When shopping for clothing and gear, how often do you research by gender? It’s a handy binary for organizing products: men buy these products, women buy those. Most of us fall into these categories in ways that seem natural, so we overlook the inherent structure. In recent years, we have seen an intentional effort by the outdoor industry to create more inclusive and less gendered clothing. These pieces are not overtly masculine or feminine. Instead, they talk about the growing desire for clothes that don’t fit a certain mould, expressing a more nuanced and fluid sartorial (and functional) bent.
It’s not just about outward trappings, of course: genderless clothing has caught on with fitness brands like Girlfriend Collective and plenty of fashion brands as well. As we humans continue to open it up and break down barriers, some of our favorite brands do too.
Clothing history may be nebulous, but it could be said that unisex clothing in the United States dates back to 1851, when Elizabeth Smith Miller designed the first predecessor of full pants for women. Previously, women could wear slacks-like clothing if they were doing manual labor or household chores, but never in public.
Nearly two centuries later, we have seen fashion cycles where “acceptable” clothing for either gender goes in and out of fashion. Pants, skirts, shoulder pads…you probably remember certain items from your own life that were sometimes “okay” for men to wear – and other times they raised judgmental eyebrows.
In the early 90s, long after women went out in pants and broke the mould, Robert Jungmann launched a clothing line with the intention of putting hemp in the spotlight – in a positive way. (That was during the War on Drugs era, which made it a rather subversive move.) As Jungmann developed his brand, which would evolve into today’s Jungmaven focused on sustainability and externally, he balanced both the needs of a young company and his personal ideals.
“Since those early days, I’ve been determined to design clothing that’s inclusive for everyone,” he says. “That said…creating unisex clothing was also a survival tactic when I was trying to launch a clothing line on a shoestring budget.” During those days, Jungmann showed a collection of men’s items at a women’s trade show – that was all he had. But the quality of the fabric, the “Made in USA” tag, and the fit and feel were what kept customers flocking, gendered tag or not.
The origins of unisex outdoor clothing may have been pragmatic, but in recent years the industry (and its cousin, the fitness sphere) has seen a shift in perspective. Unisex has moved from a path taken out of necessity to an ideology. Today’s forward-thinking brands understand that it’s not just about utility, it’s about self-expression.
Today, when it comes to making unisex clothing and gear, one size does not fit all. Brands in different categories are addressing the challenge of physiology in different ways, stimulating a myriad of treatments and solutions.
Last fall, Smartwool released a six-piece collaboration capsule with Jiberish. Featured in both men’s and women’s styles, the capsule includes two hoodies and two pants with looser fits designed around Smartwool’s regular men’s waistband. Men are encouraged to order their standard size, while women are encouraged to size down – fairly common guidelines with unisex sizing.
Later this year, the brand plans to expand. “Smartwood will launch its first-ever unisex collection in fall 2022,” says Maggie Meisinger, head of strategic communications. “We think it’s crucial to make high-performance products that benefit everyone to go far and feel good.”
For other manufacturers, it is not up to the customer to adjust their sizing, but to the brands themselves.
Take Burton’s AG Hedstall Gore-Tex 2L One Piece, part of Burton’s reimagining of its edgy ’90s sub-line, Analog. An oversized silhouette helps combat the problem of different waist-to-hip ratios between men and women, and provides some flexibility in fit.
Patagonia is another iconic brand taking a big step into space. This fall, the brand will offer 33 unisex styles for adults and convert 71% of its styles for children to unisex.
“We recognize gender inclusion as a brand value and our goal is to reduce gender constraints in style, color and textile,” said Patagonia spokesperson Corey Simpson. “We also realize that by reducing the gender constraint of specific products and categories, we live in better alignment with our other goals of doing less, reducing redundancy and overlap, and providing an inclusive environment for our customers.”
However, like Smartwool, Patagonia’s approach currently bases the adult unisex fit on its men’s size, meaning it still fits some better than others. This remains the central conundrum: the more technical the garment, the harder it is to get a unisex product that not only appeals to everyone, but also works.
For example, Allbirds new trail running shoe, the SWT, is comfortable, capable, and appeals to both men and women in size and color. But when comparing its specs with its more technical competitors, the shoe lags a step behind. This is not entirely due to the unisex nature; Allbirds also doesn’t have the well-heeled history of a brand like Nike or Adidas to fall back on. But it also exposes the limitations of trying to make a shoe that works for all feet.
Even so, the general trend of being less attached to gender labels and offering a greater variety of cuts is a step forward for everyone. Just look at Adidas x Ivy Park, the brand’s fashion-forward team-up with Beyoncé. Her online store offers a wide variety of clothing designs, as well as eight different sizing options, including a gender-neutral regular fit and a gender-neutral oversized fit.
“Getting the right fit can be tricky – you can’t please everyone, so you may see an increase in returns when browsing a unisex fit,” says Jungmann. “It’s worth it, though. Unisex is the future and it will only continue…brands shouldn’t decide what suits you based on your gender identity.
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