How to Style Skirts: The Gender-Free Approach

How to Style Skirts: The Gender-Free Approach

by Sonja Pinto - January 2023

In the last few years, we’ve seen slightly more representation in the media of skirts being worn in non-traditional ways. 2022 runway shows saw brands like Telfar, Charles Jeffrey Loverboy, and Eckhaus Latta take a gender-fluid/gender-neutral approach to their clothing, and celebrities like Harry Styles have been styled wearing skirts in editorials for Vogue. No matter your gender expression from androgynous to masculine to feminine, or even if clothing has nothing to do with your gender expression or identity, there’s a way to style skirts that will work for you.

Unlearn That Skirts Have a Gender

According to Jimmy Phung, top graduate of the Fashion Business and Design program at John Casablancas Institute, “the biggest challenge when designing or styling skirts in a gender non-conforming way is challenging connotations and preconceived notions on gender.”

The idea of skirts as a feminine item of clothing is so ingrained in our culture that many people may immediately recoil at the thought of wearing a skirt. I, too, have had conflicting feelings about wearing them throughout my life, deeming them too “girly,” too fancy.

Despite its long history of genderless wear, the skirt has garnered a particularly gendered reputation as a feminine item of clothing in recent history in part because of colonization. European developments in fashion up to 1900 created skirts that “enlarge[ed] women’s hips and posterior” (Toulalan and Fisher, 2013, p. 195) to create an exaggerated silhouette for women.

The skirt’s symbolization of femininity is a modern construct, one that doesn’t have inherently gendered value to it. Yet most clothing advertisements and mainstream fashion advice—already strictly divided into two cisgender categories—rarely speak of skirts beyond the language of womenswear. This can leave non binary and transgender folks—or anyone who believes that clothes are gender-free—alienated from wearing them.

Jimmy explains that “our current fashion is highly influenced by Western and European ideals—and notably Beau Brummell from the late 1700s to mid 1800s. However, if we look at other cultures outside of North America and Europe, men are wearing skirts, dresses and robes. Take for example the sarong from Indonesia, the hakama from Japan, and the sherwani from India. In fact, Ancient Egyptian men wore shorter skirts called schentis and Ancient Greek men wore robes called himations.”

To Jimmy, “skirts and dresses allow [him] to have a quiet rebellion” against these modern notions:

“I became interested in gender-free/gender-neutral fashion as a form of rebellion and exploration. I have always felt reprimanded for being more ‘feminine’ - behaviourally, physically, mentally, and for the things that I like. As a result, my feminine traits became my insecurities and qualities that I would try to mask. However, I knew that these feelings would not subside and so fashion became an outlet for me to indulge them, to explore these topics, to experiment with my identity, and just to be a little badass."

Jimmy Phung models dresses and skirts with accessories
Photos: Creative Direction: Chris Ho & Alexa Tarrayo. Photography: Chris Ho. Styling, MU, Hair, & Model: Jimmy Phung.

"Designing/styling gender neutrally is a way for me to explore and challenge gender, but it is also a way to promote diversity and inclusion. Representation is important, especially for anyone who has felt othered. If we can show people that they are thought of, are accepted, and that they exist, then I think the world would be a better place. It is about creating open-mindedness and respect - we do not have to all like the same things, but we should be able to acknowledge and accept each other.”

Look for Brands That Prioritize Gender-Free Design for Skirts

Though no piece of clothing is inherently gendered, it can be helpful to look for brands that design skirts with gender neutrality/fluidity in mind. There might be barriers to finding a skirt that works for you. Many mainstream clothing brands have limited sizing options and marketing that only targets a certain demographic.

One benefit of finding brands that create gender-free clothing is that designers bring their personal experiences to their brands that make skirts accessible to those who may not otherwise find pieces that work for them. These experiences can shape the design philosophy of a brand. I spoke to two founders of gender-free clothing brands, Official Rebrand and Mx Apparel Design, about how their brands came to be.

MI Leggett, Founder and Creative Director of Official Rebrand, shares that their gender-free clothing brand grew out of their own journey of creative self expression. As a kid, MI would style items from his grandmother’s closet and fabricate clothing from scraps of fabric and newspapers as they learned how to sew. “I started [this work] as a way to make myself feel comfortable and embodied [in my clothes],” says MI. “Official Rebrand is about rebranding yourself and how the fluidity of materials and the fluidity of identity are linked … we should all have agency to be who we want to be.”

Two models embracing, one wearing a white skirt with black stripes and the other a denim skirt, both models wearing denim tops with white painted designs.
Tommy Blackwell and Casil McArthur by Satchel Lee for Official Rebrand.

Official Rebrand takes gender-free clothing design to another level by repurposing and upcycling fabric. Many of Official Rebrand’s pieces feature painted or drawn designs and patterns. For MI, painting helped them figure out “how to make the clothes feel truly [theirs].”

Models wearing skirts for gender-free label Official Rebrand
Left Photo : Cory Walker by Jordan Trey for Official Rebrand.
Right Photo 2: Mar Chan for Official Rebrand.

When it comes to skirts, MI understands firsthand how difficult it can be to style them, especially for non-binary people like themselves: “I am still very hesitant to wear skirts sometimes, I absolutely love them and I think they’re such a great, comfortable garment and look really nice. There’s unlimited ways you can [wear] one and they’re easier to make compared to pants. Yet I still feel hesitant to wear them because I don’t like being misgendered.”

Official Rebrand was born out of MI’s quest to make clothing that affirmed their non-binary identity and their experimentation with painting on clothes: “I started painting on clothes for myself and my friends and then started posting pictures on Instagram and making it more formal. Then I basically started getting attention from customers and press through Instagram and that’s how it all started and brought me to New York.” 

I also talked to Maxine Britt, founder of gender-neutral brand Mx Apparel Design, about designing and styling gender-neutral skirts. Maxine says that gender-neutral design is not just about how clothing looks: “all genders are welcomed by the design and marketing of a garment. What the wearer assigns feminine or masculine is very personal. Within that, I think that there are a lot of different ways to experiment with proportions (i.e., cinching the waist or not, having a loose or fitted top, long or short top, long or short skirt, layering, etc.) that can expand your horizons in fashion. Skirts are very versatile and can fit into any aesthetic.”

Inclusivity is baked into the design philosophy of Mx Apparel Design. “Designing for all genders, and trans and non binary folks especially, means understanding the variety that exists in bodies, specifically in the chest, waist, and hip proportions. This means that clothes with stagnant dimension will likely work for a very limited number of people, and this is one way many gender-neutral lines fail. When I design skirts in particular, I think about creating flexibility in the waist and hip so that many different people can comfortably wear the garment,” Maxine explains.

Two models styled in black and grey midi wrap skirts with a side slit for genderless brand Mx Apparel Design

Photo Left: Shot by Joe Dammel, models Lucky and Virgil for Mx Apparel Design.
Photo Right: Shot by Jenna Poff, models Afton and Prance for Mx Apparel Design.

“When I design skirts, I try to think of styles that would fit into a range of presentations, meaning, someone who likes to dress in a masculine way might feel comfortable branching out, or someone who hasn’t worn skirts much wouldn’t feel intimidated. This means straighter silhouettes and cleaner lines, which are present in a lot of my work and represent my aesthetic as a designer.”

I asked Maxine to share how they incorporate skirts into their personal style. “For me, skirts are one of my favorite garments. Long skirts feel very dramatic and striking, which fits into my personal idea of femininity and sense of self.”

Now that we’ve covered some history and design philosophy about skirts, let’s breakdown a few key tips for styling skirts.

Five Practical Tips to Help You Style Skirts

1. Define your personal style

    The point of gender-free style is to find your one-of-a-kind aesthetic. When it comes to personal style, honing in your clothing and beauty preferences will help you achieve your desired look.

    What is it that makes you feel the most comfortable? The most authentic? If you’re stuck, this may mean coming up with a few words to capture the essence of your style. A personal style that defines itself as elegant, refined, and colourful will style a skirt much differently than one that defines itself as edgy, maximalist, and whimsical.

    Your personal style will likely be affected by your sense of self including (but not limited to) your gender identity regardless of if you are cisgender, genderqueer, or any other gender identity. Because of their traditionally feminine associations, skirts can be gender affirming for trans women and transfeminine folks but cause dysphoria for others. But some folks whose identity doesn’t align with femininity may also enjoy wearing them. Point is—skirts can be worn by anyone regardless of their gender identity, you just have to experiment until you find a way you enjoy!

    As MI puts it, “I like to think of everything as being gender free, but I also think that [you can wear] things that signal specific gendered things and mix them together. I love to clash feminine and masculine things together to try to make something different and something new. At the end of the day, it’s really not what you wear but how you wear it.”

    Of course, your personal style may fluctuate or you may love trying different aesthetics every day. If you’re stuck, ask yourself questions like what gives me gender euphoria? What outfits have me grinning and staring at myself in the mirror for an embarrassing amount of time? That’s the feeling we’re looking for.

    2. Consider the context where you’ll be wearing your skirt

    If you’re new to styling skirts, finding a piece that resembles existing clothes in your closet will help you integrate it into your wardrobe. If you like casual sportswear, you may be more comfortable wearing a cotton sweatpant-style skirt whereas someone with a more preppy aesthetic may prefer plaid.

    “Incorporating skirts and dresses into your wardrobe can be easy,” Jimmy certifies. “It is about finding items that are familiar so that it is not intimidating. Look for skirts, dresses, and robes that are rectangular for an androgynous silhouette. Buy familiar colours like brown, black, and army green. You also do not have to go pantless underneath if that is out of your comfort zone.”

    MI echoes this sentiment, suggesting pants such as jeans to be layered underneath a skirt.

    Keeping your environment in mind will help you feel more comfortable when you’re out and about. Consider where you’d like to wear your skirt. An evening look for a night on the town will have fewer limitations than office-friendly outfits. Will you be attending drag brunch? Heading into the office? Catching a movie with friends?

    Some settings, like office environments, might have restrictions like dress codes. For styling a skirt as workwear, choose longer lengths and neutral or less saturated colours. For a beginner-friendly office look, try putting a spin on the classic white dress shirt and black slacks combo by swapping out the bottoms with a simple long black skirt. As you grow more comfortable wearing skirts to the office, build on this outfit template by experimenting with different skirt colours and patterns.

    If you attend a school that doesn’t have a mandatory uniform, you may feel challenged to style a skirt without looking overdressed. For a casual school outfit, pair any skirt with a pair of sneakers and a neutral-coloured t-shirt.

    When going out with friends, this is your chance to experiment with styles that may not be acceptable in a professional setting or at school. I suggest picking a skirt that you’re interested in wearing and styling the rest of your outfit around that piece and curated to the occasion. For example, if you’re celebrating a friend’s birthday, you can dress your skirt up by adding knee-length boots or heels and jewelry to make the look special.

    If you live in a colder climate, you may need to layer tights, leggings, or pants under your skirt to stay warm. Black tights are always a safe way to go, but try matching the colour of your tights to one of the colours in your outfit for a fun coordinated moment.

     3. Don’t neglect the material

    When selecting or buying a skirt to style, don’t be afraid to venture away from materials like cotton and polyester when choosing your skirt. Different materials will affect things like volume and texture in your outfit. The kinds of textures, colours, and patterns that you choose will impact the kind of look you produce dramatically. If you’re feeling uninspired, try out different kinds of materials: denim, silk, leather, and wool will create a rich base for the rest of the outfit.

    “One thing that looks cool is when you have [your clothes] match so it looks like a suit or almost a dress,” MI advises.

    Another material consideration to ponder is texture. Try experimenting with pleats, ruffles, knits, and corduroy to add depth and complexity to your outfit. You may even play with transparency and sheerness to create a look that reveals more skin. One of my favourite ways to style a sheer skirt is to layer it over a black bodysuit and add a leather waist harness underneath to subtly show a gleam of metal beneath the skirt.

    Close up of skirt materials
    Photos by Sonja Pinto.

    Pleated materials create dynamic movement for skirts. Often, they are light and swishy. A popular example of a pleated skirt is the high-waisted mid-thigh skirt. You can dress this skirt up or down depending on the occasion.

    Denim is a great everyday material and one that is also great for beginners. If you’re used to wearing jeans in your day-to-day clothes, denim is a great starting point because you can just wear it with any outfit that you’d normally wear with jeans. Denim is versatile, comfortable, and stylish.

    Subtle and understated, corduroy is an easy texture to integrate into an outfit. This is another great texture to start with if you’re new to skirts as many people already own corduroy pants. Pick a corduroy skirt in a solid colour for a great layering piece.

    Choosing a luxurious material like velvet will elevate the skirt and add a decadent feel to your outfit. Choose this material for special occasions like formal dinners, dances, and weddings. (Or wear it in an everyday look if it speaks to you)

    4. Select your desired shapes and silhouettes

      Pay attention to shapes and lengths: your desired silhouette might be boxy or form-fitting, tight or loose, voluminous or sleek, short or long. If you’ve tried to wear skirts in the past and didn’t like the result, chances are that the silhouette it created wasn’t for you.

      If you want to create a silhouette that minimizes the look of curves, try combining a skirt that sits at the widest part of your hips with a boxy t-shirt or sweater. This will create a very relaxed and casual silhouette.

      To play with your body’s curvature, Jimmy suggests trying A-line skirts, which are “fitted at the waist and widen at the hems like a capital ‘A.’ They come in various lengths from mini to maxi [and] they can create an hourglass shape and can slim down the figure simultaneously.” Pair an A-line skirt with a slim-fitting top to amplify this hourglass effect.

      Of course, you can play around with these proportions to find a silhouette or shape that makes you happy—you can combine baggy and tight or form-fitting and oversized to find a style in between.

      Try creating a complex silhouette by adding layers on top of your base top and bottom pieces. For example, adding a blazer to your outfit will create a boxy silhouette even if you have tighter-fitting pieces underneath.

      Here’s Maxine’s recommendation: “I do also think about the body and what shapes are being created on it, and how this can be helpful to people in terms of gender and dysphoria. There are ways to emphasize or deemphasize the hips that I like exploring in terms of color blocking.”

      5. Build layers around your piece

      To really make the look reflect your personality and gender identity, styling a skirt doesn’t end with clothing. Refine the aesthetic of your outfit with accessories like belts, chains, bags, rings, and sneakers. For example, you might add chunky jewelry like signet rings and stainless-steel chains to finish your look.

      Feel like your outfit is missing something? Add a pair of colourful or dangly earrings for more personality or keep it simple with silver or gold studs. Or pick a bag with a contrasting colour. Small additions can make a big difference!

      Even layering items like button-downs, t-shirts, or pants underneath will add personality to your look. For example, try adding solid tights or fishnets underneath your skirt.

      One of my personal favourite ways to easily incorporate an accessory into my outfit is by adding chunky chains to a basic look. I often lean on a simple all-black jeans and sweater when I can’t figure out what to wear, so adding this metallic pop creates more visual detail to an outfit.

      The key to feeling the most comfortable in a skirt is to choose accessories that make you feel like you.

      These tips are meant as a guide, but in the end it’s your personal style and comfort that will determine how you style a skirt. A final word of advice: don’t be afraid to experiment. It might take a while to find the right skirt for you, especially if they’re outside of your comfort zone.

      How will you try styling a skirt? If you try any of these tips, tag us in your looks at @offbinary on Instagram.


      Sarah Toulalan and Kate Fisher, The Routledge History of Sex and the Body: 1500 to the Present, Routledge, 2013, p. 195.

      Sonja Pinto (they/she) is a writer and founder of BlockPrint Writing living and working on unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) territories also known as Vancouver, Canada.