Earlier this month, the much-loved sustainable activewear brand Girlfriend Collective launched its “For Everyone” collection: a range of outerwear and loungewear made up of baggy joggers and matching sweatshirts, boxy tees, ultra-stretchy leggings (a signature for the label), and retro fleeces — all in an inviting autumnal colour palette. The collection, available in sizes XXS to 7XL, is a perfect distillation of the pandemic aesthetic: It’s sofa-friendly, ethically made, simple and unadorned, and its main selling point is that the line works for all people, regardless and inclusive of any gender expression.
The gender-neutral aspect of sweats isn’t the only driving force behind their popularity, but it’s certainly been used as a marketing tool for brands to impressive results. As one of the top-selling fashion items during a time where corporate and commercial spaces rushed to signal their diversity and inclusivity efforts, sweatpant sellers found it useful to highlight all the ways in which their garments may also promote social justice; after all, what’s more inclusive than a product that’s for everyone? Even before 2020, popular brands like Entireworld and PANGAIA used universality as a reason to buy their product (it’s baked into their names). It’s the lack of gender inherent in sweats that is constantly invoked as a reason to shop: The sweats are “to be used as decided by the wearer, regardless of their gender,” PANGAIA said in a statement to Refinery29.
But seeing sweats as representative of a meaningful step forward for gender inclusivity is missing the point. For one, even the most well-meaning companies divide their assortment of products into male and female categories, which defeats the purpose of gender-neutral fashion. But more importantly, in some key ways, this kind of “genderless” aesthetic actually makes it more difficult to achieve real progress for the non-binary fashion movement.
According to Anita Dolce Vita, the editor in chief of queer style magazine DapperQ, choosing to describe sweatsuits as “non-binary” or “genderless” can be damaging for the queer community from which these terms originated because, by associating them with a basic pair of sweats, it implies the absence of any gender signifiers as defined by society. But non-binary fashion isn’t about stripping clothes of the details we’ve been conditioned to understand as either masculine or feminine; it’s about removing the labels that suggest certain clothes can only be worn by certain individuals.
“This [current moment] is about clothing [upon which] we can’t project any of our traditional notions about gender, when really the conversation should be about why anything is gendered,” Dolce Vita explains. “It’s taking us further away from thinking about a skirt or pearls or heels being genderless, and it’s also reverting to the idea that masculinity is the default for neutral.” Associating genderlessness with apparel that is typically made for men has long been, and still is, common practice in fashion. As recently as last week, Everlane launched its Track Collection, a certified-organic range of “timeless” hoodies, joggers, and zip-ups that is divided into two categories: women’s and men’s/unisex.
Although it’s certainly a good thing that women’s loungewear options are no longer limited to form-fitting velour tracksuits with the word “JUICY” emblazoned in rhinestones across the backside, society is not yet at a point where if a man wants to wear a tracksuit of that sort, the outfit will be accepted as being anything other than “for women.” Even today, the sight of Harry Styles in a dress can set the internet ablaze with sexist and homophobic comments, making it difficult — and often incredibly dangerous — for people who want to dress in defiance of rigid gender norms.
And while pandemic dressing has provided some women with the opportunity to step out of their historically inhibiting office attire, like tight pencil skirts and toe-crushing stilettos, Dolce Vita is quick to draw attention to the fact that, for some LGBTQ people, the disappearance of spaces to actively express and confirm their gender can be devastating. “The performative nature of their gender is what really affirms who they are and minimises dysphoria,” she says in reference to the psychological distress experienced by someone whose birth sex is not aligned with their gender identity. However, Dolce Vita acknowledges that from a mainstream perspective, the rise and embrace of the sweatsuit illustrates a small shift toward greater inclusion and diversity in fashion — though conversations on the topic within the queer community, she says, are “lightyears ahead.”
An example of this is the success of gender-neutral brand re—inc which, as stated on its website, was “built to challenge the status quo.” In addition to having add-to-cart-worthy sweatsuits, it also has a highly notable founding team — gender equality activist Megan Rapinoe and her fellow US women’s soccer stars Tobin Heath, Meghan Klingenberg, and Christen Press — behind it. Re—inc positions itself as a values-first company, centering the bodies and beliefs of the same queer and POC people that founded it.
“A lot of times, a solution to a problem in the world is created and then companies are built around it. We did it the other way,” Klingenberg explains. Re—inc started as an idea about harnessing the privilege and power that comes with celebrity to champion gender fluidity and diversity in design. What came next was an online hub for self-expression and discovery through apparel, art, or membership to its global digital network that recognises and engages with the Black and queer communities which have made re–inc’s streetwear-inspired, genderless aesthetic possible. Their sweatsuits are an extension of the brand’s commitment to inclusivity, taking into consideration the bodies and desires of individuals that have been overlooked, and thus devalourised, in mainstream fashion.
“[In the past] things haven’t been made for us, for our bodies, and for who we are,” Klingenberg explains in reference to the wide-ranging athletic builds and unique personal tastes of herself and re—inc’s three other founders. Klingenberg prefers sweats over jeans not only for practical reasons being in a profession that demands ample time spent on the field or in a gym but because she feels most herself when prioritising comfort while getting dressed. Having options that are available for her needs, irrespective of what’s considered to be specifically “for women,” reflects the guiding principle at the core of the brand: “We want people to feel totally comfortable in their own skin,” Klingenberg says.
In the conversation about gender neutrality as it relates to personal expression, language is incredibly powerful. It’s easy to apply the words “for everyone” to garments that, by nature, don’t fit into traditional notions of masculinity or femininity. But making design truly available to all calls for a categorical un-gendering of fashion that dismantles societal expectations for how people should present themselves. Sweatpants that are simply just sweatpants is a start, but until collections no longer need to be deemed genderless in order to be for everyone, these words demonstrate the limits, not the potential, of the non-binary fashion movement.
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