In March, the London department store Selfridges gave itself a radical makeover, transforming three floors of its Oxford Street emporium into gender-neutral shopping areas. Androgynous mannequins wore unisex garments by designers such as Haider Ackermann, Ann Demeulemeester, and Gareth Pugh, and the store’s website got a similarly sexless redesign, displaying the same products on both male and female models. Dubbed “Agender,” the temporary pop-up shopping experience—or experiment—ultimately proved to be more successful as a marketing tool than a retail revolution; as some fashion journalists have pointed out, today’s clothes “are much the same for each sex anyhow.”
But that wasn’t always the case. As Freud put it: “When you meet a human being, the first distinction you make is ‘male or female?’ and you are accustomed to make the distinction with unhesitating certainty.” Had Freud lived through the 20th century instead of the 19th, he might have had good cause for hesitation. In an era when gender norms—and many other norms—were being questioned and dismantled, unisex clothing was the uniform of choice for soldiers in the culture wars.
In her new book Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution, the University of Maryland professor Jo Paoletti revisits the unisex trend, a pillar of second-wave feminism whose influence still resonates today. As Paoletti tells it, unisex clothing was a baby-boomer corrective to the rigid gender stereotyping of the 1950s, itself a reaction to the perplexing new roles imposed on men and women alike by World War II. The term “gender” began to be used to describe the social and cultural aspects of biological sex in the 1950s—a tacit acknowledgement that one’s sex and one’s gender might not match up neatly. The unisex clothing of the 1960s and 70s aspired “to blur or cross gender lines”; ultimately, however, it delivered “uniformity with a masculine tilt,” and fashion’s brief flirtation with gender neutrality led to a “stylistic whiplash” of more obviously gendered clothing for women and children beginning in the 1980s.