Non-Binary Fashion in the (Still) Binary Industry

Non-Binary Fashion in the (Still) Binary Industry

by Nikola Marković - February 2023

The gender-fluid movement has shaken the mainstream fashion. Several new brands and designers are pushing forward clothing designed to liberate people from the binary. These younger brands and designers are noticeably inclusive and have innovative approaches to inclusive, post-gender fashion. However, for the more established conglomerates of the fashion industry, it is hard to replicate this post-gender authenticity. These brands don’t want to risk looking dated but are also conflicted about letting go of the traditional ideas of ‘menswear’ and ‘womenswear’. This is mainly because the core pillars of the fashion industry are still cemented in the gender binary. In this article, we will dissect the fashion industry’s binary pillars, investigate the myths behind fashion’s reliance on gender, and explore the right path to fashion that is free from the gender binary.

The Four Pillars of the Binary Fashion Industry

We will start our investigation by dissecting the four pillars that make fashion still quite binary: sizing, retail, the fashion weeks & the modelling industry, and fashion education. For each pillar, we will point out its shortcomings and challenges, and showcase some emerging best practices.

The Sizing

Sizing and fit are one of the most significant challenges when it comes to inclusive fashion. Up until the middle of the 1700s, before the demand for mass production of clothing rose, all clothing was hand-sewn and custom-made for an individual’s body size and shape. With the mass production of clothes, problems in sizing sparked. This was also the time when clothes became increasingly gendered.

In their book, ‘Anthropometry, apparel sizing and design’ Deepti Gupta and Norsaadah Zakaria mention that most fashion companies/designers have very little knowledge of the principles of anthropometry which is the science that defines physical measures of body size, shape, and functional capacities. The authors state that most companies use proportional pattern grading, which is a system of turning a base size into additional smaller or larger sizes, while not changing the original shape. This cutting system uses a computer-generated formula based on a ’normal’ or ’average’ male or female, and assumes that all bodies are the same shape, only differ in size. In fact, it presumes that there are only two shapes – male and female. That is perhaps why many labels fail to understand the differences between the shape, size, strength, activities, and psychological requirements of various divergent groups.

The solution to sizing is not simple. However, some of the emerging brands tackle this problem in different ways. One example is GFW (Gender Free World Clothing). GFW offers different styles of shirts based on customers’ body shape. On their website, they offer their ‘shirt sizing guide’, with a quick measurement calculator and a short video explaining the difference between the shapes. Alex sizes are the right choice for customers with pear-shaped bodies whose lower half is about 2 sizes bigger than your upper. Charlie sizes are made for those who describe their figure as apple-shaped and have similar proportioned hips and shoulders, while Billie sizes are made to accommodate a larger bust.

Another example is an NYC-based label Denim 1822 that decided to break the rules on traditional sizing methods by scanning customers’ bodies to intricately match them to their adequate fit and size. On their website, they say that the jeans are "designed to empower and flatter with no gapping in the waist," understanding that each body is unique with its own shape and individual proportions. Therefore, they offer sizes ranging from 00 to 24W and over 100 different styles of jeans, including skinny, curvy, plus, petite, and maternity.

Fran Dunaway from an inclusive label TomboyX brings real customers in and measures different body types of all the different genders. “We spend a good six months back and forth with our pattern maker, bringing real people in of varying sizes, and then tweaking the designs,” said Dunaway for Select. "It turns out if you get the fit and the quality right and you use the right fabrics, it works for any body and every body.”

The Retail

Another major issue when it comes to the gender binary is retail. Traditionally, the layout of retail stores is split up by gender. There are different gendered areas of the store and items available in each area are strictly either male or female. This is also adopted to the online shopping experience in which the navigation, sizing, images, and descriptions are all bounded by gender.

Creating a male/female divide in clothing based on cis-gender categories is a technique that stores are using to accomplish sales goals, but the changing demand and customer profile are forcing stores into rethinking their traditional practices. In 2016, a YouGov poll found that only 2% of 18-24-year-olds define themselves as totally masculine, compared to 56% of men that are 65 years old or older. Similarly, the research by J Walter Thompson showed that only 44% of Gen Z, and 54% of millennials exclusively buy clothes designed for their gender.

Luckily, there are a few retailers who are already operating in more gender-free spaces. In 2015, British department store Selfridges created its agender pop-up department that aims to offer people the freedom to choose what to wear irrespective of gender. Browns opened its Browns East store in Shoreditch in 2017 with the entire space designed for a genderless shopping experience. Multi-brand retailer Slowco has changed their womenswear and menswear categories to ‘femme’, ‘masc’ and ‘all’, which co-founder Faris Hamadeh says creates an expression-based shopping experience. Charles Jeffrey has reorganized his e-commerce site to be gender-free by allowing users to change the model who appears wearing the garments via a sliding scale.

These gender-free layouts and experiences not only encourage the discovery of new products and present multiple options to the customers, but also takes away the anxiety that a lot of shoppers face when being forced to navigate to sections that are strictly binary.

Fashion Weeks and Modeling Agencies

Fashion weeks and modeling agencies also play a big part on the prevalence of the gender binary in the fashion industry. There was no “unisex/nonbinary” category in the New York Fashion Week until it was added to the by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) during 2018. Similarly, London Fashion Week was a biannual event that was strictly separated along binary lines of menswear and womenswear until 2020.

These changes were a reaction to designers and labels bending the rules of gender binary during fashion shows. At first, brands started weaving men’s pre-collection looks into their womenswear runways, and vice-versa. This quickly escalated into a turn towards a single mixed presentation: a crossover between the men’s and women’s collections.

Prada was the first to mix its women’s and men’s collections in January 2017, followed by Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Lanvin, and others. Prada has also presented a record number of trans and non-binary models in its Spring/Summer 2023 show at Milan Fashion Week. These models included Polish non-binary actor and artist Alin Szewczyk; Greek trans influencer Katy Grammatikopoulou; Taira, a fashion columnist who writes frequently about the intersection between gender and beauty; a trans activist Bella Berghoef, and a Finnish writer and artist, Samu Happonen.

According to the “The Fashion Spot”, last season of fashion shows saw improvement when it comes to gender diversity, with New York leading the charge with 24 appearances, although spring 2019 still reigns as the most diverse season with 91 trans/non-binary appearances.

This reassuring tradition of casting trans/non-binary models started back with Bosnian-Australian model Andreja Pejić. Andreja started out as one of the first androgynous male models in the industry walking for major labels including Jean-Paul Gaultier and Marc Jacobs, before coming out as trans in 2014, and then making the history as the first trans model to front a major make-up campaign. Hari Nef walked the runway for the first time in 2015 during New York Fashion Week and then got signed by IMG Models as their first openly trans woman model. Indya Moore who worked with Gucci, Dior, and Telfar became the first trans and non-binary person of color to be on the cover of ELLE Magazine in June 2019. Hunter Schafer, prior to her role in HBO’s Euphoria, walked for some of the biggest fashion houses. All these models defied the binary nature of the modeling industry.

Although ’traditional’ modeling agencies that comply with the gender binary are still prevailing, there has been several agencies welcoming diversity in terms of gender, shape, size, color, age, or ability. A Melbourne-based AliceD agency that works with clients including Adidas, Gucci, H & M and Nike is one of the first to completely remove gender categories. A South African modeling agency ‘My Friend Ned’ created a non-binary division in their agency to help cater to non-binary people who may otherwise struggle to situate themselves on the market. Some other names of the modeling agencies that have stepped towards greater inclusivity are Slay Models, Zebedee, Anti-Agency, Revolt Model Agency, We Speak Models, Crumb, Wimp, etc.

The Fashion Education

A lot of the fashion’s struggles with gender inclusivity starts with the binary education that the designers receive. In their curriculum, institutions that are generating young talent to the fashion industry mostly focus on the two specializations – menswear and womenswear. Even when they allow space for bending, the two male and female categories are rarely questioned. In an op-ed, Ben Barry, Associate Professor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Ryerson University says: “Most students successfully graduate fashion school without ever attempting to design clothing for a body that isn’t thin, let alone non-binary or disabled,”.  He adds that most of the resources and technologies available in fashion classrooms reflect the industry’s standardization of bodies, like the mannequin, used for fitting the binary.

New generations of students are awfully dissatisfied with binary options imposed on them by the fashion system. In the Futuress’ article ‘A Fashion Degree in Humanswear?’, Diana Canghizer talks about the growing number of students who plan to graduate with gender-neutral collections. However, Diana mentions that the templates readily available in pattern-cutting ateliers are limited to only womenswear and menswear. This shows that in order not to discourage/disadvantage the prominent wave of creatives who operate outside the binary, universities should find a way to integrate gender-neutral patterns as a standard.

A good example of how to enhance the fashion educational system was presented by Romanian-born, London-trained fashion designer Corneliu Dinu Bodiciu, in his paper ‘Dissolving Gender in Fashion Design Education’. Back in 2017, he was taking part in the restructuring of the curriculum at Lasalle College of Arts in Singapore, where the two pillars of the curriculum (womenswear and menswear) were replaced with a new framework emphasizing the diversity of techniques. Rather than teaching industrial protocols, this new pedagogy focuses on creative skills. Bodiciu states that ‘‘disposing both tailoring and draping from the classically charged gendered perspectives allows students to openly investigate the body (…)’’

Myths Behind Fashion’s Reliance on Gender

As we can deduct from all four chapters, the fashion industry’s reliance upon the gender binary is deeply rooted. To explain this reliance, the argument of ‘natural’, ‘biological’ sexes has been perpetually swindled. But there are two myths that need to be unraveled here: firstly, that there are only two sexes; and secondly, that the differences in sexes are more extreme than some other bodily differences.

Historically, sex has been understood as the biological components like chromosomes, gonads, hormones, internal reproductive systems, external genitals, and according to some research – the brain, which all establish maleness and femaleness. But it was long known that some people blur the boundary, with their sex chromosomes saying one thing, while their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another. In recent decades many biologists have challenged these presumptions, indicating that there is a larger spectrum than just binary female and male.

One of the most prominent authors, Anne Fausto-Sterling, advocates that the ‘two-sex model’ of humans either being female or male is far from factual. Fausto-Sterling additionally asserts in her book ‘Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality’ that complete maleness and complete femaleness represent the extreme ends of a spectrum of body types. Furthermore, intersex people who possess a wide range of biological sex variations that include chromosomes, hormones, and primary or secondary sex characteristics, demonstrate that sex, much like gender, is far from linear and binary.

Moreover, bodies, regardless of their ‘biological’ sexes, drastically vary in their shapes and proportions. But the fashion system seems to capitalize on the differences between sexes and overlooks all the other differences. The spectra of body variations are completely ignored. When I talked to my partner, he admitted to always having what culturally would be described as a ‘feminine’ lower abdomen. A very thin waist and wider hips meant never properly fitting into traditional men’s trousers or jeans. Similarly, even though I was assigned male at birth, in my puberty I started growing breasts, which was part of my genetically transmitted gynecomastia. I do identify as non-binary, but both my father and grandfather lived all their life as cis men with enlarged breasts. Our bodies neither fit into the culturally defined category of ‘maleness’ nor into most garments found in ‘menswear’ sections. A significant part of the people I talked to, including cis-men or cis-women shared similar stories.

Arguably, the assumption that there are only two sexes and those differences are far greater than any other bodily difference seems to have caused fashion’s historical over-reliance on the sex/gender dichotomy. This system rooted in sex/gender binary not only fails to cater to the gender-diverse but every body.

The RIGHT Path to Fashion that is Free From the Gender Binary

Even though most fashion brands still design products exclusively through womenswear and menswear categories, in recent years, many brands have been tackling the representation of a wider diversity of bodies and identities. One caveat is that when mainstream brands catch the wave of post-genderism, they may get stuck at the surface of ‘queer aesthetics’ and fail to do the actual work of making their products accessible to marginalized groups. This may cause them to come across as inauthentic and be perceived as “queerbaiting”. For instance, we may see a brand featuring trans women in high heels in their campaign, although not selling high-heeled shoes that the majority of trans women can fit into. Camilla Pinto Luna and Denise Franca Barros argue in ‘Genderless Fashion: A (Still) Binary Market’, that essentially ‘genderless fashion market’ still reproduces the stereotypes of the binary perspective.

One of the initiatives that help to normalize gender inclusivity is increasing the visibility of trans and non-binary people in advertising campaigns and runways. “But it’s not just visibility,” says Paul Greenwood head of research and insight at “We Are Social”, for Vogue Business. “You need the right team and crew behind the camera, including photographers and makeup artists that understand those individuals’ needs and make them feel safe. If you’re making someone visible, you need policies in place to protect them afterwards.” Often brands filter inclusivity into tokenism. In “The Zoe Report”, Shelby Hyde, a fashion editor, defined tokenism as “filling a minority quota, or only being used as a symbol of diversity, rather than for the expansive point of view or unique thoughts [you] have to offer.” Ensuring full inclusion means hiring trans and non-binary people year-round and across all levels of a business – from design, advertisement, employment, leadership, and strategy.

Here, the fashion industry can look up to all the laudable practices mentioned. Creative directors at the helm of major houses could learn from TomboyX and GFW approaches to fit and sizing, and Charles Jeffrey, Harris Reed, Edward Crutchley, Eden Loweth, or Telfar Clemens’ holistic approaches to inclusion. Retailers can strive towards a genderless shopping experience presented by Browns, Stockmann, Slowco, or Ssense. Traditional modeling agencies can aspire to be more like AliceD, My Friend Ned’ or Zebedee, while all fashion weeks could take London’s or New York’s example to operate in a more gender-neutral mode. Fashion universities can use Bodiciu’s pedagogy as an example of how to restructure their curricula outside the binary.

As we have not seen a truly massive rethink of the fashion industry, fashion labels could take this momentum to reconsider how to nurture all differences and consider how their practices affect marginalized groups. The real hope is that the gender revolution, can go beyond a trend and radically revitalize the long-struggling fashion industry.


Deepti Gupta and Norsaadah Zakaria (2014) Anthropometry, apparel sizing and design. Sawston: Woodhead Publishing Limited.

Anne Fausto-Sterling (2000) Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

Camilla Pinto Luna & Denise Franca Barros (2019) Genderless Fashion: A (Still) Binary Market, Latin American Business Review, 20:3, 269-294, DOI: 10.1080/10978526.2019.1641412.

Corneliu Dinu Tudor Bodiciu (2020) Dissolving Gender in Fashion Design Education.

Chloe Chapin, Denise Nicole Green & Samuel Neuberg (2019) Research Report Exhibiting Gender: Exploring the Dynamic Relationships between Fashion, Gender, and Mannequins in Museum Display, Dress, 45:1, 75-88, DOI: 10.1080/03612112.2018.1551282.

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.