A Queerer World, A Better Industry: Designer Rebecca Martin on Gender-Neutral Clothing & The Evolution of Fashion Norms

Alli Kelly

The battle against gender norms has been going on for years, with women asking for more equality in the workplace, men asking for respect while staying home with their children, and non-binary and transgender individuals working hard to find acceptance in society. Part of this battle also includes the way we dress. Why can’t a man wear a dress and a woman rock a three-piece suit? We sat down with Rebecca Martin (she/they) to understand more about the gender-neutral clothing revolution and how it’s changing the fashion industry.  

Tell me about yourself: What’s your background? What training do you have? What do you do professionally now? 

I graduated with a BFA in Fashion Design in 2019 from Columbia College Chicago. I did my thesis capstone collection on the intersection of gender and fashion, exploring how people express their genders through their clothing. Currently, I’m working as an assistant designer at a mid-level department store, focused on men’s pants, shorts, and swim. I hope in the future to work professionally on sustainable gender-neutral clothing, particularly at an accessible price point.

Let’s get really basic: What is gender-neutral clothing and who can wear it? 

All clothing is gender-neutral, and everyone can wear it! That may seem like a bit of a bold statement, but I don’t think any clothing is inherently gendered beyond what society decides to label it as. In assigning clothing the traits of masculinity and femininity, we choose to divide them along a gender binary. But gender-neutral fashion lives inside & outside of that binary.

To understand the intersections of gender & fashion, we have to talk about the difference between gender identity and gender expression. Gender identity is all about your internal identity. Gender identity can differ from (transgender/non-binary) or align with the sex assigned to you at birth (cisgender). 

Gender expression is how you choose to express your gender identity, through things like name, pronouns, clothing, hair, voice, etc. So gender-neutral fashion is connected to gender expression, not identity. For me, it’s about having many options, some feminine, masculine, and androgynous and letting people decide what they feel suits them the best.

What sparked your interest in gender-neutral clothing? 

My personal experience and exploration of gender is a large part of it. I went to a Chicago art school in my early twenties. I think anyone in that situation starts to think about gender & sexuality a bit more. It was a very Queer welcoming space. Not to say that everyone was supportive of everything around them, but people were exploring themselves and the world more than I’d ever seen growing up in my small town in Michigan. 

I’d never been particularly drawn to designing womenswear, so I decided to try and focus on menswear in college. As I learned more about design and pushed the boundaries, I realized that I didn’t want to design for just one gender or one body. I wanted to design clothes for everyone and anyone to wear. 

This led to my senior thesis capstone collection, “Sartorial Gender Performance.” I designed each piece to be worn based on the wearer’s chosen style rather than their biological sex or gender identity. 

Is “unisex” gender-neutral? 

This is definitely a debate a lot of people and brands have. From the research I’ve done to form my own opinions, I see unisex & gender-neutral as two different things. They’re both important and serve a function, but they don’t describe the same product. Many brands are still figuring out the landscape though, and some use the terms interchangeably which, to me, is the root of the confusion. My definition of unisex clothing is “product designed to be suitable for both sexes in order to make men and women look similar”. I  define gender-neutral or gender-inclusive clothing as “a mix of the feminine and masculine, things that don’t explicitly say a gender but have an array of styles”. 

Unisex fashion to me still lives within the gender binary. It’s generally based on men’s fits & sizing but sold to both men and women. Many graphic tees and hoodies are usually larger, boxy fits, based on men’s product. 

Gender-neutral clothing, on the other hand, can use an inclusive size chart, with a wide range of sizes, and can be used to offer a mix of feminine styles and masculine styles for whoever wants to purchase them. Examples of this include the brand Human Nation, which sells gender-neutral clothing in athleisure styles. 

Where some people get confused, is that “unisex” pieces can be sold in a gender-neutral collection or brand. That’s because gender-neutral is about offering the customer both masculine fits and styles and feminine fits and styles. We tend to see the masculine pieces and think they look unisex, while the feminine pieces may stand out a bit more and feel out of place to some people. People tend to be less comfortable with men wearing feminine things than women wearing masculine things, but that’s a whole other history lesson.

What is important for brands to take into account when creating and selling gender-neutral clothing? 

One of the most important things to me is making it authentic. If companies are coming into this space looking to make some quick cash, and not actually supporting their customers, it comes across that way. Companies can and should make the shift to selling gender-neutral clothing, but it's important to consider brand presence in all things and its impact on people; especially those that exist outside of the binary.

If gender-neutral clothing is an authentic choice for the brand, there are a few points that demand attention. 

  1. Having a range of styles demonstrates inclusion and authenticity 

They need to Include an array of traditionally feminine and masculine pieces to give customers the power to choose what best represents their gender expression. 

  1. Size inclusivity is also a significant factor

It’s important to offer a wide range of sizes to allow all customers to purchase all items, regardless of their biological sex and gender identity. It’s crucial to clearly communicate the sizing so that customers can choose their size and desired fit. 

  1. Website and in-store presence are integral in determining a company’s intentions. Including a clear section on the website and in stores dedicated to gender-neutral clothing goes a far way towards promoting inclusivity. I hardly need to explain why gender-neutral clothing shouldn’t be hidden within a gendered section. It’s also best on the website to show the product on as many body types and sizes as possible, as well as flat lays, to help people relate the fit to their own body.

Do you think the LGBTQ+ community will continue to have an impact on the fashion industry as gender roles become more and more fluid? 

I think the LGBTQ+ community is always going to have a hand in fashion, and continue to impact the industry. Many of the people we have to thank for being able to express our gender relatively freely today are Queer POC, and I’ll never be thankful enough for that. As Alok Vaid-Menon wrote in a recent Instagram post, “Our ability to exist in public today is thanks to the Black trans leaders who paved the way.”  As we’re starting to enter a more welcoming age, people can be more open with who they are, express their fluidity honestly, and I think fashion is only going to keep getting better because of that. 

I find it very important to be authentic and transparent in the fashion industry, and as people feel more comfortable being who they are, companies can begin to produce clothing consciously and ethically for a new way of shopping. I’d love in the future to see people able to purchase whatever clothing they want without being told how they’re expected to dress based on their gender identity, and I think the LGBTQ+ community is our biggest asset to get there.

Just for fun, where do you see gender-neutral going in the future? 

I’d love to see an expansion in the market for sustainably sourced and produced gender-neutral clothing at an accessible price point. It’s currently difficult to balance sustainability and price point, but I think everyone deserves to wear the clothes they want to and express themselves, no matter how much money they have. 

The fashion industry has long been divided between Men’s and Women’s clothing sections, providing those with certain anatomy and associated gender a clear place to shop and way to dress. This works for a vast majority of the population, but what about individuals who don’t feel they fit into a particular gender, regardless of their sex? Gender-neutral clothing is for the individual who does not associate their gender with their assigned sex or does not feel they fit into particular gender at all. It is for that individual who wants the freedom - to wear whatever the hell they want. 

Alli Kelly

"Feminism is for everyone. We all need to take an active part in deconstructing the way the patriarchy has shaped us as women. Get educated, get out there, and make a difference for yourself and your sisters."
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