Friday 27 April 2018

Swap shop: The rise of gender neutral fashion

As retailers move away from clothes created just for men or women, reporters Meadhbh McGrath and Alex Murphy scour the high street to see if you can look good in clothes designed for the opposite sex

Alex Murphy and Meadhbh McGrath. 'Gender Neutral Dressing' feature shot in The Liquor Rooms. Photo: Tony Gavin
Alex Murphy and Meadhbh McGrath. 'Gender Neutral Dressing' feature shot in The Liquor Rooms. Photo: Tony Gavin

Meadhbh McGrath and Alex Murphy

When British retailer John Lewis announced earlier this month that it would stop dividing its children's clothes into 'boys' and 'girls', the reaction was fierce. Pundits queued up to criticise the store for pushing a political agenda on kids.

But gender neutral dressing is not new - it's been around since the days of Marlene Dietrich smouldering in a tuxedo, or David Bowie posing in a floral dress. These days, as labels like Gucci, Prada and Calvin Klein blend menswear and womenswear in the same collections, it's not even provocative, it's just the new normal.

But can the ordinary punter really find flattering high-street styles designed for the opposite sex? We sent two reporters to find out:

MEADHBH McGRATH

H&M was one of the first high street stores to embrace gender-neutral dressing. Last spring saw the release of the Denim United collection, a unisex line of 19 'genderless' denim basics. When I headed to the Dublin flagship, descending from the bright white womenswear floor down to the dark basement was a bit of shock - the interiors are all black and chrome, with moody black and white campaign shots on the wall.

I was looking forward to picking up an oversized suit, but at my height (5'2") it was impossible to get the proportions right, and I looked less like Rihanna, more like a kid borrowing my dad's work suit. I had better luck in the casual department - H&M offer a lot of options for sizing, so I found a pair of trousers with a 30-inch leg. There was plenty in the way of oversized knits, and I even managed to nab a co-ord set, similar to the matching separates so popular in high street womenswear.

Alex Murphy and Meadhbh McGrath. 'Gender Neutral Dressing' feature shot in The Liquor Rooms. Photo: Tony Gavin
Alex Murphy and Meadhbh McGrath. 'Gender Neutral Dressing' feature shot in The Liquor Rooms. Photo: Tony Gavin

Alex and I were able to try on our looks together in the fitting rooms on the men's floor, without the sales assistant so much as batting an eye.

At M&S, it was a battle to find anything that fit on the shoulders, although the jacket ticked the heritage trend box for autumn-winter, plus the oversized silhouette recalled this season's blazers by Balenciaga and Stella McCartney.

The staff were helpful, if a bit perplexed as to why I was asking for a men's blazer in a smaller size. The smallest was a 38, and I still felt a bit swamped by it.

Womenswear frequently borrows from menswear - we have boyfriend jeans, boyfriend blazers and boyfriend cardigans. The subtle differences in fit mean they are still more figure-hugging on the bum or the waist than a piece you'd grab from the men's section, so it was a relief to be able to pull on a pair of trousers without the usual acrobatics of trying to squeeze into skin-tight fabric.

Alex Murphy and Meadhbh McGrath. 'Gender Neutral Dressing' feature shot in The Liquor Rooms. Photo: Tony Gavin
Alex Murphy and Meadhbh McGrath. 'Gender Neutral Dressing' feature shot in The Liquor Rooms. Photo: Tony Gavin

The crotch depth is lower, so the waistband sits a little higher and the trousers didn't cling or pinch, but they also didn't do much to accentuate my shape - the pockets are larger and sit lower on the bum, which tends to flatten it. Fine if you're rail-thin, but not terribly flattering otherwise.

I'm stunned by how many pockets everything has - on a regular day at the office, I'll have between zero and two pockets, so small I can barely fit my iPhone.

But men's pockets are actually fit for purpose, not just a styling detail, and made me wonder what a life without a handbag rendering me lopsided might be like.

Alex Murphy and Meadhbh McGrath. 'Gender Neutral Dressing' feature shot in The Liquor Rooms. Photo: Tony Gavin
Alex Murphy and Meadhbh McGrath. 'Gender Neutral Dressing' feature shot in The Liquor Rooms. Photo: Tony Gavin

ALEX MURPHY

A few years ago, I started to grow tired of not being able to find the shapes and fabrics that I wanted in the men's department, so I began to gravitate towards womenswear. The clothes were more exciting, and now I just look for the style of clothing I like, regardless of what gender it was created for. I quite enjoy the occasional confusion and heads turning.

My favourite shops are H&M, COS and its sister brand Weekday - they're fantastic not only for the diverse collections, but for the shopping environments too. I never feel judged for trying on womenswear in these stores, compared to the more "traditional" brands where the odd look can be discomforting.

Womenswear is obviously designed with a different body shape in mind, so you have to avoid clothing with darts, peplums or anything figure-hugging. Woven materials can be too restrictive, unless they were specifically designed to be oversized. Trousers tend to be quite difficult too, so when we were picking out the clothes, I chose ones with more of a dropped crotch.

You can never go wrong with knitwear or jersey pieces, as they tend not to have these problems.I prefer when certain items jump out at me rather than browsing all the individual rails - the tan trousers and blue jumper were perfect example of that.

H&M are great for finding pieces at an affordable price, although the larger sizes tend to sell out faster.

At M&S, I was surprised at how much they have updated themselves in the last few years, and found many gender-neutral, modern pieces, even in woven materials such as the red puff sleeve blouse.

However, as is normally the case, trousers can be challenging in size and shape, so I had to go up a size or two in order to achieve a more comfortable fit.

Possibilities for womenswear are endless in comparison to men's!

Men's fashion globally has changed a lot in the last few years, and you can see both menswear and womenswear taking inspiration from one another. I was also pleased that I could find items in the women's collections that corresponded to current menswear trends.

The wide-leg trousers recalled Marni and Haider Ackermann's offerings for autumn/winter, while Louis Vuitton showcased oversized roll-necks, and red, such a huge trend for women this season, was also popular at men's fashion week at Dior and Dries Van Noten.

There's still a long way to go for gender-neutral clothing on the high street, but I truly believe the future of fashion is androgynous.

Irish Independent

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