Unisex clothing

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"The Bicycle Suit", caricature from Punch magazine (1895) Bicycle suit punch 1895.jpg
"The Bicycle Suit", caricature from Punch magazine (1895)

Unisex clothing is best described as clothing designed to be suitable for both sexes in order to make men and women look similar. The term unisex was first used in 1968 in Life , an American magazine that ran weekly from 1883 to 1972. [1]



Although the first use of "unisex" as a term dates from the 1960s, it can be argued that "unisex clothing" its first appearance dates from the late nineteenth century, [2] as part of the "Victorian dress reform". It can be argued that in the nineteenth century fashionable clothing, which originated in France, reflected the dominance of traditional feminine roles. John Berger his famous statement 'men act, women appear' can be useful to further discuss the appearance of "unisex clothing". [3] Berger claims that, in Western European cultures, the role of men is considered active and that of women considered passive or, to put it differently, men observe women and women are observed by men. [4] This asymmetry in the relationship between men and women was visualized in dress in the nineteenth century: women were more and more prescribed to fashionable clothing, clothing that disabled them to be active due to, for example, crinoline dresses that were very heavy, whereas men had the ability to be active due to their sober and simple clothing. [5] An attempt to develop alternative feminine roles by the use of alternative clothing behavior started in England and the United States. [6] For example, members of the women's movement deplored the use of corsets and sets of ponderous garments and centred their proposals of dress reform on the adoption of trousers. [7] However, they were unable to win the support of many women outside of their own group due to the basic premise of nineteenth century ideology concerning women's roles in which "the belief in fixed gender identities and enormous differences – physical, psychological, and intellectual – between men and women" was at centre. [7] One example of this was the organized "Symposium on Dress" in which three designs, that included either a divided skirt or trousers, were presented. [8] These dress reform proposals were, at that time, very controversial and seen as too radical by the middle-class women, therefore, leaning more towards alienation than involvement of this potential group of supporters of the women's rights movement. [9]

A more fruitful account of the recognition of non-conformist costume or dress of that time lies in the history of "alternative dress". The alternative dress style can be described as a "set of signs, borrowed from male clothing, that appeared sometimes singly, sometimes in combination with one another, but always associated with items of female clothing." [10] This alternative dress is a form of non-verbal communication and is different than the "Victorian dress reform" (as mentioned above), being a form of verbal communication. Bicycling, for example, was a late nineteenth century sport that was not identified as a male activity. Women, therefore, were able to wear divided skirts and knee-length bloomers without having difficulties considering gender roles because this "alternative dress" did not intend to undermine patriarchy. After a while, this and many other alternative dress examples, such as uniforms, became more effective in conveying a message than that of dress reformers, because alternative dress had more "followers" in everyday life. The bicycle, therefore, can be seen as 'one of the symbols of emancipation' that has changed the attitude towards women's sports apparel. [11]

In the 1887 novella The Republic of the Future , American writer Anna Bowman Dodd depicted a future New York in which "men and women dress alike". A conservative, Dodd regarded that as a negative development, one of the features making the future she described into a dystopia [12]

Eventually, the 1960s can be considered the decade in which "unisex" and "unisex clothing" became widely spread. The "unisex" trend arose in response to the youth revolution and the hippie movement of the 1960s and the women's liberation movement of the early 1970s. [13] However, this trend can be considered a more recent form of the aforementioned fashionable clothing, because it confirms a traditional feminine role subservient to the masculine role given the fact that "unisex clothing", mostly, represents women wearing (altered) men's clothing.

Contemporary wear

People wearing T-shirts, which are considered unisex in modern culture. Leipzig2012.jpg
People wearing T-shirts, which are considered unisex in modern culture.

Today, a common mode of unisex clothing may be an outfit made up of shirt, pants, or both, as these articles are considered appropriate for either gender in western society. Both men and women wear shirt and pants on regular basis in the western world and it has become quite a fashion favourite despite feminine style clothing maintaining a secure place in female fashion.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Shorts Garment for the lower body ending above the knee

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A crinoline is a stiff or structured petticoat designed to hold out a woman's skirt, popular at various times since the mid-19th century. Originally, crinoline was described as a stiff fabric made of horsehair ("crin") and cotton or linen which was used to make underskirts and as a dress lining.

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Fashion in the 1890s in European and European-influenced countries is characterized by long elegant lines, tall collars, and the rise of sportswear. It was an era of great dress reforms led by the invention of the drop-frame safety bicycle, which allowed women the opportunity to ride bicycles more comfortably, and therefore, created the need for appropriate clothing.

Victorian dress reform

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  1. "Home : Oxford English Dictionary".
  2. "A Brief History of Unisex Fashion". The Atlantic.
  3. Berger, John, "Ways of Seeing", London (BBC and Penguin) 1972, p. 47.
  4. Barnard, Malcolm, Fashion and Communication, New York (Routledge) 2002, p. 119.
  5. Barnard, Malcolm, Fashion and Communication, New York (Routledge) 2002, p. 141.
  6. Crane, Diana, 'Clothing behaviour as non-verbal resistance: Marginal women and alternative dress in the nineteenth century', in: Riello, Giorgio and Peter McNeil (eds.), "The Fashion History Reader: Global Perspectives", London/New York (Routledge) 2010, p.
  7. 1 2 Crane, Diana, 'Clothing behaviour as non-verbal resistance: Marginal women and alternative dress in the nineteenth century', in: Riello, Giorgio and Peter McNeil (eds.), "The Fashion History Reader: Global Perspectives", London/New York (Routledge) 2010, p. 342.
  8. Sims, Sally, 'The Bicycle, the Bloomer, and Dress Reform in the 1890s', in: Cunningham, Patricia A., and Susan Voso Lab (eds.), Dress and Popular Culture , Bowling Green, OH (Bowling Green State University Popular Press) 1991, p. 139.
  9. Sims, Sally, 'The Bicycle, the Bloomer, and Dress Reform in the 1890s', in: Cunningham, Patricia A., and Susan Voso Lab (eds.), Dress and Popular Culture , Bowling Green, OH (Bowling Green State University Popular Press) 1991, p. 141.
  10. Crane, Diana, 'Clothing behaviour as non-verbal resistance: Marginal women and alternative dress in the nineteenth century', in: Riello, Giorgio and Peter McNeil (eds.), The Fashion History Reader: Global Perspectives, London/New York (Routledge) 2010, p. 336.
  11. Crane, Diana, 'Clothing behaviour as non-verbal resistance: Marginal women and alternative dress in the nineteenth century', in: Riello, Giorgio and Peter McNeil (eds.), The Fashion History Reader: Global Perspectives, London/New York (Routledge) 2010, p. 347.
  12. Kenneth Roemer, The Obsolete Necessity, 18881900, Kent, OH, Kent State University Press, 1976.
  13. Sterlacci, Francesca and Joanne Arbuckle (eds.), Historical Dictionary of the Fashion Industry, (Scarecrow Press) 2007 (<http://fashion_history.enacademic.com/834/Unisex_clothing>[October 13, 2014].