Keywords in Dress: Unisex

Unpacking the Terminology of Dress

THE TERM ‘UNISEX’, RATHER fittingly, was coined in the Sixties. Prefixing ‘sex’ with ‘uni­–’ (meaning ‘one’) in the context of fashion refers to a single garment or aesthetic that is shared by both sexes. It suggests that a garment or hairstyle is not engendered and can be worn by either sex without connotations of masculine or feminine.

Throughout history fashion has had a divisive function, separating and defining class, gender and social status. In contrast to this notion, ‘unisex’ clothing is a breakdown of these defining categories into a single unified aesthetic for both men and women.

Subverting gender in fashion has been a popular point of departure for designers and stylists alike, particularly those of the Post-Modern set, like Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano and Walter Van Bierendonck, who have redefined our assumptions on dress with theatrical flair. These designers rebel against gender norms to offer a transgressive and sexualised act of fashion. Unisex clothing, on the other hand, is more concerned with the union of men’s and women’s dress as one streamlined entity and therefore offers equality rather than rebellion.

In each era across the twentieth century, unisex clothing has had different functions. From Thayat’s (the pseudonym of artist and designer Ernesto Michahelles) 1919 Futurist unisex offering, the coverall ‘Tuta’ garment, to the second half of the century in which the Swinging Sixties experimented with the rigid gender boundaries of dress. During this era, designer Rudi Gernreich demonstrated a particular affinity with unisex clothing, proclaiming in 1970 that, ‘What unisex means is that we are beyond pathology, and fashion is finished.’

Unisex dress has witnessed a revival in recent high fashion collections, with designers creating outfits for both men and women and styling them androgynously in fashion editorials. Collections from designers like Rick Owens, Rad Hourani, JW Anderson and Miuccia Prada have spurred a renewed discussion across fashion media on what value we place on gender in fashion product.

Instructions for constructing Thayat’s TuTa, from 1919.
Unisex Fashion by Rudi Gernreich, 1970.
The Pandrogeny Project from 1993, a project where performance artist and musician Genesis P-Orridge and his wife Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge attempted to unify their identities as an ultimate act of unisex.
JW Anderson for Loewe, spring/summer 2015 menswear collection.
Rick Owens spring/summer 2013 menswear collection.


Further Reading:

But no matter how similar the clothes of men and women may appear, or how different, the arrangements of each are always being made with respect to the other. Male and female clothing, taken together, illustrates what people wish the relation between mend and women to be, beside indicating the separate peace each sex is making with fashion or custom at any given time. Without looking at what men are wearing, it’s impossible to understand women’s clothes, and vice versa. The history of dress, including its current history, so far has to be perceived as a duet for men and women performing on the same stage. There may come a time when sexuality is not visualized in clothing as rightly divided into two main categories; but so far it still is.

Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits, 1994.

The line of demarcation between the dress of women, priests and servants, on the one hand, and of men, on the other hand, is not always consistently observed in practice, but it will scarcely be disputed that it is always present in a more or less definite way in the popular habits of thought. There are of course free men, and not a few of them, who, in their blind zeal for faultless reputable attire, transgress the theoretical line between man’s and woman’s dress, to the extent of arraying themselves in apparel that is obviously designed to vex the moral frame; but everyone recognises without hesitation that such apparel for men is a departure from the normal. We are in the habit of saying that such dress if ‘effeminate’; and one sometimes hears the remark that such or such an exquisitely attired gentleman is as well dressed as a footman.

Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899.

“Anytime I do a men’s show, I’m thinking this would be fantastic for women—or at least for me. And more and more, it feels instinctively right to translate the same idea for both genders.”

Miuccia Prada on her spring/summer 2015 menswear collection.