Unisex, not really

Photo by Caroline Betz Student Publications

Our world is one where male or masculine is the default and female or feminine is an alternative deviation from the expected norm. Without thinking much deeper about it, the average person will use phrases like firemen and policemen, and will refer to a group of people as guys without considering the gender makeup of the group. The issue of the male-default extends farther than somewhat outdated phrases; it extends into our perception of what gender-neutral means, in particular the ways that it extends to clothing.

Infamously, t-shirts promising a “unisex” fit are almost always just shirts cut for a masculine frame that are being marketed to a wider audience in order to increase a company’s bottom line. The real problem with this marketing lies in the fact that unisex clothing rarely fits those with a feminine frame well, making the phrase “unisex” a clear contradiction.

Gender-neutral clothing styles have become more and more popular for people of all gender expressions, as androgyny increasingly influences trendy clothing styles. In particular, it has become more popular to dress young children in “gender neutral”  clothing until they are old enough to voice their desires as to how they would like to be dressed. 

While this is an amazing sentiment and working to decrease the gender specific socialization that children experience is incredibly important, the problem is that “gender neutral”  clothing isn’t actually neutral; it’s just masculine clothing in especially neutral colors. 

Conventionally, “masculine” clothing for young kids includes a color palette of dark blues, greens, blacks and grays along with imagery of “outdoorsy” things like dinosaurs, bugs, dump trucks and sports. The shapes and cuts of this category of clothing are distinct from clothing generally designed for young girls in a few key ways. First, the shorts and sleeve lengths are longer (little girls t-shirts generally include a short cap sleeve as opposed to an elbow length short sleeve) and the cut of pants and shirts alike are much less fitted. 

Conversely, “feminine” clothing for young kids typically includes a pastel or bright color palette and motifs such as flowers, fairies and butterflies. The cuts of this clothing typically include dresses and skirts, shorter sleeves and shorts and generally more fitted cuts than clothing marketed for little boys.

The style of gender-neutral clothing for kids that is currently most popular features a neutral palette of beiges accented by colors like mustard yellow, forest green and dusty blue. The cuts typically feature t-shirts, pants, shorts and sweatshirts in these hues with very few graphics. Undeniably, much of this clothing would not look out of place in the “boys” section of a clothing store.

Treating masculine styles as though they are somehow “gender neutral”  presents masculine as the default and feminine presentation as an offbeat alternative. When children grow up seeing that masculine and “gender neutral” styles are incredibly similar and are harshly contrasted by feminine aesthetics, they are led to believe that if they prefer more feminine styles then that makes them abnormal or wrong.

Instead of making more sad beige clothes for kids and calling masculine clothing “gender neutral,” companies should be clothing in “masculine” cuts but featuring the more “feminine” colors and motifs so that children who want to play outside have options beyond navy with dump trucks or plain beige. Combatting stereotypes that little girls are fragile and should not play outside starts by producing clothing marketed for them that are both practical and in a variety of colors beyond dark colors and neutrals. 

While normalizing clothing for young girls that prioritizes their comfort and is perfect for playing outside is an great step forward that frees them from highly gendered expectations of their behavior, the ways in which we present ideas about masculinity and femininity are incredibly important to allow them to find the identity that
most well suits them.