Gender Neutral or Gender Crucial?

Androgynous fashion in Charlottesville and beyond.

From the time most of us were born, expecting parents have received gifts of pink bibs in expectation of a girl and blue rattles for a boy. Despite ongoing discourse on the social construction of gender, as well as greater recognition of transgender, gender fluid and non-binary people, a social tradition continues to exist whereby expecting parents pop balloons filled with pink or blue confetti, simply to reveal the perceived gender of their little one.

Now, I know what you must be thinking – based on her tone, this girl is about to tell me that I am a bad person if my mom dressed me in pink pajamas or if I secretly stalk cute gender reveal videos on Instagram! Cat’s out of the bag, guilty as charged – I, Aidan McWeeney, do in fact watch those videos for hours, smoothly transitioning to “cutest proposal ever!” videos, and then naturally progressing to “cutest wedding ever!” videos. Let’s be real, once you enter YouTube’s archive, you’re as good as done for the day.

An exploration of non-gendered clothing is not to suggest that everyone should dress androgynously, but simply to demonstrate that gender-neutral fashion has different meanings and motivations. Whether actively exhibited or passively worn, there is no doubt that gender-neutrality is becoming more relevant in day-to-day wear, as well as within the retail industry.

Fashion – including both streetwear and designer clothing – has become more androgynous, and I am curious why. Among my own ideas, I reached out to loyal followers via Instagram gauging what gender-neutral fashion means to them, and received interesting feedback. (Correction: mostly loyal – sorry guys, but only 17 out of roughly 250 viewers replied to my plea for opinions. I’ll be honest I’m concerned what that says about my ratio and profile presence, but hey, social media insecurity can be broached another time.) The anonymous responses come from both male and female college-aged individuals; some are included below and edited for clarity.

What are your general thoughts on gender-neutral fashion?

“Love the idea of gender neutral fashion!! Nowadays, gender fluidity is becoming more recognized by major brands. The fact that a woman can wear something that is traditionally considered ‘masculine’ is amazing. Gender norms are slowly but surely becoming a thing of the past…hopefully lol”
“I typically wear gender neutral clothing (jeans, t-shirts, sweatshirts, sneakers), although I don’t tend to think about it. I choose what’s most comfortable and it happens to be gender neutral. With that said, past the category of ‘casual clothing,’ gender neutral clothing is limited. Women do have the option to wear pantsuits or jumpsuits, but they are typically expected to wear skirts and dresses (while men can remain in comfortable wear).”
“Thoughts on gender neutral fashion are that I love it – it give us, as agents of culture, a way to shift society’s expectations away from heteronormative views and actively blur the lines between restrictive gender roles.”
“I love it when it’s athletic wear. I think wearing it is empowering and equalizing for women and men…I think a major brand that encompasses gender neutral clothing is Champion. And definitely a trend I think [gender-neutral clothing].”
“As long as it includes male rompers!”
“I’m a male body, but I wear more feminine clothing – long, flow-y shirts and jackets, a lot of floral patterns. I call this gender-neutral because by wearing the ‘opposite’ clothes, I think I neutralize them.”
“Pantsuits for all!!!”
“Why does fashion have to be gendered to begin with? Especially like glasses and belts that have specific gendered sections on websites like for no reason. What makes a belt feminine or masculine?”
 “Flannel button downs are my new favorite things.”

Why do you wear gender-neutral clothing?

 “I think because it’s not girly and it doesn’t make me look like a boy either is why I like it. I like clothes that are comfortable but also fit a bunch of different functions from work to dinner to going out. I’m simple and don’t spend much time on fashion.”
“Yesss! That’s such an LA thing lol. I definitely do [wear gender-neutral clothing] sometimes; Champion sweaters and sneaks (Adidas, Converse) are good examples.”
“Mom jeans!!!!!! ‘Elio jeans’” (Call Me By Your Name film reference – get hip, people!)
“I like pushing people’s ideas of normal. There’s a lot of value in pushing the envelope and dressing outside the norm – it makes people rethink gender, at least a little bit, and ultimately leads more people to be more accepting.”
“I’ve always been super feminine in my expression and I’m trying to branch out. I’ve decided I really like wearing baggy and slightly oversized clothes because they’re very comfortable.”
“I like that it moves away from the gender binary and highlights similarities between people.”

In sifting through my own closet, I realized that roughly half my wardrobe consists of androgynous pieces. Graphic t-shirts, pants and joggers, flannels, jean jackets or sneakers are all pieces which have recently begun to blur the line between women/men categories. Some mornings, I even question my own outfit choices, asking myself: “Do I look like a boy?” That internal question is then followed up with, “Does it matter?” I usually opt to go with my gut and keep my original “fit lookin” fly. Yet, the implication of that question lingers. What you see is what people judge you by – contrary to the idea that “what is on the inside” matters. As pessimistic and unfortunate as it seems, outer appearance weighs heavily in our society. Why else would there be dress codes? With this in mind, dressing unalike to one’s perceived gender establishes social tension, and perhaps even welcomes hate or negative behavior.

I reached out to a friend, Zach Schauffler, whose simultaneously bold and chill fashion choices I admired during a class we shared last semester. With regard to his general thoughts on the subject, he said, “I do actively break those gender norms, and I think of it as kind of like neutralizing the concept of gender, and to say that’s not a man’s thing or a woman’s thing, just thing I could wear if I want to and it looks nice.”

“So, in the pictures you took of what I’m wearing now,” Zach continued, “almost definitely a women’s jacket, certainly women’s pants, pretty uncertain shirt. But I saw each of these items and was like ‘that looks cool and I want to wear that.’ And for me it feels liberating.”

Another friend I interviewed, Maya Silverman, is from San Francisco, and grew up heavily influenced by Bay Area culture, known for important contributions to the hip-hop community. Maya expressed how the transition from a more experimental and flexible environment to U.Va. was challenging. “People treat me differently depending on what I’m wearing, even my friends who don’t even realize they’re doing it,” she said. “For someone to be emboldened to speak out about what someone wears is mind-boggling.”

When I asked Zach about his experience in Charlottesville, he contended, “I think just most spaces are going to be negative spaces for that in a general population, preferences and ideas. I think that it’s a great environment to carve out that space though, on grounds, at U.Va., in Charlottesville.”

He told me he had thought about this before. “This is the most accepting environment I’ll be in for a long time because after this it’s a real world where there’s a ton of people doing their own thing. Here it’s like young people, relatively open-minded. I think that space can be created. No one’s ever called me a mean name…” He paused and we both laughed, “which is nice because that won’t always happen.”

In reality, clothing shouldn’t be social capital, but should be an outlet for personal self-expression. While gender-neutral clothing has become somewhat of a trend in the past several seasons, it is far from a new phenomenon. People have defied gender norms by simply wearing what they feel like wearing – be it Adidas shorts and Nike Airs, a colorful and patterned suit ensemble, or cargo pants paired with a button-down and a jean jacket.

I think it is also important to remember that just because someone partakes in wearing androgynous pieces, doesn’t mean that someone has to be a non-conformist all of the time. The beautiful thing about gender-neutral clothing is that it can be a complete rejection and subversion of one’s own gender or it can be totally androgynous in rejection of the idea of gender altogether.

Maya wears androgynous clothing because as she says, “Streetwear is fly and comfortable. I’m always cold but also want to look put together, and since I’m walking to school every day, it’s the best way to go.” Above all, she emphasized, “I just dress how I want to.” While that advice may seem overtly obvious or redundant, in a time where photos and advertisements on social media dominate what we consume, and as cropped and edited images over-saturate our online communities, it serves as a good reminder that authenticity is paramount.

When I asked Zach about what he looks for in what to wear, he said, “Umm, big flower boy. So when I’m shopping around and I see something with cool patterns, nice colors, I try to grab it whatever the section may be. That’s definitely something I’ve always liked, but haven’t always acted upon, I think because there’s the perception that ‘flowers are for girls,’ but I just kind of like going purely based off my own preferences, which has led me towards that gender-neutral area.”

Self-proclaimed “big flower boy” pictured above, Zach punctuated a description of his style with, “when I wear fun stuff like this, I just feel good – it’s a good feeling. I think that is a big power of gender-neutral fashion, it really makes people re-think ‘oh that’s a man, but he’s wearing a skirt’ or whatever it may be, and it makes them think ‘huh, I guess that is possible,’ and creates that possibility for yourself and for other people to re-imagine what fashion and gender could be.”

What is so wonderful about fashion is that it ebbs and flows, constantly changing, but generally always likely to return to a given trend or style that really gripped hold during one period or another. Take the ‘mom jean’ for example: originating in the late 1980s and at that time considered uncool (hence the label ‘mom’ – sorry moms, we still love you), they are now taking the young women’s and even men’s retail markets by storm. Likewise, joggers are another style of pant that have been popular for both men and women. The two aforementioned styles of pant have one thing in common, and that is comfort. These new styles give options, which allow women to not only play with shape and style, but also avoid the inevitability of having to show off one’s figure. Conversely, men’s pants, jeans and suit-pants have become tighter or more tailored, reversing a standard wide-cut leg for men.

So, the nuts and bolts of specific pieces of clothing for both men and women have changed, demonstrating a shift in either gender-neutral or gender-opposing directions. What does this mean for the industry on the whole? Is gender-neutral clothing a trend or a new standard the industry will uphold? Maybe it will become a standard in the sense that men and women won’t have to choose between strictly designed and categorized pieces. However, that is not to say that there isn’t power and enjoyment in owning typically engendered looks like classic little black dresses or crisp tuxedos. I suppose the nuance lies in that while it is wonderful to accept and assume normative roles of gender, they should be open to question and challenge. Furthermore, when challenged, everywhere should be a safe space to do so.

I guess all I’m saying is that people should probably fake out their families and pop a gender reveal balloon full of yellow confetti. Surprise!

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