In a post-pandemic world curious about inclusivity and ethical living, a tribe of young fashion labels are changing the world through gender-fluid or genderless fashion. It isn’t simply about tailoring a garment for one and all but creating culturally compelling statements that everyone in the eclectic gender spectrum can proudly fit into and make their own.
When Chennai designer Purushu Arie was a design student at NIFT Delhi, he was trained to design clothes that primarily catered to women or those identifying as female, which he, as a cis-gendered man, couldn’t resonate with. Years later, as most of the garments were gifted to his female friends, he started making clothes that he could wear, and eventually those that anyone could wear.
“With time, I realised I no longer had gender in mind while designing clothes. This was also when I was studying fashion history, and realised that historically, clothing was never gendered,” he says. Purushu Arie whose ‘ungendered’ label by the same name has caught on among men, women and non-binary youngsters, is inspired by Tamil costume history, which Arie says, is rife with progressive, functional gender neutrality.
“In Sangam texts, they talk about the ‘pudavai’ as a garment worn by everyone. The structures at Mamallapuram show both male and female figurines wearing veshtis and dhotis. And under Pandyan empire’s popular pearl trade that reached as far as Indonesia in the east and Egypt in the west, kings, who would be perceived as powerful ruling class symbols of masculinity, wore pearl jewellery,” says Purushu who creates lungis with waistbands and pockets, and saris — designs he calls “utilitarian reinterpretations of ancient Tamil silhouettes.”
When Mumbai-based designer Aastha Jhunjhunwala started her online store Sthal, it was her own rebellion against the rigidity and gender normativity in the fashion industry. “I believe gender is completely a social construct. My launch collection was ‘make to order’ and the other two were upcycled, oversized shirts that could fit all body types. While we have standardised size charts, we also customise, which is important,” says Aastha. “For example, if I’m going to make a kimono, less men would usually go for it, as it may seem feminine to them. But the fact is it’s a straight cut and all genders wear it. If there are people asking for modifications to make it more boxy, we keep those possibilities open.”
But most importantly, a gender-fluid garment is created with sensitivity as much as aesthetic, and this is a big step towards opening the world up to gender and sexual minorities, says director and LGBTQI activist Malini Jeevarathnam, who is gender non-conforming. “It’s relieving when I no longer have to go to the men’s section at stores and awkwardly wait in line to try out a shirt or a pair of pants,” she says. “It’s welcoming to know there’s a dedicated team designing clothes for you.”
But it would be shallow to assume that gender-fluid fashion — which is most of the time also size fluid — has opened up avenues to only those who identify beyond the binaries. For many it is as much about versatility as choice.
Architect-turned artist Priyanka Ulaganathan, who is a client of Purushu’s and identifies as a woman, says it is comfort and novelty that makes it tick for her. “Purushu designed a crop top for me that I could confidently pull off, as a chubby woman, and also team up with palazzo pants and a shawl. It gave me a lot of room to experiment and also stand out distinctively,” she says.