From equality to gender diversity – fashion reflecting time

Fashion as a culture of embodiment is closely linked to the notion of who we are. Throughout history, people have used clothing and outfits to create their own identity and to convey messages. Annamari Vänskä, Adjunct Professor of Fashion Research, and Designer Ervin Latimer met to discuss the relationship between gender and fashion. 

In addition to portraying one’s identity, clothing is also used as a means of expressing roles. Our work selves differ from our home selves, and there is a reason why authorities and sports teams wear uniforms distinguishing them from others – clothes reveal our social status and reflect our power and influence. 

At the same time, clothes illustrate what is considered appropriate and desirable in the society at a certain time. In the Western world, we have learned that men wear suits and women wear dresses, and this division of roles is something not to be interfered with. 

In a global world, fashion has become the recreational pastime for all people. At the same time, the perception of gender has diversified. Nowadays, larger groups of people consume fashion, and the boundaries of normative gender perception are challenged by using apparel. 

Gender-free menswear promoting equality

The idea of fashion that suits all genders is nothing new. Clothing that has no form, colour or style traditionally associated with a specific gender is not a novel idea. Already back in the 60s and 70s, gender discussions showed a willingness to see people as equals regardless of their gender. 

Annamari Vänskä, Adjunct Professor of Fashion Research at Aalto University, highlights this by using Marimekko’s beloved Jokapoika (meaning ‘every boy’ in Finnish) shirt as an example. Although originally designed as a shirt for men, it quickly became popular among women as well.  

The Tasaraita (meaning ‘even stripe’ in Finnish) jersey collection symbolised equality as well. It was designed for men and women, but also for adults and children. It managed to bridge the gap also between generations, Vänskä says. 

Even though genderlessness, unisex and androgyny, which went mainstream in the 90s, denounced gender binary, the geometrical forms and elements familiar from men’s fashion were still prevailing. Unisex clothing has often been menswear, which women can also wear. 

Vänskä sees a shift in discussions nowadays. This is reflected in the work of photographer and influencer Mikko Puttonen, and in the way he depicts diversity of genders. 

Menswear is increasingly influenced by elements deemed as feminine, such as patterns, material, colour and cut. ” 

 Menswear is increasingly influenced by elements deemed as feminine, such as patterns, material, colour and cut. 

Body and shape are more important than gender 

Designer Ervin Latimer wishes that the fashion and clothing industry would have the courage to renounce the traditional male-female split. He doesn’t want to confine clothes to categories according to whether they are sold in men’s or women’s section, but rather according to whether the item fits its wearer. 

– I don’t see gender in clothing. There are, for example, feminine bodies that require taking into consideration the curve of the chest area or the hips, but there are also men and masculine people with a similar body type. And vice versa, there are feminine people or people who identify as women and have a body with a particularly straight silhouette. 

It would be much more sensible – as well as responsible – to let the body and its shape determine how clothes are labelled. Vänskä, too, feels that the prevalent body type and image in pattern cutting is very narrow. The individual body shape has not been taken into consideration very well by the clothing industry. It can be difficult to find something beautiful to wear if you do not fit the standard. 

Giving up the binary division would bring equality also to body diversity. This would also be a way of eliminating the unpleasant concepts of something being viewed as plus-sized or normal-sized. 

– Of course people of different sizes need clothing of different sizes. Though, now there seems to be a tone to the discussion, as if insinuating that here you can find clothes for normal people and over there are the clothes for the more problematic individuals, go there if you don’t fit the norm, says Latimer. 

Latimer has just launched a gender-free collection for Kesko (a Finnish retailing conglomerate). A lot of effort went into creating the right fit. 

– It’s in the designer’s job description to solve problems like these. It has been an interesting challenge to come up with solutions and tricks in order to create space around the chest or looseness around the hips. 

Annamari Vänskä, Adjunct Professor of Fashion Research (on the left) and Designer Ervin Latimer

Designers have the power to change perceptions 

Both Latimer and Vänskä talk about the power and the responsibility a designer possesses. What is considered appropriate at a given time and what emerges to challenge the norm, is very much a matter of the designer’s work. 

– In my opinion, we have the responsibility and duty to think about those left outside the norm. We, as designers, have decided what the norm is. We reflect our own frame of reference onto it, along with our dream of the world. This is demonstrated, for example, by who we cast as models and what kind of bodies they have. 

With his own label, Latimmier, he aims to challenge the concept of who can express masculinity and with what kinds of clothes that can be done. 

A man in a skirt is nothing new.”

– A man in a skirt is nothing new. The point is what a skirt means in different contexts, and the role that is assigned to it. What is the meaning assigned to a pleated print skirt made from wool fabric traditionally used for making suits. The idea of conveying a message that this, too, can be masculine. 

Latimmier SS23: photos Ville Mäkärinen

Giving up the binary gender divide is a big thing in an industry largely based on the male-female dichotomy. The change can, at first, feel like an uphill battle, but if there is a will, there is a way to make it happen. We already have labels like Nomen Nescio with clothes that do not represent a specific gender, age or status. 

Latimer considers this as a mainly semantic change and draws a comparison to a discussion a few years ago concerning the use of pronouns in languages with gendered pronouns. 

– Now all that fuss feels like a thing of the past. It’s more about the way we talk about issues than actually changing the way we do things. You can still manufacture clothes using masculine and feminine sewing patterns but the guiding principle should be the body itself, not the gender. 

There is always muttering and raised eyebrows with a process of change, Latimer points out. 

– I am simply happy if my work triggers reactions. You don’t have to agree with me but the reaction tells me that a person has had to challenge themselves and think about things. That in and of itself feels like a victory. Next time a designer does something similar, a person might already think of it as “a no big deal”. 

Latimer has noticed that the consumers in the younger generation are already moving away from the rigid gender division. People are shopping in the section where they find clothes they like. 

– Luckily, it seems that there is no need to struggle with these issues for much longer. Things are developing and expanding naturally. 

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