The image of Harry Styles in a Gucci dress on Vogue’s December cover proved so controversial that it became international news—and not for the obvious reason that it’s Harry f**king Styles and he looks amazing! Even politicians weighed in on the Tyler Mitchell–lensed photoshoot in which Styles, who is far from the first, or even the most provocative gent to slip into a dress, wears several frocks by Gucci, Chopova Lowena, Wales Bonner, and Harris Reed. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for the record, thought Styles looked “bomb,” but at its core, the dress debate highlighted an issue that plagues much of the fashion world and the world at large: the gender binary. 

Let’s state the obvious: A piece of fabric, a textile, or a garment has no gender. This is an indisputable fact! But for as long as fashion has existed as a codified set of seasons, fashion shows, and trends, it has worked under the assumption that gender exists in a binary. Every aspect of the fashion system is beholden to the segregated ideas of menswear and womenswear: universities, fashion weeks, retail floors, e-commerce websites, modeling agency boards, and even creative directorships are divided down gender lines. Many within the industry have begun to remedy this fractured system, but the industry at large must ask itself: How can we represent the spectrum of gender in a more inclusive and realistic way?

One place to begin is retail. Beyond a capitalist pursuit, shopping is a means to self-realization and self-expression. From our earliest moments, clothes define us. As we grow older, the search for the “perfect” black boot, shearling coat, or high-rise jean becomes less about finding the trendiest or most coveted item and more about the one that best agrees with our own set of aesthetic codes. 

Yet to even begin shopping for new jeans, we are commonly asked to assign ourselves to one of two fashion genders: men’s or women’s. This happens at brick-and-mortar stores, which divide up menswear and womenswear into separate areas, floors, and sometimes even buildings. It happens online, too, where many of the most popular luxury e-commerce sites divide their offerings with little crossover.

“We recognize that [style] can be fluid and flexible—meaning that one day, you may identify with and choose to express greater degrees of femininity than you might on a different day,” says Ssense’s Brigitte Chartrand, the vice president of womenswear buying. “[but] we also recognize that the average consumer at this moment, and despite our collective, growing consciousness about gender identities and continuums, still has a mental model that they use when buying clothing. In other words, when browsing through our assortment of over 50,000 items and 600 brands, there’s a simplicity and ease in organizing clothing by men’s and womenswear departments because it aligns with how people think of clothes and navigate online and brick and mortar stores.”

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