Is Fashion’s Gender-Neutral Trend Really Just Butch Appropriation?

Fashion is currently surpassing androgyny and tending toward clothing that is genderless or gender-neutral. But what does it mean for women who have always eschewed doing that?
Publish date:
March 27, 2015
Ellen Page, fashion trends, Styleite, androgynous style, Gender Neutral

Recently, Styleite drew attention to an inspiring quip from your fave Ellen Page in this month’s Vogue Shape issue. “I used to feel this constant pressure to be more feminine; a quiet or sometimes not-so-quiet demand,” she said of her experience with fashion before publicly coming out last year. “You need to wear a dress or people will think you’re gay. Now I feel a sense of freedom in dressing, and I’m enjoying it so much.”

Ten years ago, however, she might not have experienced this same sartorial liberation after coming out as a lesbian. Fashion is currently surpassing androgyny and boyfriend jeans and tending toward clothing that is genderless or gender-neutral. Designers such as Rad Hourani, One DNA, 69 Worldwide, and of course JW Anderson — not to mention unisex retailers à la American Apparel — are just a few of the designers leading the movement.

For the most part, it seems like this couldn’t be anything other than positive. It’s led to an unprecedented increase in the visibility of trans models, not to mention fancier options for people who refuse to stick to one side of the gender binary, at least aesthetically. But what does it mean for women who have always eschewed doing that?

In a personal piece in The Guardian today, writer Sophie Wilkinson claims that all of us jumping on the gender-neutral bandwagon have “ruined” her wardrobe. While formerly Wilkinson’s “butch chic” aesthetic mixing printed shirts and queer-friendly subculture staples made her easily identifiable as queer, that code of recognition is being all effed up by today’s biggest trend. She writes:

“From gender-neutral style at JW Anderson to unisex shopping areas at Selfridges to next season’s Saint Laurent collection, what was once a queer-owned style has shifted to the mainstream, being appropriated by straight women to the point that it’s now impossible to infer a sexual orientation from the way a woman dresses.”

She continues:

“Stepping outside of sexuality, it’s an interesting shift for fashion. If lesbians and bisexual women dress butch, it’s not necessarily because they want to be boys, or deliberately to peacock for other women. They’re doing it because they don’t necessarily aspire to a supposed male ideal of what looks cute; they’re more interested in wearing what’s most comfortable to them, that or emulate ‘out’ model Freja Beha Erichsen in black tees, black jeans and biker jackets.”

I guess whether or not you think mainstream fashion is eating into the exclusivity of butch dress – the ability of minority sexualities to take pride in setting themselves apart — depends on why you get dressed in the first place. I certainly don’t think I dress with an eye to what boys think is cute, but who knows what my brain is telling me unconsciously. I am one of those women who has always preferred men’s shoes and trousers to skirts and heels, however I cannot deny that I want to look as much like Freja Beha Erichsen as mortally possible.

There’s also the debate about whether gender-neutrality is just a fashion trend or linked to a cultural movement in general. For reasons of increased inclusivity and diversity, we hope it’s the latter, but that probably remains to be seen. Sex in the traditional feminine sense is something that still clearly sells, so perhaps Wilkinson won’t have to worry for too many more seasons.

Do you think straight women are appropriating butch dress codes? And is there anything wrong with doing that?

[The Guardian]

Reprinted with permission from Styleite. Want more? Read these related articles from Styleite:

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