gender neutral fashion

Is gender neutrality the next big fashion trend?

March 2022

We live in an age in which consumers are increasingly willing to shop outside of their assigned genders. No longer taboo, discussions about gender diversity have taken center stage. Based on this cultural shift, many genderless fashion brands are on the rise. These new brands are backed by the fashion industry capital and the mainstream media. 

On the other hand, established fashion brands - ones that opened their doors well before a genderless approach became mainstream - have been relying on the binary gender system for decades. How should these brands adapt to this new reality? More specifically, what would be the implications on their e-commerce strategies, not only in terms of product offering, experience and content, but also operationally?

The shift to binary based

"In the West, until the 17th century, womenswear and menswear were fairly similar. They were both based around a tunic-style garment and made by the same professionals - the tailors. Generally speaking, the clothing divide was based on class and not gender." (source)

During the reign of Louis XIV, in France, a group of seamstresses started to dedicate themselves exclusively to women’s fashion and created a separate guild. At that point, making clothes for women was cast as exaggerated and frivolous — distinct from tailoring.

As time passed, “differences in dress became more and more gendered until gender itself became a binary so entrenched in the popular imagination that it started having a life of its own. People were rigidly classed into one of two genders, with dress rules so unbreakable that many countries had cross-dressing laws.”(source)

Gender reveals haven’t always been a thing

Despite the changes in the 17th century, babies and kids’ garments remained similar, regardless of gender, until the first half of the 20th century, when the industry started differentiating children’s clothing by gender in matters of cut, pockets, images, and decoration, but not by color. Pink and blue were both used as 'baby colors' and not even department stores could agree on it.

During the 1940s, a number of popular female personalities started to show their preference for pink in colored magazines and later in the 1950s on color TV. Their popularity was interpreted by manufacturers and retailers as the consumers’ preferences. It goes without saying that the entire fashion industry was ruled by men at that time.

pink for ladies

1. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower in pink

2. Marilyn Monroe (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) in pink

Blurring the boundaries

Fortunately, a shift is underway in the fashion industry and in society as a whole. Thanks to the cultural (re)evolutions of the 20th century, easy access to all kinds of information and points of view online and the ability to communicate with a diverse range of people using social media, it is a lot harder for a small circle of people to dictate fashion standards and how consumers should behave.

“Now we know that gendered dress may seem completely benign, but it can present a problem for people who live outside of the gender old fashioned norms of their society. Even for people who generally conform to gender norms, it restricts the choices available to them, as anyone who couldn’t find a piece of clothing in their size or in a color.” (source)

We don’t have to look very far to find all sorts of examples. One of our team member’s father prefers to shop for trousers in the womenswear section because he prefers the color options. My 5- and 9-year-old sons love the t-shirts from the girls section because they are fun and have shiny things all over. According to a survey, 58% of women think it should be socially acceptable to wear men’s underwear, particularly the younger generations.

unicorn boy

A boy who loves unicorns (twitter.com)

Brick-and-mortar stores have many constraints when it comes to getting fluid with gender and have to create a single shopping experience for everybody that comes in, but e-commerce can offer personalized shopping experiences from the very start.

In 2020, online apparel sales were already responsible for 46% of the total revenue in the US, an increase from 26% only two years before. Younger generations are already very comfortable buying online and with the e-commerce fashion industry expected to grow to a staggering $1 trillion by 2025, focusing on a genderless approach online first is the way to go in terms of ROI.

Speaking of the opportunities to target the younger generations, many fashion brands for kids, such as Mini Rodini, Bobo Choses and Primary are already adopting a gender-free approach in their e-commerce as well as in how they create and market their products.

Rewriting the narrative

Although all the cultural and behavioural changes mentioned above are happening as we speak, we can't ignore the fact that most consumers are still used to and expect to start their journeys by making use of the binary gender system. This is clearly reflected in the UX, navigation and content architecture of e-commerce sites from most major fashion brands and retailers such as Zalando, H&M, Zara, Asos, Uniqlo, etc.

It's hard to say what’s actually setting expectations for a gender-based experience – is it based on a majority of consumers’ real preferences and needs or is it the widespread adoption of this system by all major retailers? A classic example of the age-old question: which came first, the chicken or the egg? 

For any body and every body

Luckily, with the adoption of personalization and conversion rate optimization (CRO) strategies, we can now create experiments to test new approaches to help users to find what they want and that will work better than the gender-based system. 

Perhaps the current gender-based system will still work best for most people for some time but based on what the brands know about their customers—as segments or on an individual level—they can start to gradually roll-out experiences that will feel more relevant for everybody, instead of just the majority.

Because the need to understand customers better is vital, special attention should be paid to how to collect and handle first-hand data to make the most informed decisions.

The best approach then won't be to add gender-free experiences on top of existing gender-based architectures, a solution that would most likely lead to confusion. Instead, brands should try to treat their customers based on what makes them unique and not on what they all have in common.

Categories based on gender

H&M has a "Divided" menu item that could confuse consumers even more, considering the examples given here.

Operation Change

As we saw, there are approaches to address gender-free experiences from the content architecture and product offering perspective. However, once it's applied, other unforeseen technical and operational challenges may crop up.

For example, big fashion players might have divided their corporate departments by gender. They might have creative and research, content factories and PR teams that are dedicated to a specific gender. There could even be separate warehouses and supply chains. These brands will likely struggle to move as fast as newer brands that have been using a gender-free approach from the start. After all, there's no point in changing your product architecture online if it's not possible to deliver a product offering that will match it.

Another challenge is how to deal with sizing. This is an issue that has been tackled many times unsuccessfully in the past. Because it's most often based on gender, it's impossible to account for body differences in different parts of the world. A new gender-free sizing system can actually be part of the solution to this centuries-old problem. Fortunately again, new technologies can come to the rescue. E-commerce plugins like Fitle and Sizolution can already suggest sizes based on the body shape of the customers and even fitting preferences, rather than generic standards. Brands could even collect body shapes created by their users to create garments with sizes they never considered before.

Marketing: flipping the script

“Until now, marketers have been taught not to question the concept of binary gender; it’s firmly programmed into muscle memory. Outdated gender constructs still shape organizational thinking — they’re in our biases, personas, databases, insights, and more. Consider, for example, the volume of market research conducted with strict sampling requirements for male and female respondents.” (source)

A gender-free approach and communication won't work or feel natural if it's not aligned with the brand's values in the first place. However, if these brands want to keep up with future generations, they might need to revisit their values sooner rather than later. According to Pew Research, 59% of Generation Z already think that there should be options other than “man” and “woman” in forms or online profiles when asked about a person’s gender.

“Gender is a proxy, and no marketer should have to build a brand based on guesswork that relies on a faulty construct. Smart marketing is about harnessing the intelligence of data and analytics to build a brand that understands and serves the unique and individual needs of customers, no matter where they identify on the gender spectrum.” (source)

The kids are alright

In conclusion, there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution for how to deal with a gender-free approach in fashion e-commerce. It will depend on many aspects such as brand values, corporate structure, technology capabilities, consumer profile, product offering, size, etc.

However, what a genderless approach to fashion e-commerce could offer to all brands is not only being able to cater to non-binary shoppers but also to enhance the shopping experience for the younger generations that are no longer tied to choices made by people with mindsets from decades or centuries ago. 

Being ahead of the game and getting ready for these new and future generations of consumers can only be good for business.

Author: Fernando Heller Vajda, Researcher & UX designer at Elespacio

Illustration: Carmen Reina

Related links:https://www.pewresearch.org

https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/marketing-beyond-the-gender-binary/

https://medium.com/sizolution/a-brief-history-of-sizing-systems

https://commonthreadco.com/blogs/coachs-corner/fashion-ecommerce-industry-trends

https://www.businesswire.com

https://www.digitalcommerce360.com/article/online-apparel-sales-us/

https://www.seamwork.com/articles/degendering-fashion-the-origins-of-gendered-fashion

https://www.vogue.com/article/genderless-fashion-shopping-guide

https://www.instyle.com/fashion/clothing/gender-neutral-brands