The definitions are somewhat ambiguous, and may be used interchangeably by some, but today, we favor unisex designs: T-shirts and turtlenecks, button shirts, jeans, khakis and blazers are all part of unisex styles.
The unisex movement may have made women’s clothing more masculine, without becoming unfeminine. And vise Versa! In fact, part of the appeal of unisex fashion is the contrast between the wearer and the clothes. Think Harry Styles or Tilda Swinton. Kristin Stewart or Billy Porter.
But what’s the difference between unisex, androgynous and gender neutral? Well…
The term gender was first used in 1955 to describe social and cultural aspects of whether a person was male or female, regardless of their biological sex. Next, the term unisex was coined in the 1960s in reference to garments that were intended to be worn by either sex.
Most unisex clothing was, and is, based on male styles. Fit may be adjusted, some new fabrics may be introduced, but it is still basically men’s clothing adjusted to include women wearing it.
The term androgynous was first used in England in the 17th century, but the term became fashionable again in the 1970s in reference to the glam rock scene. It refers to someone whose appearance is neither clearly feminine nor masculine– having an ambiguous sexual identity with both masculine and feminine characteristics.
Androgynous clothes are meant to blur the line between blatant male or female characteristics. David Bowie, as Ziggy Stardust, is one of the first, and clearest, examples of androgynous dressing.
Gender neutral is a more modern term that is similar to unisex. Its original purpose was to be gender-inclusive for those in the LGBTQ community, as well as those outside it.
It’s a reaction to limited off-the-rack options of standard sizing that doesn’t really fit or flatter the body of either males or females. It’s meant to be non-judgmental– considering both men and women equally in the design process.
Whether you use the term unisex, androgynous or gender-neutral, everyone from couture designers to affordable mass-market retailers are embracing it. Intentionally or not.
It’s said the origin of modern unisex clothing as fashion was actually World War II, when women had to join the workforce in positions where pants were necessary.
Defying the suit generation, with Marlon Brando and James Dean popularizing jeans and t-shirts, the democratization of clothing was broadcast on the big screens everywhere.
Then, the next major movement occurred in 1968 when runways featured fashions inspired by the space race and futurism. Think Paco Rabanne, Pierre Cardin, Andre Courreges who all featured egalitarian “Space Age” fashions that were inspired by future societies that didn’t differentiate between men and women– style wise.
Also in the 60s, the tuxedo became a unisex garment when Yves Saint Laurent introduced his Le Smoking line.
Androgyny was embodied as Prince and the Revolution had men and women both wearing lace, ruffles and make-up. Not to mention Hair Bands with their skinny tight pants and sky-high locks.
Kurt Cobain and Grunge made the tomboy aesthetic acceptable for women. Marc Jacobs elevating it didn't hurt the trend either.
In 2015 Gucci embraced red lace shirts, chiffon pussy bow button-ups and high ruffled collars were worn by men and women on the runway. That same year Yves Saint Laurent used heels with tight skinny jeans and Givenchy layered skirts over pants. Both trickeled down to the masses.
Today, brands old and new are committed to creating clothing for all gender identities, all sexual orientations, and every shape, size and color of body. As politic, business and as a widening the role of fashion and self expression.