True gender-neutral clothing must go beyond fancy sweatpants

OPINION: As we head into the holiday season, brands are championing “gender neutral” lines that are really just fancy loungewear

It can be rough trying to find clothes that fit and affirm your gender. As a trans-masculine person who’s five foot six inches tall and—as Destiny’s Child would say—“bootylicious,” it’s a challenge to find “masculine” clothing that suits my style and my unique pant size. 

So I have to admit, I was thrilled when Canadian fashion stalwart Roots announced their One Collection earlier this fall, specifically targeting folks looking for gender-neutral options. Finally an easy holiday gift for well-meaning relatives to get! 

“One. A word that’s small but mighty. One Collection embodies our mission towards our future in sustainability, gender-free and extended sizing. We believe one size shouldn’t fit all because that sounds boring—instead, we embrace the beauty of all shapes, colours and sizes,” the brand boasts.

It sounded perfect. Immediately I dreamed of rugged masculine flannels that accommodated my hips, or jeans with inseam-to-waist ratios that actually fit my short little legs. But my excitement dimmed when I saw the offerings: sweatpants, sweatshirts and hoodies. Oversized, admittedly cozy and nice-looking sweatpants, but sweatpants and hoodies nonetheless.

It’s a recurring issue as mainstream fashion struggles with how to truly be “gender neutral.” Earlier this year, CNN declared gender-neutral clothes the “next big thing” in fashion. But while binder-clad trans models walk Gucci runways, Harry Styles models skirts on Vogue covers and Laura Dern and her son promote a Mercedes Benz-sponsored gender-neutral fashion line, the clothes accessible to everyday folks remain painfully gendered or painfully frumpy. 

Walk into any mainstream mall retailer and you’ll find strict divisions between “men’s” and “women’s” clothing and strict limits of sizing within those. There’s little on offering for short and wide mascs like me, or tall femme folks with broad shoulders. And should gender nonconforming folks dare to shop between the sections, we’re often subjected to curious glances from sales associates and other shoppers—I’ve had well-meaning H&M sales associates direct me “back to the women’s section” as I’ve leafed through men’s pants trying to find my inseam size. 

 

And while new, progressive and often queer-owned gender-neutral brands are popping up, the freedom to actually shop at them is based largely on class and location. Sure, if you’re in a big city and have a lot of money you can access those speciality brands doing the work to degender fashion. But whether you like it or not, fast fashion is the main way a huge chunk of the population shops. 

It’s an industry dominated by brands like Old Navy, Gap, H&M and Uniqlo. Yes, it’s destroying the planet. But it’s also what is accessible, affordable and easy to get for the majority of people—especially those who might be experimenting with a new gender presentation and don’t want to invest too heavily in individual garments when their body may change down the line.  

So while editorial fashion undergoes its genderless revolution, it’s vital we make sure it trickles down to the rest of us. Gender-neutral lines like Roots’ One Collection or similar offerings from Old Navy nod towards acknowledging that gender and clothes are far from a binary. And that’s great! But these initiatives fall short of actually doing the work of degendering mainstream fashion, and leave many trans and gender nonconforming folks feeling left behind.

Gender-neutral sweatpants have existed forever—they just were called “unisex” when being sold as concert merch or high school swag. It’s not that hard to make sweatpants or T-shirts or hoodies that fit a variety of bodies. Outside of a fashion burlap sack, it’s probably the easiest kind of clothing to make fit the most bodies possible. These brands are doing the bare minimum in rebranding basic garments as gender neutral and applauding themselves for challenging gender norms.

Where the Roots One Collection actually steps into progress is in its sizing. Their one-to-eight numbered sizing does away with terms like small, medium, large and extra large and just lets people put themselves on a continuum devoid of gender. I fully admit I bought a soft plum hoodie last week, and was surprised how nice it felt as a non-binary person to buy a hoodie in a “size 5” compared to the equivalent “women’s extra large” or “men’s large.” 

The thought is in the right place. But sweatpants are still sweatpants. If brands are serious about gender-inclusive fashion, they’d do away with gender labels altogether and make size-inclusive options in all sorts of clothes—not just the easy route of comfy loungewear. 

I dream of a world where stores aren’t divided by gender, but instead customers are faced with a wall of flannel shirts in a variety of cuts, just like when you buy bootcut or athletic or skinny jeans, or of dresses and skirts that come in “tall” and “short” sizes just the same as pants; where sizing is broad and inclusive, where I don’t have to special-order my wide-waist/short inseam pants and where trans-feminine folks don’t have to endure awkward glances as they shop for dresses. 

I can practically hear the chorus of well-meaning allies saying, “But if nothing’s labelled, what happens if a guy accidentally buys a girl’s shirt?” My answer to that is simple: maybe taking away the label is what he needed to embrace that side of himself. Trans people aren’t the only ones with stakes here. I know plenty of cisgender men who prefer “women’s pants” for the fit but often feel uncomfortable buying them in stores, or butches who also want flannels that button up all the way over their hips. 

Everyone wins when we remove gender from clothing—but most of all the trans and gender nonconforming folks who are desperately looking to see ourselves in the clothes we wear. And more importantly, we win when as many types of clothes are available to the widest range of bodies.

I’ll fully admit that I love my “gender neutral” Roots hoodie, and my partner likes to joke that her gender disappears when she borrows it. But it can’t be the only thing. Give me a world where we don’t need to call sweatpants “gender neutral” anymore, because everything fits that bill.

Senior editor Mel Woods is an English-speaking Vancouver-based writer and audio producer and a former associate editor with HuffPost Canada. A proud prairie queer and ranch dressing expert, their work has also appeared in Vice, Slate, the Tyee, the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Walrus.

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