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Gender-Neutral Clothes Are Trendy, But Not New — Humans Dressed Similarly for Centuries

Fashion with distinct looks for men and women is a relatively recent, Western-centric phenomenon

Emperor Justinian of the Byzantine and Empress Theodora could almost switch robes in this print ( Michael Nicholson/Corbis)
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Often, science fiction fashion (distinct from space fashion in reality) tends toward the utilitarian, revealing or androgynous. It seems that when people try to imagine the future, shiny fabrics and skintight clothing are a common theme for both men and women. In our imagined future, men and women will finally be freed from gender specific clothing. 

But as Marc Bain points out in an article for Quartz, androgyny isn’t just for the space age. For centuries, humans pretty much wore similar clothes, regardless of their gender. In fact, fashion with distinct looks for men and women is a relatively recent, Western-centric phenomenon. 

Bain writes:

In ancient Rome, most of the design of a cloth garment took place on the loom, which meant everyone wore what were essentially long rectangles of draped fabric.

Those long rectangles eventually developed a hole for the wearer’s head and stitched sides, becoming a tunic. Both men and women wore them through the Middle Ages, and the differences between them were minimal: a woman’s tunic would reach her ankles, while a man’s would come to his knees. Perhaps the greatest distinction conferred by a person’s dress was social status, as reflected in sumptuary laws stating that only certain people could wear velvet, and that the lower classes were confined to drab wool or linen.

Elsewhere in the world, gender neutral wraps of cloth or robes were also the norm for long periods. The Japanese kimono replaced two-piece outfits of shirt and trousers or shirt starting in the Heian period (which lasted from 794 to 1185), according to Fashion Encyclopedia. Men and women wore kimonos belted at the waist with an obi or sash. While additional garments and fashions did add distinctions between men and women, the overall look was far more similar than what European fashions became. Only in the late nineteenth century did Japanese people start adopting Western dress.

The sarong, worn by people from Southeast Asia, the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa is also a ubiquitous fabric wrap that can be (and is) worn by any gender. "Colonialism basically dressed the world in the West’s image," writes Bain.

Today's fashion designers are sending androgynous looks strutting down the runway more and more, Bain reports:

One of fashion’s major story lines of the last year has been the industry’s sudden, widespread embrace of clothes that ignore gender lines. While cool, iconoclastic labels, such as Comme des GarçonsRick Owens, and Rad Hourani, have been doing it for years, now Gucci is presenting pussy-bow blouses for guys, and Prada showed a collection last June that was simultaneously his and hers. The concept hasn’t been relegated to the runways either. Fancy London department store Selfridges unveiled its Agender campaign earlier this year, and come June, thecorner.com, an online boutique, will dedicate a channel on its site to what it calls “gender-neutral” clothing and accessories that offer “an alternative to the classic ‘Men’s’ vs ‘Women’s’ dichotomy.”

The trend of androgyny isn’t so much a unconscious return to ancient tradition, but rather a look back to the more recent questions surrounding gender roles that bubbled up in the 1970s, according to Jo Paoletti, of the University of Maryland and the author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from Girls in America. “There were a lot of questions raised by feminism, the Civil Rights movement, the gay rights movement about gender roles, and the extent to which individuals should follow gender roles,” she told Quartz. “And part of that is going to be the way you look.”

Hand in hand with the trend comes a more open discussion of gender and a greater understanding of the complexity of gender biology. Positive stories of transgender people are gaining media attention: Bruce Jenner, a former Olympian is making a very public transition and Laverne Cox, actress in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, continues to garner recognition as an icon. Media outlets like The New York Times are even picking up stories of people who don’t fit the boxes of male or female and instead have non-binary genders. 

In the past century there have been plenty of rebellions against the gender division in fashion, but they have often been one-sided: Fashion has often women models in tailored suits and called it androgynous. But the shift that has Bain and other reporters taking note comes from designers who are adding feminine flare to menswear.  A recent Gucci show had male models in "chiffon and lace, pussy-bow blouses and high-waisted flares," writes Lindsay Baker for BBC.com.

However, as Baker notes, the trend has yet to extend to truely androgynous looks embraced by the average male-identified guy on the street. 

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