"Gender-Neutral Clothing?" Fashion and Post-Gender Terminology

"Gender-Neutral Clothing?" Fashion and Post-Gender Terminology

by Nikola Marković - January 2023

As we move towards this more fluid, post-gender world, it would be useful to have in mind that, just like gender itself is an unstable category, so are the terms that try to encapsulate it. 

Fashion and the Gender Revolution

I was 13 when my breasts started growing. I wouldn’t have felt so very startled and confused, but I was AMAB (assigned male at birth). I recall the simultaneous feelings of fear and empowerment; as if I was morphing in order to ‘become’. A year later, I was taken to a specialist who diagnosed me with gynecomastia —enlargement of breast tissue as a result of a hormone imbalance between estrogens and androgens. By that time, I had already sensed that I am gender nonconforming, but now my body, too, was embracing the in-betweenness.

However, as a Zillennial (the borderline generation born between 1993 and 1998), I had almost no representations of ‘non-binary’ around me, in the language, in the media, or in fashion. While I was waiting at the bus stop on my way to school, there was no Indya Moore in the advertisement for Louis Vuitton comforting me. Back then, the binary was suggested in every shop I tried to dress my queer non-binary sex/gender. The sections were strictly divided, both materially and symbolically. Strict ’male’ and ’female’ labels were attached to each piece of clothing, reflecting the terminological binary employed when describing fashion.

That is, until recent times, when we are witnessing something remarkable: the gender revolution has crawled its way up to the cultural mainstream and the fashion industry. Many people including celebrities, models, and designers are now publicly embracing fashion free from the gender binary. This change has opened many debates, both in the mainstream media and academic circles, on the adequate language (verbal and visual) to which the global fashion industry should be resorting when thriving for inclusivity and diversity.

The "Unisex Clothing"

The ongoing processes of the ‘neutralization’ – to neutralize fashion’s verbal and visual vocabulary from the gender binary is not the easiest task. The fashion industry has long relied on a strict binary with only occasional attempts to be neutralized. The retail’s answer to neutralization still largely remains as: ‘unisex clothing’. In fact, ’unisex’ was the first major term pushing towards some sort of neutrality in Western fashion.

As Jo Paoletti writes in her book Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution, unisex clothing was a sort of ’’baby-boomer corrective to the rigid gender stereotyping of the 1950s.’’ Originally, ‘unisex’ referred to clothes in ‘his ’n’ hers’ sections made to dress either sex, meaning that they could be worn interchangeably between men and women. This suggestion still supported and dressed the binary. Furthermore, within the “unisex” fashion, in practice, there was usually a lean toward one sex. The most common design solution was that menswear was appropriated and marketed as a unisex model.

If we look at the term’s origins, the prefix uni- itself derives from Latin unus, meaning one or single, which adds to the problematics of the term when we consider the concept of sexual monism that prevailed in cultural history. According to this notion, there was only ever one sex, while women (perhaps, as well as all the other genders) were understood as imperfect men, or as the absence of sex itself, which Luce Irigaray asserted in This Sex Which is Not One.

The Neutral Fashion: "Gender Neutral" and "Genderless"

Eventually, the ’unisex’ started to be used interchangeably with the newer ‘gender-neutral’ or "genderless", but those rarely managed to escape the same intrinsic bias. For example, Hoskins notices that ‘‘gender-neutral clothing always looks like men’s clothing... Why does the ‘gender-neutral’ body have to resemble that of an emaciated young boy?’’

If we needed to establish some nuanced difference: ‘unisex fashion’ approaches garments from the perspective of ergonomics, whereas ‘genderless fashion’ approaches garments from the perspective of identity politics. Where ‘unisex’ sees the bodies, ‘genderless fashion’ would ideally see a spectrum of identities, expressions, aesthetics, and meanings.

Diving deeper into what neutrality denotes in other contexts, one learns that it presupposes a dichotomy (or a binary) in which one acts neutral. In the legal sense, neutral status arises from the abstention of a state from all participation in a war between other states; or similarly, in philosophy, it is the tendency not to side in a physical or ideological conflict. Aesthetically, neutrality would assume a blend, monochromatic or achromatic, and somewhat minimalist outlook. Neutrality, it seems, is just not neutral enough.

However, although slowly in decline, both ‘unisex’ and ‘gender-neutral’ tail to today and are still being employed to signify a wide range of gender-bending or non-binary fashion. For instance, TomboyX’s designer Fran Dunaway resorts to ‘gender-neutral’ when referring to the undergarments made to fit ‘‘any body and every body". Telfar is embracing both ‘unisex’ and ‘genderless’ to describe clothes that are ‘horizontal, democratic, universal’.

A potential drawback of terms like ‘gender-neutral’ ‘genderless’ and ‘agender’ could be that they indicate only one part of the non-binary spectrum — ‘no-gender’. Many non-binary people, however, feel the opposite – a sort of abundance of gender, or at least simultaneous identification or expression of two or three different genders. According to Richards & Barker’s book Non-Binary Gender Identities: The language of Becoming, ‘non-binary’ is an umbrella term. Apart from including individuals who may identify as and/or express no gender (e.g., gender-neutral, non-gendered, agender, neuter, neutrois) the term non-binary also includes individuals who identify with two genders, a partial gender (demi boy/girl, pangender) an additional gender (third gender, other gender, pangender), a fluid gender (bigender, trigender, genderfluid, pangender) and/or a political and/or personal gender that disrupts the gender binary (genderfuck, genderqueer), as well as people who identify as trans.

"Androynous Clothing"

This brings us to androgynous clothing. Unlike ‘neutral’ approaches to fashion, ‘androgynous clothing/fashion’ is often a reverse of stereotypical dressing norms or a blend of female and male characteristics. Miriam Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘androgynous’ as having the characteristics or nature of both male and female, while defining, ‘genderless’ as lacking qualities typically associated with either sex. Looking at these definitions, androgynous and genderless seem to be polar opposites, the former implying the presence and the latter the absence of both male and female characteristics.

But looking at further definitions, both terms denote suitable to or for either sex. This tells us that terminology must be taken with certain historicity. Essentially, the terms’ movements and progressions are captured in their very meanings, so those which could initially be taken as the oppositions, end up at a very similar destination.

Androgyny historically kept reversing and resisting to gender binary. From Yves Saint Laurent‘s Le Smoking suit to Yohji Yamamoto’s gender-challenging designs, to a plethora of pop culture icons such as David Bowie, Grace Jones, Annie Lennox, Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, etc., ‘androgyn’ perpetually reinvigorated fashion in the last century.

"Gender Fluid Fashion"

Androgynous, along with previously mentioned ‘unisex’, ‘gender-neutral’ or ‘genderless’, is seemingly being replaced by ‘gender-fluid’. According to an analysis of yearly published books scanned by Google, gender-fluid is particularly more often used in recent years.

Since its first usage in 1992, the meaning of ‘gender-fluid’, as theorists point out, is still under construction. Broadly taken, ‘gender-fluid’ with regards to fashion is a mindset or approach to dressing in which any garment can be worn by any (shifting) gender. Instead of being a well-defined category of clothes, theoretically, any garment can be gender-fluid if a wearer decides so. Applied to design, it is a garment conceived to be a free-for-all and outside the binary gender boxes of cis women and cis men.

Today’s society already demands a more gender-fluid approach to fashion. According to research done in 2019 by Rob Smith of Phluid Project, 56 percent of GenZ customers already shopping outside their assigned gendered area. 

At the head of fluidity in fashion right now, non-binary designer Harris Reed is opening the first Fluid Demi-Couture Salon in London. “I fight for the beauty of fluidity,” proclaims Reed adding on their Instagram, “Growing a business in 2021 with sustainability in the forefront of what I create alongside Fluidity, Acceptance, and breaking down the old way of working in fashion and pushing for a new place where creatives don’t have to follow an unrealistic format.“ Designer Ludovic de Saint Sernin also designs fluid garments that break traditional notions of femininity and masculinity. “It fits in the gender-fluid world, but for me it’s more the idea of being the garment and being defined by the wearer.’’ 

Gender-fluid fashion, therefore, designates freedom and self-determination as its leading values, and instead of dismissing gender constructs in fashion, it romps and plays with them. “I don’t think we should take the gender out of fashion. Instead of ‘genderless’, there needs to be more of a fluidity of gender,’’  says Rae Hill for The Guardian, a non-binary designer creating lingerie beyond the binary. They also assert that we must move away from the ‘unisex look’ that strips all the creativity and fun out of gender.

Fashion and Postgenderism

For the designer Charles Jeffrey, creativity and fun with regards to gender are in full bloom and display. He refers to his clothes as being created for a ‘post-gender world’, in which an arbitrary and unnecessary limitation of gender on human potential is surpassed. Postgenderism itself is a social, political, and cultural movement, an offshoot of transhumanism, posthumanism, and futurism, advocating for why the erosion of binary gender will be liberatory. In a post-gender world, gender is not simply absent, but is rather free to permissively circulate and be played with. There is something carnivalesque and cerebral in Jeffrey’s approach to clothes – he is not being afraid of gender but honors its polysemy and exuberance along with its transgressive potential.

As we move toward this more fluid, post-gender world, it would be useful to have in mind that, just like gender itself is an unstable category, so are the terms that try to encapsulate it. They mean different things to different people at different times. We may try to visualize words in motion – as we might not be able to grasp them firmly, statically, or one-dimensionally. Some meanings and their articulations are changing so fast we can barely see their contours whereas others are in a slow and steady squirm. Some words are re-claimed, re-appropriated, re-imagined… The meaning itself is non-binary.


Jo B. Paoletti, Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution. Indiana University Press, 2015

Tansy E. Hoskins, Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion. Pluto Press, 2014

Sebastian Cordoba, Non-Binary Gender Identities: The Language of Becoming, Gender and Sexualities in Psychology.  Taylor & Francis, 2022  

Nikola Marković (they) is a non-binary Serbian artist, researcher, and writer currently based in Vienna. They are about to start their doctoral research at London College of Fashion. Previously they graduated in Fashion under the mentorship of Hussein Chalayan and Grace Wales Bonner. Their artistic practice and research aim at disrupting the binarities/hierarchies of gender, class, ability, and subject-object dualism.