As a teenager in the 90s, I often paired men’s shirts and goods with floral A-line skirts or my mother’s simple black salvos to look different. Back in 2007, when Kareena Kapoor made a similar style statement in a white Patiala salwar and printed blouse combo at Jab We Met, I knew I wasn’t alone.
Many moons later, at a fashion shoot, intrigued by her unusual outfit, I asked the designer Mia where she had chosen her clothes. Mia smiled. She often shopped in the men’s section, she said.
“When styling photos, I don’t shop for men or women. I just want a certain look. Apart from socks and skirts, there is not much difference for girls and boys, especially nowadays”, says Mia.
Fashion journalist Varun Rana fell in love with his mother’s saree collection while growing up. “Studying fashion design at NIFT, New Delhi, I started seeing the sari as a designer drape rather than a gender marker and started wearing saris as dhotis,” he says. “It was never my intention to make any kind of gender statement. It’s just that many people associate the beautiful length of clothes only with women.”
What’s in a name?
“Gender fluid fashion for some people means unisex fashion, which is clothing that works well for both genders. But for me, it’s more about a non-conformist attitude,” says Dubai-based fashion journalist, author and conscious fashion advocate Sujata Assomull. “You see pussy bows in menswear at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, and silhouettes in womenswear that are more sartorial.”
“Fluid gender influences where you can’t create the feeling of someone else saying you can’t wear this or you can only wear that is the most interesting revolution happening in fashion right now. The simple rule is that there are no rules,” says London-based editor-in-chief Nonita Kalra. Mr. CLiQ Luxurious.
No particular type of fashion is gender fluid, points out Varun. “It’s how one chooses to wear it that makes a garment gender fluid,” he explains. “While gender fluidity is nice to talk about and used as a fashionable marketing tool, there are also many people who understand it as part of their lives.”
“Since ancient times there has been fluidity in the cutting and covering of unstitched cloths. In ancient Rome and Greece, men wore long, flowing robes (toga) with a long drape over one shoulder, much like the Indian sari. Or they wore skirts that barely skimmed the knee! Women wore similar style togas. The frock – a short pleated skirt – is another gender garment worn by men. In India, men and women wear long or short kurtas with pajamas. Some dhoti styles resemble the way sarees are worn and vice versa, such as the Maharashtrian Nauvari saree,” says senior designer Madhu Jain.
For the fashion industry, the move towards consciously blurring the lines between genders began in the 20th century. “Big-ticket design houses started dressing their models in unisex clothes. Coco Chanel, for example, began borrowing men’s clothes and adapting them to fit her female models. In India, more and more designers are experimenting with dressing men in skirts and jackets and women in tuxes!” says Madhu.
Androgyny, says Sujata, was first used in the Indian context when Abraham and Thakore started doing angarakhas and Anamika Khanna started dhotis. “Androgyny came when we were talking about women’s rights and women’s representation, and gender fluidity is coming now when we’re talking about inclusivity,” she says.
According to designer Nida Mahmood, gender neutrality is a big conversation around the world. “In India, it’s still in its early stages, but it’s slowly picking up steam,” says Nida. “The small groups that believe in the concept are working on it, while the big players are still scared of the risk!”
Walking the talk
Madhu is all about gender fluidity, and not just in fashion. “Each of us should have the freedom to choose our personal form of expression. After all, ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits are defined along a continuum by society, and ‘traits’ are interpreted differently in different cultures. There are no absolutes!” she said.
Her clothing line includes gender-fluid collections. “In some of the pants we make—from churidars and dogri pajamas to Moroccan pants—the only difference is in the placement of the zipper: a side zipper for women, a front zipper for men . The short kurtas in my Uzbekistan ikat line can be worn by both genders,” explains Madhu.
Nida spent the lockdown in 2020 researching the future of fashion and thought gender-sensitive clothing was the way to go. That’s why she launched a new line, Suresh Ramesh Shirt Co., which is all about inclusivity and equality. “We do gender neutral shirts, shirt variations, kurtas, kurta variations and more. Interesting prints, modern cuts and breathable fabrics are our cornerstones. We are inspired by India and its nuances,” she says.
Fashion writing should also be truly inclusive, says Nonita. “There can be no “other”, there can be no borders, it cannot be treated differently. It’s important that it’s normalized, part of the regular story, and not treated like you’re doing something special. It’s high time for the advent of gender fashion, because we need to stop defining our limitations on other people’s feelings and hopes,” she says.
By HT Brunch, July 9, 2022
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