’, globally relayed on into colonial and neo-colonial situations, and through various coercive and persuasive techniques of producing and maintaining sex/gender,” argues Osella.
To encourage a fresh and broader outlook, she suggests turning the questions upside down and putting them to those who refuse, resist and fear gender neutrality.
“What is the worst that could happen? What are you actually afraid of? What stakes do you, personally, have in this game that you are afraid of giving up?” she concludes.