Less Genderless?

Author: Geri Dempsey

Zara's 'Ungendered' Collection

Zara's 'Ungendered' Collection

The thing about oppression is that it is constant. In our society those who are oppressed and marginalized don’t get to just take a break from it. If you want to act in genuine solidarity you can’t simply retreat back into your privilege when you would rather not engage. We all have days where you just don’t have the patience to argue with that classist friend of your mum’s or the energy to reply to a racist comment by that fool on Facebook, but at the end of the day part of the privilege of our identities is that we have a choice about whether or not to resist oppression. Falling back into your privilege, especially when you are most needed, is not being in solidarity.

I became more aware of some of the small and seemingly insignificant ways non-binary and gender non-conforming people are discriminated against when I began designing a survey for my dissertation. We had entire classes based around how to properly lay out a questionnaire to ensure the questions were asked in the right way and to gather the right results. For segmentation purposes the initial question is nearly always “What is your gender?” with one box for male and one box for female. I posed the question to a lecturer as to what someone who was gender non-conforming would select, and he suggested I put a “prefer not to say” box. This did not sit right with me. Gender non conforming individuals wouldn’t “prefer not to say” their gender identity or non-identity for that matter, matters as much as those who choose to identify within the gender spectrum. Identifying as neither male or female is challenging the social construct of gender itself. It’s not about creating more categories; it’s about questioning the categories we have.

In the same breath this lecturer even mentioned, that a clever tactic brands are using at present is to market their collections as gender neutral to appeal to the “trend” that Generation Z have latched on to. Trivialising the politics of identity into a passing trend is a dangerous way of reducing the importance of real issues. It’s something large brands and corporations do extremely well, they will adopt a radical idea expressed by a marginalized group deliberately because they realised that if they reduce it to something trivial it loses its power to change anything.

Take Zara’s “Ungendered” collection which launched in 2016. The name in itself is really just another word for “unisex” which has little to do with gender identity. It begs the question of why are we trying to make a specifically genderless collection at all? Surely that’s just adding another box, label or category? The idea that people outside the gender binary or challenging the gender binary will have to look a certain way misses the point entirely. You can be assigned female at birth or be non-binary and still wear a pink fluffy jumper, you don’t have to drop the trappings of femininity in order to try and be non-binary or even to try and be gender neutral, because everyone’s idea of gender neutral is different and more often than not just masculine. Zara’s “ungendered” collection, unsurprisingly was lacking any shape or colour as well as any skirt or dress options, it’s outwardly masculine. When will society finally move past the idea that “genderless” clothing is just plain t-shirts and joggers? Why is the default for gender neutral always masculine?

It certainly requires much further examination of the concept of gender itself, should we stop describing things as feminine and masculine, seeing that gender in itself is a social construct? How do we begin disassociating "feminine" and "masculine" clothing and is a genderless clothing line actually needed? Would an effective collection from a genuine brand pave the way for others to stop starkly labelling their items or will it still be putting people into yet another box that isn't needed?

To exacerbate the situation further, by Zara presenting it’s collection on cisgendered models, rather than anyone gender non-conforming it only confirms that their “ungendered” range really does seem to be just for men and women, instead of anyone that defines more fluidly. Speaking with some Irish non-binary individuals about their thoughts on it all demonstrated that the struggles faced by the trans and non-binary communities in relation to clothing goes far deeper than a few plain t-shirts. The high levels of body dysmorphia found in trans women who may not have societies idea of a feminine body yet must conform to societies idea of feminine in order to “pass” highlights the need for a universal change on what constitutes as feminine. The process and relationship trans and non-binary people have with clothing is often far more significant in terms of personal expression than the more peripheral relationship we have as cis people. If stores like Zara wanted to be genuinely progressive they would consult directly with trans focus groups and ask what they want – neutral fitting rooms, a broader range of sizes and full staff training on awareness of trans customers would certainly be a start.

Creating an “ungendered” clothing line and then choosing to not address or even acknowledge the real struggles facing trans and non-binary people indicates that this has less to do with meeting the needs of trans and gender non-conforming people and more to do with the fact that brands are noticing gender is a hot topic and are hopping on the bandwagon. As a cisgender person who benefits every single day from cis privilege I have a responsibility to inform myself and others about how to we can help improve the lives of trans and non-binary people simply by listening and responding. Beyond listening, arguably the most important thing that we can do to act in solidarity is to engage those who share our identities. Representation, recognition and rights are what the trans and non-binary communities are fighting for and we need to be better allies.

Geri Dempsey