At Tradlands, we are committed to selling the best button up shirt you’ll ever own. And while our brand is certainly not unisex or androgynous, we also recognize that our tomboy aesthetic derives some elements from that fashion trend. With that in mind, we wanted to give you a brief history of unisex clothing and its place within our culture.
At the 2015 Coachella festival, Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, created a stir by wearing a floral print tunic and rose-flower crown. Online publications gushed at Smith’s gender-blurring bravery, with Racked stating, “Coolest of cool teens Jaden Smith sails far beyond gender norms.”
Similarly, in March of 2015, the London department store Selfridges created a three story gender-neutral bazaar in its Oxford Street emporium. Featuring mannequins wearing unisex garments from designers Haider Ackermann, Ann Demeulemeester, and Gareth Pugh, Selfridges called the shopping experiment “Agender”. And while their experiment certainly didn’t cause a fashion revolution, it worked as a marketing device.
Interestingly, there was a time when such gender-blurring experiments wouldn’t have caused so much as a murmur, let alone be the foundation for a department store marketing ploy.
There has always been some amount of unisex clothing in the American culture. As far back as 1824, the New Harmony socialist utopian community permitted both men and women to wear trousers, an almost scandalous move. Late in the 19th century, women’s rights advocate Amelia Bloomer passionately argued that women should be allowed to wear pants (called “bloomers”) under their shortened dresses.
Photo via MargaretPerry
But leading up to and following WWII, gender roles were established and rarely questioned. Men were the breadwinners, and did masculine things, like fix cars, play football, and hunt. Fathers raised their boys to be men, and those who didn’t like football or cars were often accused of being girly. Similarly, women were taught to be homemakers, with the responsibility of raising children, caring for the home, and providing a nurturing home environment.
Men and women dressed in strict accordance with the gender norms. Men’s clothing was distinctly masculine, and movie stars like James Dean and John Wayne practically vibrated with manhood. Short hair was the norm, with haircuts like the flat top taking center stage.
Photo via cdn2.retrowaste
Women’s clothing was clearly feminine, distinctly highlighting female features. Women typically wore knee-length dresses and heels, and movie stars such as Elizabeth Taylor appeared glamorous.
Photo via suburbanturmoil
Those who didn’t conform to established gender roles were often mocked or ostracized, and the culture emphasized the roles. Shows like Leave It To Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show showed the men going to work and the women taking care of the children.
Sigmund Freud summed up the general sentiment of the times when he said:
When you meet a human being, the first distinction you make is ‘male or female?’ and you are accustomed to make the distinction with unhesitating certainty.
With the explosion of the sexual revolution in the 1960’s, men and women began to shake loose of the social, political, and sexual mores that were cherished in the Post-WWII era. Additionally, second-wave feminism grew in popularity in the United States, challenging the traditional gender roles imposed on men and women after WWII. In an acknowledgment of the fact that gender and sex might not always align, the term “gender” began to be used for the social and cultural aspects of biological sex.
As Jennifer Park says:
The 1960s were a period of extraordinary change-one in which conventional notions of age, gender, and class were completely redefined. In an environment conducive to experimentation, the era pushed designers to incorporate new definitions of youth and universality into their work. The idea of unisex, in particular, gained currency precisely for its implications of multifaceted freedom. In the obvious sense, unisex meant liberation from gender, but more importantly, its association with the future in its disavowal of traditional hierarchies and old-fashioned attitudes made it a major driving force for fashion.
The sexual revolution and second-wave feminism met and coalesced, leading to a brief but shining period of unisex clothing. It began in Paris, where models sported clothing designed by people like Pierre Cardin, Andre Courreges, and Paco Rabanne. Models were clothed in simple, sleek unisex patterns made from fabrics not typically associated with either gender.
The New York Times first used the word “unisex” in 1968 to describe a pair of clunky “Monster” shoes. By the end of the year, the word had been used five more times. Department stores began creating unisex sections, advertised by models wearing matching bellbottoms, and fashion catalogs began selling unisex sewing patterns.
Chicago Tribune columnist Everett Mattlin lamented the state of things in a column entitled “The Age of Unisex”:
You know how it is now - the boy’s hair is as long as the girl’s and their clothing is similarly shapeless and genderless. She’s wearing boots and he’s wearing a necklace. Girls buy men’s pants, sweaters, and jackets in men’s stores, and I won’t be surprised when the versa vice comes true, too.
Men began ditching their gray flannel suits as limited to a single version of masculinity, and women’s clothing became much more androgynous. Both men and women were pushing back against the idea of fixed genders and static gender roles.
Children in particular were caught up in the unisex craze. Girls were dressed in pants, boy’s hair was grown out, and everyone wore ponchos. Many parents, both fearing and rebelling against the gender stereotypes pushed on them, attempted to be more progressive in their style of parenting.
Photo via plaidstallions
Additionally, more scientific evidence was emerging that gender was malleable and could be learned at a young age.
Smithsonian Magazine describes the mentality behind “ungendered” parenting:
Abandoning pink and blue, many thought, could quash sexism in children before it took hold. "X: A Fabulous Child's Story," published in Ms. in 1972, tells of a baby whose parents keep its sex a secret from the world. As X grows up and attends school, rather than becoming an outcast, it becomes a role model: “Susie, who sat next to X in class, suddenly refused to wear pink dresses to school anymore... Jim, the class football nut, started wheeling his little sister's doll carriage around the football field.
Unfortunately, this well-intentioned effort by parents often caused more damage then good. Many children have lasting memories of being mistaken for the opposite sex, and there were 73 lawsuits surrounding boys with long hair and institutional dress codes. In more liberal states, like Vermont, the courts tended to rule with the boys, but in conservative states, like Alabama, the courts almost always ruled in favor of the institutions.
Unisex clothing certainly pushed back against traditional, rigid gender stereotypes, forcing people to think more clearly about what really constitutes a person’s gender. The movement also allowed men and women to explore different fashion options without worrying about the social consequences experienced by those in earlier generations.
But for all the successes, unisex clothing also had some specific failures. Even though unisex clothing was designed to blur the differences between men and women, it actually ended up highlighting them even more.
As Jo B. Paoletti writes in her book Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution writes:
...part of the appeal of adult unisex fashion was the sexy contrast between the wearer and the clothes, which actually called attention to the male or female body.
For example, tight-fitting turtlenecks were supposed to be unisex, but they actually ended up highlighting the sex of the wearer. Most men and women retained traditional gender markers, such as hair, makeup, beards, and bras, and unisex clothing highlighted those traditional markers even more.
Additionally, even though unisex clothing may have made women’s clothing more masculine, it didn’t make it particularly unfeminine, which was the overarching goal of the movement. Trying to feminize men’s clothing didn’t last long either during a time when many people associated feminine clothing with homosexuality. During a time when most homosexual men were trying to hide, wearing feminine clothing just wasn’t going to catch on.
Most department stores and catalogs stopped stocking unisex clothing in 1969. The trend itself carried on for a bit longer, but soon androgynous clothes, which many define as combining masculine and feminine elements, came into vogue. Another way of understanding the difference between androgynous and unisex clothing is that androgynous clothing typically pushed gender boundaries and was modeled by androgynous models, while unisex clothing was safer and often modeled by attractive heterosexual couples.
Famed designer Yves Saint Laurent introduced a tuxedo for women, which he called le smoking. Another designer, Halston, introduced the Ultrasuede dress shirt, which was a masculine shirt with a feminine twist.
Photo via parlourx
Led by stars such as David Bowie, men also experimented with androgynous clothing. Nehru jackets, named after the traditional Indian jacket, came into vogue. Tunics, vests, sport coats, furs, ascots, turtlenecks, and scarves all provided alternatives to the traditional suit and tie.
The unisex movement petered out in the mid-1970’s and remained out of style for a number of years.
In recent years, however, unisex clothing has seen something of a resurgence. The grunge scene of the early-90’s popularized jeans, flannel shirts, combat boots, and knit caps for both men and women. The grunge scene made the tomboy aesthetic much more acceptable for women.
A new trend in fashion in South Korea has couples expressing their love and solidarity by dressing alike. As the South China Morning Post says:
In a country where public displays of affection are still frowned upon, South Korean couples often advertise their relationship by wearing matching outfits - whether socks, shirts, jackets or, more privately, underwear.
Companies like Not Equal, Butchbaby & Co, and Muttonhead all make trendy gender-neutral clothing. The company Personnel of New York divide their online store into men, women, and everyone. Flannel shirts for women are back on trend, and Jaden Smith is bringing unisex clothing back into the conversation for men.
Obviously many of the questions pushed forth by the unisex clothing of the 1960’s haven’t been resolved. But while they may not have been resolved, they certainly have ushered in a new era for people to explore what gender and fashion really mean. Men and women, no longer bound by the strict gender roles of the 1950’s, can dress in ways more fitting to their personalities.
If a man finds feminine clothing more in line with his style, that’s perfectly acceptable. A woman wearing button up flannel shirts is now considered just as attractive as Elizabeth Taylor was in the 1960’s.
As Oscar de la Renta said:
Fashion is about dressing according to what's fashionable. Style is more about being yourself.
Thanks to the unisex clothing trend, we’re all able to be ourselves a little bit more.
Our (free!) curated weekly newsletter of styling ideas and links we love. Subscribe and be first to hear about special offers and giveaways too.