How gender fluid fashion is changing the discourse in the industry
Fashion has conventionally been divided in two broad sectors – women’s wear and menswear. But talking about fashion and convention in one line itself is an oxymoron. Fashion has no form; it takes shape of the time it lives in with influence from cultural, social and political-scape of the world. No wonder then that gender fluid fashion has been creating waves in seismic proportions across the fashion and creative fraternity. The clear demarcation between menswear and women’s wear is blurring. There is a new breed of innovative designers who have become the torchbearers of gender fluid fashion. They create unisex line of clothing while promoting a cultural revolution addressing the fashion needs beyond the binary customers. Labels like Anaam, The Pot Plant, Antar- Agni, Huemen and Anuj Bhutani are leading the gender fluid fashion in India.
So what is gender neutral aka gender fluid fashion?
This is the latest entrant in the fashion vocabulary that creates unisex collections for all; not just catering to men’s or women’s line separately. But has the gender non-conformity happened for the first time in fashion? No. Androgynous fashion for women was first started by Yves Saint Laurent in 1966 when he created the first women’s tuxedo for evening wear. As the second wave of feminism spread across the world, women embraced the tuxedo as a symbol of rebellious evening wear.
Women wearing pants and shirts have been accepted as a form of androgynous dressing but the reverse isn’t true. Men wearing effeminate clothing, be it skirts or crop tops or slouch pants or sari, hasn’t been very common in current times.
Though the history recounts it otherwise.
One can’t forget David Bowie in the 70’s. He tried it all, from one-legged cat-suits, voluminous tie-dye suits to embroidered dress coats. Clothes were used to define personalities and make big statements. Remember Boy George rocking the peacock punk style and everything outrageous in the 80’s? Back home in recent times, Ranveer Singh has been the ambassador of gender fluid fashion flaunting his devil-may-care-swag with long skirts, quirky floral print suits and earrings.
“Historically, clothes never had gender. Our mythology provides us with ample examples in form of deities who despite being the icon for strength had effeminate dressing style. Clothes worn then were not divisive on the basis of gender. Be it Dhoti drape, skirt, pearl strings, beaded necklace or earrings, none of these indicated that these particular elements were meant for only men or women. It is only after the invasion of Mughals and the British Raj that there was a clear distinction of menswear and women’s wear” shares Sumiran Kabir Sharma, Founder & Creative Director of Anaam Label whose style aesthetics are highly inspired by Ardhanareshvar avatar of Shiva, an androgynous form of Shiva and Parvati.
Winner of the Woolmark Company’s Best Design Collection Award Portfolio 2013 and Woolmark Young Talent Award, Kabir’s labels’ ethos lies in its unique language — their silhouettes, drapes and detailing. Anaam as the name suggests, is a label that doesn’t adhere to any norms or rigid barriers.
According to Fred Davis in his book ‘ Fashion, Culture and Identity’, the dress of the European aristocracy changed in the 1800s when men’s dressing became a means of communicating economic success and women’s dressing continued to follow an elaborate dress code. As a result, men assumed a highly restricted dress code as the European aristocracy began to decline and the advent of industrial capitalism began.
George Bryan Brummell, better known as Beau Brummell was an iconic figure in Regency England in the 18th century. Known as the forefather of men’s modern style, Brummell was the first one to introduce the concept of bespoke dressing. He made slick tailored suits trending as opposed to elaborate dress coats of British aristocracy.
“The British invasion brought in the strict code of dressing divide. Erstwhile drapes were traded for modern day pants, shirts and jackets to fit in the working class in India” shares Himanshu Verma, Founder –Red Earth. He further elaborates on the history of menswear and adds ‘Before Mughals came to India, both men and women wore only drapes, either as dhoti or a sari. The concept of stitched clothing came in with Mughals. Ornate Jamas and Chogas became a part of both men and women’s wear”.
Himanshu Verma, aka Saree man, has been the torchbearer of gender fluid fashion in India since 2006, almost a decade after David Beckham wore sarong and took the world by surprise. The Saree man moves around the country curating and showcasing saris from different regions, while being draped in his six yards. He wears handloom saris with eccentric shirt blouses while colourful nose pin and ear studs are his evergreen style companions. On the days when he doesn’t wear a sari, he opts for dhotis, almost always.
Resham Karmchandani and Sanya Suri’s love for fashion aesthetics are not restricted to gender. Their label ‘The Pot Plant’ believes in inclusive and comfortable fashion for all, regardless of gender. Their ensembles explore the possibility of moulding supposedly feminine fabrics like chanderi, silk and bandhani into garments that are just that – ‘garments’; a non-gender confirmative entity.
“For us working with gender fluid aesthetics has not been just about designing clothes that people would like to wear. We both have grown up with beautiful hand–me-down clothes irrespective of the fact whether they belonged to our brother or sisters or our parents. We wore our mother’s dresses and our father’s old shirts .So the idea of creating gender neutral clothes came naturally to us” says Sanya Suri on their ethos to create gender neutral clothes.
Reiterating the importance of hand-me-down clothes in Indian families, Kabir reminiscences his childhood and shares “I come from a middle class family from the hills in Himachal Pradesh. I was given clothes, be it skirts or floral pajamas, as hand-me-down from my elder sister. Since it was a part of my upbringing I never thought that these pieces were gender specific. Education and society conditions us to believe in these demarcations. My label Anaam is an extension of my belief in breaking these society generated barriers of clothing’
Kabir, who calls himself a silhouette artist, is influenced by his family in his style aesthetics. His mom was a teacher who proudly flaunted sari with sports shoes and wore his dad’s coat to protect from cold. It was a utilitarian approach more than a style statement. Gender conformity was never a question.
“If one may notice, kurta, Tee-shirt, Jacket and Jeans are gender neutral clothes. Shirts however have distinction in buttons. Women have buttons on left and men on right. Theories say it was because upper class women in Renaissance and Victorian eras were dressed by maids and hence for the ease, buttons were on left. At Anaam, we create clothes that are unisex. Buttons are on the same side for both men and women’ added Kabir on trivia of gender neutral clothes.
While the world is embracing this trend of gender neutral garments, there is still a resistance in customers in India. Bollywood celebrities like Arjun Kapoor have sported cowl-neck and draped pants by Antar-Agni, Sushant Singh Rajput has walked for Shantanu and Nikhil in a cascading draped kurta whereas Ranveer Singh has sported skirt. But beyond the celebrities endorsing the trend or models sashaying the outfits on ramp, labels see a marginal acceptance outside the fashion and design fraternity. Women have been acceptant of the androgynous fashion as a symbol of feminism in everyday life but men are still hesitant to try the drapes and unstructured silhouettes.
“I think there has been a paradigm shift in the way people are now accepting fluid aesthetics. They are following the trend but we think there is still a long way to go in India. While there is more acceptance of women wearing androgynous clothing and men wearing draped silhouettes, I think we still have time when men will accept wearing dresses and women will wear ‘traditional’ menswear silhouettes” shared Reshma Karamchandani from The Pot Plant on market acceptance in India.
Kabir adds an interesting point on business aspect of unisex garments while sharing “In European markets, unisex clothes are very acceptable. There is an emergence of sustainable fashion believers who tend to invest in labels that produce garments with lesser carbon footprints. Unisex garment production is a sustainable way, both for designers and retailers. They do not need to invest in creating an inventory for both genders thereby reducing the amount of fabric used and resources spent. The acceptance in India is at a nascent level but I believe with Bollywood endorsing the gender neutral clothes, there should be a change in the scenario in future”
There is a rising population of youth that does not want to be identified in standard gender binary (male or female). They want to be gender fluid and not bracketed in one label. The society has become more acceptant of this Cultural Revolution. Gender Neutral trend is moving beyond symbolising its wearers’ identity or sexuality. World over it is now being accepted by the mainstream as more of a look both on ramp and high street. Will Indian fashion aficionados accept this as a mainstream cult or allow it to fade as a cyclical fashion trend is a million dollar question.
Until then, the silent mutiny of Gender Fluid Fashion continues; trying to be heard.