Is non binary fashion just a theoretical fantasy?

The gender issue is one of the major questions that has to be worked on nowadays. People are questioning the binary gender system in order for society to stop defining people based on rules that don’t necessarily fit with everyone’s personal identity. Well, fashion has always been one of the first way for one to express their identity which gives it a great importance in this cause. Charlotte is wondering if non binary fashion is something that can really exist or if we’re just fooling ourselves?

Illustration credits : Sara Andreasson.  Her website

Illustration credits : Sara Andreasson. Her website

Sunday evening, 11:56 pm. I’m scrolling through my instagram feed. Scrolling up and down until finally a family photo slides onto my screen. Now you have to know, being 19 years old, I am very far from starting a family of any kind, but something in this picture caught my interest. Two people happily embracing their child : all of it seemed pretty standard at first glance. But by the second time I looked at the photo, I spotted the black tape on the man's naked breast - he taped off his nipples - the girl's pink hair and the mother's bald head :  there was nothing on that photo that reminded me of the family type I was used to see or even of my own. These three people were a "queer" family. An interesting term. According to the online edition of the Oxford Dictionary, this includes all people whose "gender-specific identity (...) does not correspond to established notions of sexuality and gender", in short: all those whose identity differ from heteronormative forms. Curiously, I clicked my way through the Instagram profiles of this family from Monterey, California. I learnt that Emerson, the father, is transgender and Blue, the mother, non-binary. Another fancy term. Once again I asked Google : non-binary or gender-fluid means that one's gender identity takes place beyond male and female and does not conform to heteronormative social rules.

The gender theorist Judith Butler explains that external appearance as a way to express gender identity plays a very important role in this as it allows gender affirmation to become a public act. Hengameh Yaghoobifarah, a non-binary fashion blogger and journalist for Missy Magazine agrees: "Fashion is a tool for communication and an expression of identity, demarcation and belonging (...) it helps me to present myself in a way that makes me feel comfortable.” No surprise here: fashion has always been an echo to the zeitgeist and social trends. Nevertheless, the question remains, what does non-binary fashion look like at all? Intuitively, I immediately thought of quirky Tumblr girls, with colorful hair and even more colorful clothes. I thought of stereotypes of the LGBTQ+ movement that rub their socially non-compliant identity like a shining rainbow under everyone's nose. And yes, perhaps that is part of it. In general, however, non-binary fashion is majorly composed by a combination of female and male elements.

Gender fluid vs unisex

For Hengameh, non-binary fashion is as undefined as the term itself: it could mean "genderless or gender fluid". I especially encounter these contradictions when I search for non-gender-compliant fashion both on the net and on the streets. I see shaved heads, colored short hairstyles and facial piercings, as well as clothing designs that lack gender-defining characteristics. I see people who playfully switch between the binary sexes and those who prefer to show a complete neutrality by erasing any trace of gender.

However, this "suppression of gender" is often incorrectly seen as the only form that fashion has found to express a dynamic that’s different from the binary one. Though the vernacular defines and generalizes everything as unisex, it is actually not a synonym of genderfluid. “Unisex” merely describes the removal of all features that indicate the gender of a garment, while gender fluid means the change of genders or their combination.

Now, one might think that this non-binary fashion is of little relevance and that it only appeals to a small part of the population - well, an estimated 200,000 non-binary people live in Germany. However, this social change, which is also regarded as a megatrend, is often seen as the new "in" of the fashion industry. From major haute couture fashion houses like Gucci to fast fashion labels, everyone is fascinated by the gender issue. In March 2017, the multinational H&M, even launched its own unisex collection. "Borderless" convinced with its clean cuts, oversized silhouettes and major use of denim. The profit of the Swedish label in the period between March and May 2017 was 10% higher than the previous year according to Business of Fashion. Leading us to the conclusion that the unisex style is also appealing to the "average consumer" after all.

A matter of interpretation

Unlike unisex, gender-fluid fashion has not yet been able to take concrete roots in society. Perhaps because it differs too much from the heteronormative idea of the sexes. Perhaps because it is new unknown ground and therefore more frightening. And perhaps because it communicates something different, thus endangering the binary gender system, which is based on attractiveness, interpersonal appeal and sexual reproduction. Nevertheless, fashion designers are always trying to find the right balance between social acceptance, art and business.This includes the Korean designer Juun J, who has been running his gender-transcending initially men's fashion label since 1999. He skilfully combines feminine and masculine elements and detaches himself from physicality. Despite his progressive approach, he still remains within his comfort zone, and mostly plays with stereotypes: he exclusively uses male cuts with feminine details, but continues to create skirts for women, trousers for men. He is a good example of how non-binary fashion is always about one's own personal interpretation of social rules.

Just clothes in the end

Let’s back up to a week ago. I am standing in a beautifully furnished hotel room in Munich. My best friend is talking to me about her latest shopping trick : only buy trousers in the men's department. Why? Because they are so much more practical, featuring big pockets that allow you to carry anything ! And that makes me think of Blue, who sometimes feels like being more feminine, sometimes more masculine. "I like boy’s clothes, I like girl’s clothes,''she explains in a documentary video from Barcroft TV.

When you finally free yourself from all prejudices, it's all about the clothes in their original form. Clothes that protect and cover your body. Clothing for people. And really, it's all about the well-being in one's own skin and more than anything, feeling like you belong to a community.

by Charlotte Westphal, her instagram account & her blog