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Why Clothes Don't Need a Gender

Why Clothes Don't Need a Gender

Walk into almost any clothing store, and you’ll see everything separated into two sections—one for men, one for women. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder about what the store (and society as a whole) believes we should wear.

These restrictive norms surrounding clothing still pervade our culture, even in a supposedly liberated era. They stifle self-expression and lock people into narrow, gender-defined boxes. Dismantling these regulations that dictate the way we dress is an important step forward toward acceptance for non-binary people and those who don’t conform to gender stereotypes. I believe the best way to get rid of this stigma is to get rid of clothing categorizations altogether.

“If you want to buy a shirt in a different section, why not just go there?” you might ask. After all, store managers don’t exactly patrol the racks to make sure that people are shopping where they’re quote-unquote supposed to. But if, like me, you’ve been told that you looked “too masculine” just because you wanted a loose sweatshirt or a jacket with convenient pockets, you know that life is not that simple.

This kind of stereotyping is especially harmful for kids. Much like gender-targeted toys, young girls’ clothes tend to be decorated with princesses, while boys’ clothes depict dinosaurs and robots, nudging girls away from STEM-related fields.

Separating products according to gender also has material consequences: Women’s clothing typically cost more. An investigation by GQ found that at least five luxury brands sold identical pieces of clothing at a higher price in the women’s section than in the men’s section. A 2015 study by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs showed that women’s jeans cost on average 10% more than men’s jeans. This is ridiculous.

Men lose out, too. A woman in men’s shoes probably would not turn heads on the street, while a guy in a skirt almost certainly would. Categorizing skirts as a “women’s” garment, then criticizing men for wearing them, is criticizing femininity in men altogether. The same powerful force that stops men from wearing women’s clothing steers men away from traditionally female occupations, paternity leave, emotional expression, and other so-called “female behaviors.”

A few years ago, Jaden Smith starred in a Louis Vuitton campaign wearing women’s clothes. The company’s artistic director, Nicolas Ghesquière, said in a press release, “Wearing a skirt comes as naturally to him as it would to a woman who, long ago, granted herself permission to wear a man’s trench or tuxedo.”

Ghesquière’s right. Clothing, like any other form of self-expression, can be a kind of activism that pushes for social change...and not just in the form of a catchy slogan on a T-shirt. Although the LV campaign is a step in the right direction, gender-bending style has yet to enter the mainstream.

Criticizing the way clothing is sorted may seem too frivolous for a world where more than 200 million girls and women alive today have experienced female genital mutilation, or where the #MeToo movement has begun a reckoning for powerful men across all industries.

But gender-segregated clothing shows that sexism doesn’t have to come in such overt forms; it exists in every nook and cranny of our daily lives. So it’s up to us to get rid of norms wherever they are—whether it’s an ocean away or at the shopping mall across the street.

By Catherine Lin, 17

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