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“Ungendered” attire preserves patriarchal norms

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Clothing retailer Zara recently released a new line of clothing labeled “Ungendered” comprised of jeans, sweaters, sweatpants and shirts. Each product is only available in one color, which varies from grey, white and navy blue. Despite the baggy fit that would accommodate a variety of body types, the overt masculinity of the clothing is immediately striking; this line of clothing could easily have been marketed as men’s aparrel. To be fair, however, the clothes are not so masculine that the female models of the line look out of place. In fact, if Zara had thrown in a sundress or a jumpsuit, it could have just as easily been marketed as a line for women.

That is the interesting thing about this line of clothing – it is undoubtedly gender neutral by today’s social standards. This apparent gender neutrality highlights several of clothing line’s problematic aspects. It demonstrates that what we consider “gender neutral” today is still incredibly masculine. Additionally, by calling the line “Ungendered” instead of “Gender Neutral,” there is an implicit promise of a more gender inclusive variety of clothes that is not fulfilled.

Zara cannot change the first of these issues on its own alone. Gendered clothing and gender roles are have been incredibly rigid in most cultures for thousands of years. In medieval Iceland, it was considered grounds for divorce if a man or a woman was found cross-dressing. Even as recently as a hundred years ago in Western culture, a woman wearing pants would cause a scandal.

This standard of dress began to change in part when professional women demanded to be able to work in clothing that allowed enough mobility to do their job safely and effectively, a change that coincided with other movements for equality. This change was certainly a big step towards society seeing men and women as equal, but it did not put the masculine and feminine on equal footing.

While the need for mobility during work may have been a catalyst for women to start advocating for a change in standards of dress, the impetus that propelled this movement forward was the patriarchal idea that women have to emulate men in order to be respected in the workplace. This is why there was not an equivalent movement that involved men wearing dresses to the office. For men to become “equal” to women in this way, they would be giving up societal power, not gaining it.

This dichotomy continues today, evidenced by the stigmatization of men cross-dressing. This taboo exists perhaps to a lesser extent with cis-gendered women, but the prevalence of expressions like “I see who wears the pants in this relationship” and “you throw like a girl” goes to show that it is still more desirable to be “like a man.”

All of this historical context has a point. Zara is doing exactly what one would expect a gender neutral clothing line to do. If it were only advertised as gender neutral it could be seen as toeing the party line, but Zara chose to name the line “Ungendered.” That suggests something more inclusive. The masculinity of the “Ungendered” line further enforces the idea of male style as the default and stereotypically female clothing as somehow inferior. This does a disservice to feminine presenting people, particularly those whose gender is not sanctioned by societal norms to dress femininely.

If women have shown that pants are not just for men, the same could certainly be true for men reguarding skirts and dresses. It is disappointing Zara did not take this opportunity to press the norms, even subtly. Sure, given that so many people perceive dresses as strictly for women, it may have been seen as too radical to include dresses on an “Ungendered” clothes line. But perhaps a tunic or a wider variety and range of color choices, instead of the neutral whites, blues and blacks.

Even with external pressure, nothing in fashion will change until retailers start taking risks. Zara could have done that here, but instead they decided to profit off of social progress, not create it. Their new line may be gender neutral as most people see it, but it is not “Ungendered.”

Larissa Banitt ’19 (banitt1@stolaf.edu) is from Portland, Ore. She majors in English.