Finding fashion that transcends the gender confines

As the line between genders thins, stores and shoppers adjust.


Design by Naomi Hofferber

“Go find something you like,” my mother said in the department store. I turned to the nearest section and began feeling my way through denim, corduroy, and velvet. I rested upon the perfect shirt. The color was flattering, the fabric comfortable, the price minimal. I brought it to my mother, who squished up her nose and eyebrows as if she’d smelled something rancid. “No,” she said. “You don’t want that. Let’s go shop over here.” With her hand on my back, I turned to the boys section.

Nearly all typical clothing stores divide their racks between men’s and women’s fashions, making it challenging for individuals whose expression or fashion tastes don’t fit the gender norms expected for them.

Emily Stagman, a nonbinary individual, decided that enough was enough when it came to the confines of gender.

At 3 a.m. after a bout of bad hair dye, Stagman decided to shave their head. Going against the grain of traditional feminine locks, Stagman felt free to choose an individual style of dress and presentation. There is a particular roadblock, however, when choosing to shop at gendered stores.

“I worry, depending on who I’m with, [if I am] going to get weird looks from employees because I’m looking in the men’s section,” Stagman said. “But it is always nice when I’m out and about, and people don’t know what pronouns to use with me, because I don’t have any set pronouns.”

Stagman shops at local consignment stores such as Goodwill, Stuff, Etc., and Ragstock in order to be environmentally responsible and because they offer androgynous clothing options. Stagman hopes shopping across the aisles (or isles) becomes more socially accepted.

“I think there’s definitely some crossover going on,” Stagman said. “I hope it becomes more common. It started with ‘boyfriend’ jeans and ‘boy-briefs’ that they sell in the women’s aisle. I think, going forward, there’s going to be a lot more stores that are like, OK, we have stuff … come get it.”

Offering a wide selection, Ragstock, 207 E. Washington St., has been a literal underground clothing shop since 1979. Serving less of a gender group and more of an age group, high-school students all the way to graduate students often shop for throwback styles or theme outfits.

Store manager Kevin Reinhard thinks of the company as fashion-forward with trends, season to season. Ragstock stays on top of trends in regards to color palettes and fabrics, he said.

Shape and color change the way you think about yourself and how you interact with things. A lot of women’s clothes I like more than men’s clothes, but I don’t have the measurements.”

— Nate Kouri, UI junior

“There’s a nice niche here, because there are few options for men’s clothing downtown,” Reinhard said. “It’s not predominantly men or women, just college ages. We don’t have one gender in our store, although ladies spend more.”

The movement toward shaking up gender expectations in fashion has recently gained serious traction. In 2018, Elle magazine reported that New York Fashion Week had added a unisex/nonbinary category for fashion shows, with several major fashion brands unveiling new unisex lines. Celebrities have leaned into defying gender clothing norms— notably, rapper and actor Jaden Smith has modeled in a Louis Vuitton women’s wear campaign and also released a nonbinary fashion line MSFTS.

On the Coasts, fashion tends to flourish; new styles emerge first on the Coasts, albeit expensively. On the East Coast, brands such as Marimacho, Veer NYC, and VEEA provide minimalistic, androgynous styles for all gender expressions. On the West Coast, brands such as Androgyny, HauteButch, and Wildfang create clothing that incorporate traditionally masculine and feminine styles into clothes that a variety of individuals with varying body types can wear.

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For local fashion flavors, White Rabbit, 112 S. Linn St., carries all types of product, from artwork and mixology kits to sweaters that equate to a warm hug. What sets White Rabbit apart is its open-dressing-room mindset. Molly Freeman, the manager of White Rabbit, says that while many women shop there and clothing cuts are fitted to a more “feminine” body type, the store has tried its best to remove gendered clothing.

“We don’t consider clothing to have a gender,” Freeman said. “We have a lot of nonbinary folks that buy from us. I’ve sold dresses to men; we have a lot of clothes that fall in between.”

The local store has also been on the forefront of stocking patches and pins to showcase varying gender expression and identity. However, truly androgynous clothing comes at more of a cost.

“As far as selling androgynous products, it’s tough to get and really expensive,” Freeman said. “We want to work more with those that are less represented in little boutiques. We’re a place where anyone can come in, and try something on, and have a place to feel comfortable and experiment with what they want their style to be. We love that.”

As far as selling androgynous products, it’s tough to get and really expensive. We want to work more with those that are less represented in little boutiques. We’re a place where anyone can come in, and try something on, and have a place to feel comfortable and experiment with what they want their style to be. We love that.”

— Molly Freeman

Revival, traditionally a women’s store at 117 College St., is primarily aimed at women of adult and mature ages. However, the store is working to include all manner of expression and identity in support of the androgynous movement. The store added a men’s section with gender-neutral options and is cross-stocking its clothing (putting some men’s clothes in the women’s section and vice versa).

“We have been promoting the movement by using social media as a tool to feature visibility and representation for all genders,” Revival manager Liv Stark said.“We also try to carry brands that support inclusive attitudes, because it’s important to us to not only work toward acceptance in Iowa City but on a larger corporate scale as well.”

In today’s America, cuts, fits, fabrics, and even colors separate gendered clothing. Men today often wear looser fitting clothing so as not to seem curvaceous and effeminate. Lighter and brighter colors are seen as more feminine, leaving traditional men’s fashion with neutral, quiet shades. It’s pink or blue at birth and doesn’t get much more colorful from there.

Even the wish for fashion has been assigned to a gender. Virginia Postrel, the author of The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, argues that prejudiced criticism of fashion is rooted in our culture. Men are not expected to want fashion, and it is not made readily or affordably available to them to the extent that women’s fashion is.

UI junior Nate Kouri pushes the boundary without a thought crossing his mind. By shopping wherever he finds himself, Kouri selects with an emotion-based mindset, searching for bright colors and cuts that will flatter his frame. For Kouri, women’s clothing is often more fun, expressive, and extravagant.

“Depending on how the clothes make me feel and how I feel that day, I will wear them,” Kouri said. “Shape and color change the way you think about yourself and how you interact with things. A lot of women’s clothes I like more than men’s clothes, but I don’t have the measurements.”

A 2013 article in BBC News Magazine, “Why did men stop wearing high heels,” said that despite men and women both embracing heels, makeup, and jewelry in the 17th century, a movement dubbed the Great Male Renunciation that took place around the Enlightenment left men wanting to be seen as more practical and educated and thus abandoning such fashions.

As gender boundaries become thinner in the 21st century, so does the same line that separates trends in popular fashion. Styles formerly seen as petty are now iconic, mainly in women’s fashion but also in an infant stage in men’s fashion.

Postrel argues in her book that boys are often herded away from experimenting with different styles in America or even having fashion icons, consequently postponing their discovery of themselves and their personal style. Some boys wear masculine fashions merely to promote their masculinity to fit into societal norms, while others simply like an understated style. Not to say that women don’t have similar conditioning growing up to be feminine, but it is much easier for women to push through fashion boundaries into men’s fashion than it is for men to push boundaries into women’s fashion, especially with the label of “tomboy” available for girls growing up. There is no such equivalent for boys.

For Orlando Hernandez, men’s fashion is what he is used to, and individual fashions depend on functionality and comfort. The UI sophomore takes into consideration the social expectation of the place he is attending, as well as the feel of the fabric.

“When it comes down to it, the feel of the clothes is most important,” Hernandez said. “I want the clothing to be comfortable to me to wear for the entire day for different activities. I own this pink sweater that is definitely not designed for men, but it’s so comfortable. I have no hesitation because I’m just not self-conscious with what I wear.”

Many men who do not feel comfortable wearing women’s fashions express themselves through jewelry. Earrings are an option that those around him have voted against his experimentation with, but necklaces, bracelets, and watches are not a problem for him to wear, Hernandez said.

By stepping out of the bounds of societal norms with fashionable choices across gender boundaries, modern individuals have created new trends that have started a conversation in mainstream fashion. Cross-section shopping can be fun and surprising. Americans are taught to aspire to gender presentation and to keep society’s pearls unclutched, but in the 21st century, many millennials and Gen-Z fashionistas do not feel like they have to deny whichever style they desire to be respected or admired.

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