Non-binary fashion icon and creator Radam Ridwan challenges the notion of static non-binary clothing, letting us know that there is not one singular way how an individual can look non-binary, nor is there a uniform universal non-binary style, sharing how we should focus our efforts on degendering all fashion.
I am now an extremely chic non-binary babe. But it wasn’t always this way. For the majority of my life I’ve been closeted, and accordingly, had a closet that could only be described as grotesquely normative.
A traumatic rose-tinted adolescent memory illustrates this best. It was the spring of 2005. After a long, hard winter of re-invigorated Stüssy hoodies and drop-crotch sweatpants, the salmon polo shirt had captured the collective pulse of the Year 6 cohort. Described as a ‘freshie’ look, the shirt was to be styled with an austerely popped collar, paired with a ¾ denim jean short.
Months of mother-nagging and a thousand extra loads of washing later, the ridiculously overpriced shirt sure to make me the coolest kid in class was mine.
I proudly rocked up to the school gates, collar-popped, denim shorts rolled. My cheeks turned a shade closer to coral as instead of the shouts of “legend” I had expected, I was met with those of “fag”. Over the weekend, the trend had shifted. Salmon shirts became seen as simply pink ones, abruptly an item of clothing befitting a girl or a gay.
Running home to discard of the pink shirt, I was swimming in my thoughts. Why did a colour mean so much to boys fervently proclaiming “I don’t give a shit about how I look”?
School bullies were obviously not aware that pink was at one time a ‘boy’s colour’ and during another time *gasp* not associated with gender at all.
So what’s the difference between a salmon and a pink shirt then? Marketing.
As prenatal testing became increasingly popular in the 1980s, so did consumerism focused on this demographic. Brands capitalised from society’s growing obsession with knowing the sex of a child at first glance, selling very specific ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ merchandise to expectant parents.
Baby Boomers loathed the gender-neutral approach of the 1970s and so the reactionary pink/blue binary was born, then applied to everything from child play toys to adolescent polo shirts to adult automobiles.
The fickle children of the schoolyard are responding to a barrage of images featuring girls in frills and boys in bowties but that makes it nonetheless oppressive. Inseparably stitching the gender binary to clothing starting from a person’s birth is a marketing ploy gone awry, one that is implicated in the perpetuation of gender discrimination and transphobia.
Since transforming into the extremely chic non-binary babe I am today, the incessant gendering of my aesthetic is no less common.
Non-binary for me means being unable to be encapsulated by the traditional, western gender binary of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ including the norms associated with these categories. Despite this, most non-binary people are pressured to conform to a set of rules befitting a new notch on the binary — one square in the middle — so we can be placed somewhere for cisgender comfort.
When I wear something ‘hyper-masculine’ I’ll be misgendered more frequently, when I wear something ‘hyper-feminine’ I’ll be harassed without fail. One too many or too few gold accessories and I’ll be met with “but you don’t look non-binary”, as if there were such a thing.
Being non-binary has become synonymous with ‘exactly in-between male and female’ instead of ‘neither exactly male or female’ which, for marketing purposes, appears to equal non-offensive, shapeless, and beige.
In recent seasons, mainstream fashion has caught onto this trend with the inception of ‘genderless’ collections, and even entire brands dedicated to aestheticizing the gender-free lifestyle. Unfortunately, most of these lack flavour. Gimmicky slogan tees and baggy taupe trousers are the staple pieces of these unisex lines, with brands consciously avoiding anything close to sex appeal.
This has proven to be profitable, with gender-free ASOS brand Collusion debuting with strong sales and Nicola Formichetti-created-Nicopanda forming lucrative partnerships with MAC and Amazon. Brands established by cisgender people are benefitting from the ‘genderless’ aesthetic yet do little to challenge the binary or help non-binary people. Heavily-targeted ‘male’ and ‘female’ exclusive categories remain on ASOS, and pop-ups like Selfridges’ Agender – while conceptually sound – fail to address the ‘pink is for girls’ mentality throughout the department store.
Genderless fashion options are a step in the right direction. However, marketing a third choice to non-binary people, somewhere in the middle of male and female, is as problematic as the salmon polo shirt. The implication is that there are specific ways non-binary people should dress, a counterproductive message in the deconstruction of oppressive gender stereotypes.
The movement to degender all fashion — as opposed to creating a new genderless category — is based on the recognition that we don’t need clothing separated by gender entirely. In a world that is beginning to realise there is not one way to be any gender – this awakening must extend to the ways we dress, too.
Not long enough ago, the fashion industry became cognisant that not all women are a size 6 and as such began to expand options available to a wider set of women. The introduction of an all-inclusive genderless taxonomy is equally necessary. Perhaps one where gender labels are replaced with those based on the clothing’s utility – lounging on the couch, supper club -> night club, sex is imminent, a good night’s sleep, hungover brunch date.
For non-binary people, the move to degender fashion is high stakes. The way non-binary people dress is directly linked to the amount of violence faced, with over half of non-binary people adjusting what they wear for fear of assault. I simply want to be able to walk into a store, be correctly gendered by staff, respected by security, use the changing rooms safely, and find a variety of options that fit my body.
Calls for degendering fashion are met with cries of “political correctness gone mad”, or the insistence that we are trying to erase people’s rights to be men and women. But when gender-based oppression is both an outcome and cause of gendered fashion marketing, we must make steps to prevent this vicious cycle. Although there are more violent outcomes for non-binary people, the pressure to wear clothing that befits your gender identity is not a problem exclusive to us, and a solution would undoubtedly relieve everyone.
Despite the adolescent trauma, the quickly shifting nature of trends experienced with the salmon polo shirt provides me hope that we can swiftly create a future where we are not born to wear one colour versus another. A world where men can wear frilly pom-pommed skirts, women can wear ridiculously giant tophats, and non-binary people can wear whatever the fuck they want.
As an extremely chic non-binary babe, I am not requesting a special clothing section just for me, or even a new category of clothing for people like me. I am imploring you to critique the connection between gender and fashion, and in recognition of the oppression that comes from this, I ask you the question:
Can’t we think of something more fashion forward?
Written by Radam Ridwan
Cover photo by Jessica Eliza Ross for Kobe Darko