Recommended: For Him, For Her, For Them

More clothing brands are going gender-neutral, but most are really just saying a woman can buy a man’s shirt, even when many already have. Question is, are guys ready to shop in the woman’s department?

At Uniqlo, a tag offering men more options

By Raiment Young

Last year. What do we remember of it other than the arrival of Omicron? Or, the return of physical fashion shows? Or, the collaborations between luxury brands? One of the style issues trending into 2021 was the visible advent of non-binary styles. Men, especially, we were counselled, should be able to adopt traditionally-feminine fashion if they choose to. Gender-neutral and gender-inclusive brands were talked about alongside those that chose the sustainable and were aware of garment manufacture’s impact on the environment (other than using cottons from non-controversial regions). Leading the adoption of clothes that do not shout out their traditional masculinity are pop stars, such as Harry Styles and Troye Sivan. To them, wearing a dress is okay. Even lexicography is seeing a re-definition of dress by not ascribing it to gender. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines the noun form of ‘dress’ as “a piece of clothing that is made in one piece and hangs down to cover the body as far as the legs, sometimes reaching to below the knees, or to the ankles”. That’s it.

At Uniqlo’s global flagship store during the festive season, two guys in until-recently-MIA office attire were looking at a long, loose, lapel-less knitted coat right in front of me. One of them, in a fitted and darted shirt, was holding up the hung garment to give it a proper look, as if to understand it better, rather than to consider buying it. The other then said, somewhat incredulously, “men can wear, meh?” This disbelief seemed to be a reaction to a little sign, clipped to the chest of the coat to draw attention. It read, in full caps, “RECOMMENDED FOR MEN TOO!”—the exclamation not just to denote vehement enthusiasm, but also to seemingly say “believe you me”. The guys looked at the soft and drapey outerwear from top to hem. There was a moment of silence. Then, the one still holding the hanger asked—in comfortable Hokkien—disbelievingly, “汝知嗎 (li zai bo, do you know)?” As Uniqlo intended, now both do.

Women’s clothes outrightly recommended for men is really a recent occurrence. I was only seeing the guidance with some regularity last year. Sure, some guys are now wearing what would be indisputably designed for women, including accessories such as pearls, but these individuals are not traipsing the town in numbers large enough to be considered normality. Even with the seeming popularity of skirts for men—now also championed by Louis Vuitton, I doubt that for many (most?) guys, shopping would not still be a gendered experience. The fact that male shoppers needed to be told that specific styles merchandised for the women’s department are suitable for them indicate that they still draw the line between his and hers, bifurcated and not. Uniqlo, mostly seen as a traditional, even family-oriented, brand, is, admirably, taking the lead, suggesting that gender-neutral is going mainstream. But, are guys ready for stores that disrupt gender norms, even mildly?

Seen on a Urban Revivo hanger in the men’s department

Whether retail is welcoming more non-binary customers or not, women have never needed prompting to shop men’s clothing for themselves. They have, for a long time, not been constricted by gender confines. And that can be said to go back as far as Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking of 1966. One buyer-friend told me that he is seeing more women purchasing menswear—especially tops—as “many now prefer larger and looser cuts that they do not find in the women’s department“. The oversized T-shirt, adopted so that the wearer looks like she is pants-less, has been visible for many years now. That is just one example. Increasingly, oversized shirts and denim truckers are preferred over those cut specifically for women. At the Nike store in Jewel on Boxing Day, I saw a trio of girls—dressed like paddlers after a training session—choosing a fleece hoodie from the Jordan men’s collection. The one purchasing said, with palpable glee, “good, they have my size.“

Such satisfaction is not uncommon. It was, therefore, to my surprise when I saw, in the men’s department of Urban Revivo recently, a wood hanger which accommodated a washed denim happy coat, proudly tagged “RECOMMENDED FOR WOMEN TOO”. I was not sure if it was really a statement of the garment’s gender-neutrality or that the masculine-not style isn’t incorrectly situated. The similarly-worded tag has been deployed at Uniqlo’s men’s department too, even when many women already shop there. While such recommendations are laudable, it does, to me, arouse the question: are we only taking baby steps towards gender-fluid fashion retail? Despite the growing social awareness of non-binary inclusion, we are still led to believe that, as Asians, we are conservative by default. And as long as retailers still stick to the binary departmentalising of their stores—and their merchandise, non-binary clothing, by design or not, is still uncommon.

One of the truly few retailers that appear to be positively gender-inclusive is Muji Labo, a brand that especially appeals to those for whom binary classification (that includes “recommended for”) is a turn-off when deciding what to buy and what to wear. According to Muji, the Labo line “aims to get rid of the unnecessary ‘fashion waste’, riding on the principle of unisexuality, producing basic wear that overrides age, sex and body size, demonstrating the versatility of Muji’s garments at every occasion.” Describing their clothes by the somewhat retro-term “unisex” (circa mid-’60s), Muji is adopting the more moderate and less activism-tinged approach to retailing clothes that are suitable for any gender (in the current climate, ‘them’?”). But gender, however neutral, is not such a simple and straightforward construct. Clothing, in whatever shape and form, does not inherently relate to gender. What I see as truly groundbreaking would be when Uniqlo tags an Ines de La Fressange dress with “RECOMMENDED FOR MEN TOO!”

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

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