Writing criticism centered on gender in fashion officially feels tired, but since the capitalist powers that be continue cashing in on social issues without mindful execution, I will happily maintain my position as someone to actively police corporate structures that ignorantly market their latest with “genderless” taglines. There seems to be a cultural chasm between those actively immersed in gender-mindful communities and those on the outside, salivating at this potential revenue stream. Zara’s new “Ungendered” collection is evidence of this—a counterproductive, male-dominated range that offers nothing new and ultimately reinforces the very binary it’s attempting to destroy.
If you consider the commercial history of “unisex” fashion, American Apparel certainly made the strongest mark, offering a full lineup of basics designed to fit on any body, regardless of gender. Simple tees, sweatpants and hoodies were all key players in this marketing ploy, and for the most part worked, leave founder Dov Charney’s inexcusably sexual agenda that ultimately led to the brand’s demise. This entry-level exploration of universal style has been around for decades, which makes Zara’s noticeably slim selection—one that exclusively features American American-style basics—look late, unaware and, at an aesthetic level, uninspired. American Apparel was perhaps the gateway drug to what should today be a limitless, addictive examination of gender in fashion.
The sheer nature of Zara’s lineup is inherently male-dominated, designed to offer something masc bodies would be pleased with and femme bodies would (have no choice but to) submit to. There’s no innovative compromise between the two—no progressive assertion about what a masc body could wear within this largely uncharted, ungendered umbrella. In an accurate reflection of the outside world, it’s as if Zara’s design team considered a man’s interests first and assumed women would be happy leveling off their stylistic needs to his. A loose-fitting tee, sweatshirt, jeans and joggers all innately value the masc figure more, thus actively reinforcing male-dominance in our greater society and dismantling any genuine genderful possibilities.
Designers must look at the fundamentals of fashion with disregard to social connotations in order to effectively tackle this beast everyone’s aggressively attempting to cage. Silhouette, color and fabric are all elements that should be assessed outside the binary we’ve blindly constructed. What makes a banal white tee more “ungendered” than a magenta chiffon blouse? Answers laced with social influence are giving biased meaning to magenta, chiffon and blouses—inanimate entities that individually hold no gender or sexuality. True progress will be realized when a major retailer, such as Zara, moves the needle in a way that transcends this limited mindset.
Beyond clothes, the rollout of Zara’s new line is just as lazy with a campaign starring two cisgender models—a male and female—to wear garments marketed as having no gender. Is it truly “ungendered” if the wearers themselves each boast clearly defined genders? There are plenty of non-binary models working today, though I’m sure Zara deduced this palpable approach would be most effective in moving inventory. Here, we have the core problem; Genderless fashion asserted on wide-reaching platforms have all been tinged with the pressures of commercial success, but since the mainstream audience happily accepts a binary retail structure, there’s no need to consider a demographic with no interest. An “ungendered” clothing line is currently a niche offering, so every facet of it needs to be treated with niche sensitivity or else it falls flat.