Is gender-neutral/ unisex the right term considering society and its toxic masculinity?


One subject that really stood out to me while researching unisex clothing companies as well as gender-neutral branding and design is the fact that basically speaking:

gender-neutral & unisex = masculine

In both product design, where I analysed based on the design of smartwatches, and branding, to also target the male species a more masculine approach was chosen with only (if ever) a hint of feminine attributes. In the smartwatch analysis, it was hinted upon that the reason for this lies in the society’s view on masculinity and the fragility of men’s perceived masculinity, with the fear of being categorised as homosexual. Although this blog post is not specifically focused on design, I want to analyse further into this topic and why most men have this opinion, as I feel like it is key to differentiate while designing a brand identity for a unisex clothing brand. The results of this research can further help within the steps of the brand identity design and will provide a foundation on which a targeted and therefore sustainable brand can be established. 

NOTE: As the topic of stereotypically male and female characteristics in design does not provide a lot of literature, I chose the fashion industry to showcase the concept of male vs female characteristics as it provided a much larger database of resources. Also, to simplify writing this blog post, I will be referring to stereotypically assigned male clothing as men’s or male clothing and stereotypically assigned female clothing as women’s or female clothing.

History of fashion and gendered clothing

If you go back in time, clothing that are nowadays seen as feminine also played a huge role in men’s fashion in history. Gowns were often used as a sign of power and status and indicated the role within society, with examples like tunics in Ancient Rome and metal armour skirts in Medieval Rome. The concept of trousers we know today started around about 800 AD with bifurcated (=two legged) clothing, “as a way of linking physicality and aggression with new European concepts of […] manliness […]”.  Here the concept of trousers as a sign of power was introduced and slowly started finding foot in the fashion industry. This gradual development held up until the 20th century, where babies of both genders wore dresses until boys turned seven and were then clothed with shorts. 

Examples of fashion within Ancient Rome: tunics worn by men

The symbol of male clothing

From this century onwards the fashion for men has not changed significantly compared to women’s fashion, that experienced a revolution especially in the 60s where women fought to be able to wear trousers in professional settings. It is said women wanted this as a sign of empowerment and physical freedom, as men were seen as more powerful than their female counterpart. The boxy shapes of men’s wear give the illusion of a more male physique and along with back then typically male assigned characteristics like strength, authority and credibility. This shift has not yet sparked the opposite men wearing clothes characteristically designed for women, but for what reason? Here I stumbled upon an interesting quote:

A woman wearing men’s clothes has elevated her status to a man’s, but a man wearing women’s clothes has downgraded his status to a woman’s.

Lim, Julie. n.d. Gendered clothing. Accessed January 12, 2022. https://www.juliehyunheelim.com/gendered-clothing/.

When I heard this, I have to admit I was shocked but also somehow not surprised as it summarises the problem of inequality still remaining between men and women. Unfortunately, despite remaining efforts on both male and female sides, the woman is still seen as the weaker counterpart and therefore men that have already established their status and masculinity, do not feel the need or even vehemently avoid any characteristic that could be identified as female as it would downgrade his status as a human. On a side note: interestingly with babies however, male assigned characteristics like strength and authority do not play a significant role yet, so therefore baby clothing is often provided gender-neutral. 

If a man wears a dress, he doesn’t seem strong, he seems “feminine,” which is often tied to a weaker, submissive character. A man cannot dress in a gown without their sexuality being questioned. You must be gay, trans, or anything else but a straight man. Because a man who likes wearing a skirt undermines the display of male power. But if you’re gay, it’s different because gay men aren’t “real” men since “real” men aren’t feminine.

Lim, Julie. n.d. Gendered clothing. Accessed January 12, 2022. https://www.juliehyunheelim.com/gendered-clothing/.

I found this paragraph in the article on gendered clothing by Julie Lim also particularly insightful as it combines what we have found out in previous blog posts with the fear of being viewed as a different sexuality with the power shift and inequality we discovered in this week’s blog post. Also, it combines the observations I have made in my personal life with comments like “no I can’t wear this pink hoodie, people would think I’m gay” or “this shirt has too many flowers on it, I don’t want to send the wrong message to other men”. However, some heterosexual men are trying to change this opinion men have been conditioned to think by dressing in stereotypically female assigned clothing. A famous example is Mark Bryans, a straight, married American man living in Germany who prefers to wear skirts and heels to work. He is known to combine his top half in male clothing and bottom half in female, e.g. button down shirts with a tie paired with pencil skirts and heels. Examples like this are important and on the rise in the current fashion industry and have ignited a new development and shift of gender-neutrality within society especially with the younger generations, like Gen Z that are known to counterfeit norms.

Mark Byrans showcasing his daily outfits with fluid gender boundaries in fashion

Gender-neutrality just a marketing tactic?

Many companies however have introduced unisex or gender-neutral clothing into their repertoires but have failed to recognise the fact that gender-neutral should include both typically male and female assigned clothing. Critics have therefore sparked the claims that this development within fashion is only a marketing tactic to sell men’s clothing to women. There still needs to be a significant change in the thinking of society and the gender structures we have built for society and up until then unisex and gender-neutral clothing will probably all follow this principle. Individuals like Mark Byrans and inspiring other men may be a beginning in the right direction, but it is said that for if to be “normal” for men to wear dresses and skirts, men’s dresses need to be established as their own category rather than male dresses “masquerading” as women’s dresses.

So, should you differentiate between unisex clothing for toxic masculine target groups vs. non-toxic?

As this article clearly showed society nowadays is not ready for male clothing to fully involve female fashion yet as the mindset altogether has to change. This post showed a heavy focus on the fashion industry but provided a great insight into the psychological reasons why unisex is often more male dominated both in terms of fashion and graphic design. It can also be translated within other sectors of design, with observations showing that males do not want to purchase female hygiene products due to the design of the packaging with the colours, typo and graphical elements. When designing a CI for a unisex fashion brand, you need to clearly indicate if the brand is meant for the mass public or rather a niche target group. For the masses, gender-neutral characteristics that involve more masculine attributes may be preferred, however if you are looking to target a more niche sector of men that do not accept the boundaries of male and female fashion, also more typically assigned female graphic elements as well as colours, typography and imagery can be used. The companies analysed in one of the previous blog posts also show this within their corporate identity. The more classic brands that provide clothing for the masses and a more classic and therefore often older target group, stick within the gender-neutral colour palette, but brands like Collusion that target the Generation Z, that are more open to fluid gender roles utilise both typically male and female graphical elements. 


Literature

Edwards, Lydia. 2021. Friday essay: will the perfect men’s dress ever exist – and would men wear it? November 4. Accessed January 12, 2022. https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-will-the-perfect-mens-dress-ever-exist-and-would-men-wear-it-170112.

Lim, Julie. n.d. Gendered clothing. Accessed January 12, 2022. https://www.juliehyunheelim.com/gendered-clothing/.

Riedl, Ann-Kathrin. 2021. Alle sprechen über geschlechtslose Mode, Mark Bryan lebt sie jeden Tag (auch im Büro). March 23. Accessed January 13, 2022. https://www.vogue.de/mode/artikel/mark-bryan-vogue-shooting.

Scrivener, Charlotte. 2021. Is gender-neutral clothing too masculine? December 24. Accessed January 12, 2022. https://glasgowguardian.co.uk/2021/12/24/is-gender-neutral-clothing-too-masculine/.


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