what can fashion learn from zara's 'ungendered' backlash?

Following the mixed reaction to Zara’s 'Ungendered' range, we talk to trans and drag communities to ask how mass-market fashion can truly move into a gender-neutral future.

by Jake Hall
10 March 2016, 4:00pm

The history of high-street giant Zara is riddled with controversy. From accusations of design theft to that unfortunate "Nazi" pyjama top. And now, despite arguably positive intentions, the release of its recent 'ungendered' range garnered widespread criticism online. Considering fashion's progressive attitude towards gender, it initially seemed a long overdue move for mass-market fashion to follow suit and work to abolish gendered clothing — however, a closer look at the range indicated that the collection was little more than existing unisex pieces under a new title. This wasn't a revolution, it was rebranding.

Consisting of a series of affordable basics (all priced under $50), the "ungendered" offerings didn't get much more adventurous than a selection of "flowing" tees and a pair of jersey shorts. Essentially, these were already the wardrobe staples of the masses, regardless of gender identity. The whole range reeked of a marketing scheme to tap into the current profitability of gender politics; this was unisex dressed up in a seemingly progressive new label, and the Internet took notice. See this Facebook comment on i-D's initial coverage, written by user Courtney Jones: "Do you mean masculine clothes, but for girls, but let's call them gender neutral to make them feel better about it? Gender neutral my ass." The concept had potential, but the execution fell flat.

So, what specifically went wrong? The first, arguably most important, problem was inconsistency — although the collection itself was labeled "ungendered," the item descriptions still used the term "unisex," which is outdated and refers back to the biological binaries of male and female. We spoke to model Farideh Arbanian, currently studying a module entitled "Ungendering Fashion" as part of an MA at New York's prestigious Parsons School of Design, to unravel the difference. "For me, unisex refers to a piece of clothing that was designed to fit and flatter both male and female bodies. 'Ungendered,' on the other hand, is much trickier and ambitious, as it suggests an elimination of any trace of masculine or feminine traits on the garment." Second, the branding inconsistencies point towards a lack of direction, meaning that the progressive potential of this new direction was lost on those behind the range.

If anything, the range highlighted the need to further the presentation of gender norms in mass-market fashion; the landscape of mainstream, high street fashion and its gendered connotations are still colored by social stereotypes. Consider the presence of female androgyny in the mainstream — Chanel made an early start by dressing women in (what were then "masculine") trousers, then YSL pushed further with the iconic Le Smoking jacket. When a woman toys with masculine tailoring, she's "power dressing" — the term itself reveals that the archetype of aspirational masculinity still lingers. Men are still told to "man up" and, although these are small factors, they underline the reasons that female masculinity is largely more accepted than male femininity — which is, clearly, the reason that Zara's range consists solely of basics that are already staples of the male wardrobe.

Then, we have to consider social context. We're all part of a society that increasingly acknowledges the fact that gender identity is wide-ranging, to the extent that even Facebook has created an extensive range of new gender options. The rising visibility of trans men and women in the mainstream media is indisputable; the problem is that brands aren't listening to their needs or working to solve their problems, instead spotlighting them superficially under the guise of a progressive attitude towards minority groups. Instead, the way to move slowly towards a truly "genderless" future is to celebrate all bodies in campaigns; showcasing models of all gender identities who can then use their platforms to discuss the discrimination and issues that they still face.

One positive of Zara's concept is that, if it were to be applied in stores, it would at least be a first step in opening up retail spaces. Rei Kawakubo is a good example of how to do retail right — her celebrated Dover Street Market concept is focused on an open retail space, bypassing the traditional retail model of dividing collections into men's and womenswear. This means that consumers are simply drawn to pieces because they like them; it eliminates the forced element of considering their intended wearer. The styling of mannequins could also play a big part in the way that we view certain pieces — in essence, the shop mannequin is a form of visual communication, which could be used to make us rethink the way that we view or would wear traditionally "gendered" pieces.

Then, the most important element — make it exciting! Zara might have been given more leeway if they were offered anything other than slouchy basics, because what the general public truly needs, regardless of gender identity, is excitement. In the words of drag queen China Dethcrash, "take risks, use colors, use more interesting shapes, add a skirt! Everyone, regardless of gender, shape or size, looks hot as hell in a black maxi skirt and Dr. Martens."

London drag queen Virgin Xtravaganzah elaborates that it isn't so much the case that fashion needs to erase "feminine" silhouettes altogether, but that the general public needs to update its mentality: "We should wear whatever we want, whether it's 'menswear' or 'womenswear' and feel free to embrace the masculine and feminine within our own looks." By eradicating gendered traits from clothing, it's dangerously easy to eliminate the essence of what makes them aesthetically pleasing. Sink The Pink's Rodent Decay is quick to point out that "the neutralization of gender is chic, but it's not wholly productive; [this range] isn't enough of a statement."

It's obvious that a genderless revolution won't take place overnight. As Farideh explains, "fashion has been particularly known for capitalizing on the exploitation of exaggeratedly gendered bodies, almost always adding sex to the equation, because it becomes a way to sell perfume or accessories." Gender is deeply ingrained not only within society but within clothing, making the system impossible to instantly eradicate. However, using Zara as a scapegoat without using their mistakes as a springboard to propose further change is dangerous, as it could deter mass fashion brands from making a change altogether. Does Zara deserve the backlash it's received? If its intention was to capitalize on trans issues, then yes. But the company has remained tight-lipped about its intentions, meaning that its failures should be reduced to nothing more than a footnote; an enabler of new, positive discussion about how gender neutrality could truly flourish on the high street.


Text Jake Hall

high street
jake hall