Let's make 'everyone' clothes

Updated: Jun 21, 2020, 18:23 IST | Shweta Shiware | Mumbai

Should we be thinking up designs that don't prescribe to gender? There cannot be a better time, say India's young designers, because the pandemic just taught us that less-is-more and inclusive is in

Part of an ongoing study of clothing practices native to the NAWA (North Africa-West Asia) and the Indian subcontinent, Kallol Datta uses visible markers of a community such as jewellery and shrouding practices of the chador, manteaux, abaya, kaftan and hijab as building blocks to layer and shape his sexless design aesthetic. Pic courtesy/ Karan Malhotra
Part of an ongoing study of clothing practices native to the NAWA (North Africa-West Asia) and the Indian subcontinent, Kallol Datta uses visible markers of a community such as jewellery and shrouding practices of the chador, manteaux, abaya, kaftan and hijab as building blocks to layer and shape his sexless design aesthetic. Pic courtesy/ Karan Malhotra

A buttoned-up shirt occupies that sweet spot of being an unimpeachable gender-neutral favourite. But all shirts are not created equal. We are not referring to the cut, price or label, but to the button placement. Women's shirts have buttons on the left placket; men's shirts on the right. This subtle reminder of gender differentiation goes back centuries, when buttons fused on the right side on men's shirts allowed quick access to concealed weapons. Buttons on the left supposedly made the task of breast-feeding easier for women. "Wearing clothes is an everyday habit but it is also an act of gender politics," says Kallol Datta.

The Kolkata-based designer thinks unisex is a lazy term, much like androgynous, and wishes buyers would pick clothes not necessarily for men and women but based on like and dislike. "It does not matter which gender or sexuality you identify with; if you like my garment, wear it."

Kallol Datta
Kallol Datta

With a decade-long career of tacitly exploring "sexless" shapes using a variety of pattern cutting techniques, Datta skews, deconstructs and then layers fabrics to form template-like textile structures.

Culturally, India isn't new to styles that work for both men and women.

Part of an ongoing study of clothing practices native to the NAWA (North Africa-West Asia) and the Indian subcontinent, Kallol Datta uses visible markers of a community such as jewellery and shrouding practices of the chador, manteaux, abaya, kaftan and hijab as building blocks to layer and shape his sexless design aesthetic. PIC COURTESY/PARAK SARUNGBAM
Part of an ongoing study of clothing practices native to the NAWA (North Africa-West Asia) and the Indian subcontinent, Kallol Datta uses visible markers of a community such as jewellery and shrouding practices of the chador, manteaux, abaya, kaftan and hijab as building blocks to layer and shape his sexless design aesthetic. Pic courtesy/Parak Sarungbam

The Gujarati kediyu, and the ubiquitous angrakha and kurta, have been shared shapes for both. Mythology celebrates this shared union too. The Ardhanareshwar or composite half-male and half-female form of Shiva and Parvati is revered as a synthesis of masculine and feminine energies, which means looking beyond the fashion binary is not exactly surprising for us. And yet, it has eluded the mainstream. A handful of high-end brands like Manish Arora, Rajesh Pratap Singh and Rohit Bal have championed gender-neutral clothing, while a raft of smaller labels such as Kallol Datta 1955, Chola, Bloni, Kaleekal, Anaam and The Pot Plant, all by young designers, are pushing the idea that gendered clothing should be an obsolete category. Especially, right now.

Sohaya Misra
Sohaya Misra

The Coronavirus crisis, and its devastating blow to spending, has hit the fashion industry—which relied on speeding from one season's sales to the next. With a collective focus on a greener and fairer fashion industry, insiders predict a new appreciation for sustainable and inclusive business models. "[But] sustainable practices cannot be your brand's USP. It should be a given. Good design that engages with ideas of identity, gender, culture and socio-cultural phenomena has an audience, no matter how small," Datta feels. This means collectively reducing the volume of clothes we produce and buy, and in turn, the carbon footprint we leave on the planet. It also means widening the scope of design to encompass the needs of marginal audiences, including the LGBTQi+ community and anyone else frustrated by the limited off-the-rack options in standard body styles and sizes.

It was during the showcase of winter/festive 2018 collection titled Bye Felicia when Sohaya Misra first dressed male models, including actor Prateik Babbar, in women’s anti-fit silhouettes. PIC COURTESY/SIDDHARTH LALCHANDANI
It was during the showcase of winter/festive 2018 collection titled Bye Felicia when Sohaya Misra first dressed male models, including actor Prateik Babbar, in women’s anti-fit silhouettes. Pic courtesy/ Siddharth Lalchandani

Sohaya Misra was 38 when she launched her label Chola. The absence of exciting clothing options for petite women like her spurred the Mumbai resident to introduce an anti-fit range of separates that swing both ways. Chola label tags read: Age/ Sex/Size—No Bar. "I never think of gender when I design," Misra admits. Challenging traditional ideas of dress—who wears a thing, and how it's worn—is vital to both the design and politics of Chola, and has attracted the attention of a likeminded tribe since its launch in 2015. "Gender neutrality should not be discussed as a trend, but as an attitude, a way of life," Misra insists.

Sumiran Kabir Sharma
Sumiran Kabir Sharma

Like its wide-ranging audience, the terms to describe this kind of fashion are also varied—genderless, gender-inclusive, agender, gender-neutral, gender-fluid, anti-fit and no-gender. Together, they apply to clothing that rejects typical gender norms in design or identity. Akshat Bansal of Bloni calls it "neutrois". "It's not about boy equals girl, or patriarchy or feminism but creating a third identity within the clothing family." To see gender neutrality through the fashion lens, a designer first needs to understand the constructs of feminism, gender, equality, expression, culture appropriation and fashion consumer culture. "Because, it's not a cursory trend but a choice, a lifestyle. Ideally, we shouldn't use standard female size charts and mannequins to design gender-neutral clothing at all. I've been talking to fashion colleges to create patterns and dress forms that account for uniform sizes for the shoulders, chest and hip," Bansal, 29, shares.

Anaam’s summer/resort 2018 collection titled Janaza carried a laissez-faire sartorial attitude and blurred boundaries between menswear and womenswear. “[Producer
and stylist] Rhea Kapoor is boss-lady when she wears a tuxedo jacket, but why is there an uproar when actor Ranveer Singh wears a skirt?” asks Sumiran Kabir SharmaAnaam's summer/resort 2018 collection titled Janaza carried a laissez-faire sartorial attitude and blurred boundaries between menswear and womenswear. “[Producer
and stylist] Rhea Kapoor is boss-lady when she wears a tuxedo jacket, but why is there an uproar when actor Ranveer Singh wears a skirt?” asks Sumiran Kabir Sharma.

For Sumiran Kabir Sharma, the idea of feminism spans a whole spectrum, from its glamorous representation in films to the simple sight of his mother going about household chores in a saree and convenient sneakers. "I watched her and learnt that women can be masculine-feminine too. That's how the sentiment of no-gender found itself into the way I dress or imagine clothes," says the 34-year-old designer and queer activist. Sharma's label Anaam means "no name". He says he doesn't design for men or women, but for an entire rainbow spectrum. The Delhi designer shares stories of being bullied by his teachers and classmates for wearing backless tops while studying at Pearl Academy, Naraina, in 2009. "Why can't men wear them?" he asks, adding quickly, "The dominant narratives in society, media and fashion are fundamentally prejudiced against clothing categories that fall outside of women and menswear. Change and sensitivity can only come with education. Gender studies, I feel, are as important as politics."

Akshat  BansalAkshat Bansal

Sustainable fashion isn't singularly about using hemp, handmade, and recycled material. It is about purposefully pushing a garment to perform multiple roles. "A saree is the most versatile, no-gender piece of clothing I know. It can be draped as a saree or around the waist as a lungi," says Sharma.

Akshat Bansal believes gender-and size-neutral clothing can offer a sustainable solution while broadening and diversifying the audience. For his winter/festive 2019 collection called Ambush, Bansal created garments from Econyl nylon yarn manufactured from regenerated plastic waste from the oceansAkshat Bansal believes gender-and size-neutral clothing can offer a sustainable solution while broadening and diversifying the audience. For his winter/festive 2019 collection called Ambush, Bansal created garments from Econyl nylon yarn manufactured from regenerated plastic waste from the oceans

The idea of offering universal clothing to everyone is not only liberating; it can bode well for businesses too. "[When you do away with identifying clothes according to gender or size], you lessen rack space; instead of two suitcases, you can travel with one. It also widens the scope of viewers with a single image," Bansal believes. Here, it's the fashion storeowners who ought to catch up. "Even if a designer has intended the garment to be genderless, by the time it reaches the retail store, it gets classified into rails for men and women," rues Datta. And, just like that, it keeps an agenda-setting conversation open.

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