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Gender Roles, Norms, and Sexuality In Fashion

*This was for a research project I did in one of my classes, but I had such great feedback that I wanted to include this because it is informative and so relatable to the topics I want to cover on this blog.


You can’t think of fashion without thinking about who it’s being directed at. For most people, they have the set ideas of what fashions are made for men and women and what is typically worn by both. “Normally”, women would wear colors like pink and dresses or skirts, while “normally” men would wear colors like blue and wear suits and pants. While this may have been a “norm” for a long time, this is beginning to change and the lines have become blurred. In today’s world, we are expanding the list of genders and making them more fluid, and just like how fashion has never been just black and white, neither are gender roles and sexuality.


When I decided to address this topic, I partially wanted to do my research due to my older sibling struggling with who they felt they were and how to identify, as well as the interest in furthering my understanding in pronouns and being gender fluid so I can understand other people struggling with the same problems. After interviewing Taylor, they explained that they identify as non-binary, gender-queer who doesn’t conform to society’s standards or norms of the male or female binary. In other words, this means they don’t consider themselves to be a man or woman, and that their genitalia don’t determine what they are or how they express themselves with clothing, makeup, hairstyles, mannerisms, hobbies, etc. While things like fashion have helped to make people in the same situation as my sibling feel more comfortable in developing a better understanding of what makes them feel more them self, fashion can also make it harder by advertising what some people still see as gender “norms”.


To assist me in understanding this topic and furthering my knowledge on it, I consulted an article called, “Gender Stereotypes in Fashion” from The Prospector. Throughout this article, they explain how the typical “norms” in fashion and society are becoming obsolete, and how there are many different influences that have made this possible. In explaining the “norms” we are aware of today, the article states, “Girls wear pink. Boys wear blue. Girls wear dresses. Boys wear suits. These are just some of the gender stereotypes associated with fashion. In the past, these stereotypes have been very concrete, and very rarely did people “cross-dress.” However, in today’s world, those lines are getting blurrier and blurrier” (The Prospector). Due to the inclusivity of multiple genders, fashion isn’t just targeting your typical male or female dress types anymore. They are making their designs more versatile in order to conform to the needs of the people who make up our society, not what society used to consider to be the “norms” of who they want these people to be.


In my interview, I asked my sibling Taylor what they saw as the “norms” of female dress because I was curious about if this question had various answers depending on who you asked. Their response was, “I would describe the typical ‘female’ attire as something that accentuates her body, whether it be the hips, breasts, legs, or the make up on her face. It appears to be addressed to a male audience, or to an audience that is always expecting she look her best and if she doesn’t then she isn’t trying. That’s what I would consider as ‘normal’ in today’s society”. After hearing their response, I would say I agree with what they consider to be the norm, and I think it’s unfortunate that I also agree that females are supposed to look a certain way in order to appear as put together or they come across and not trying to look their best.


It's much more common to see women comparing themselves to other women over men comparing themselves to other men. According to an article from Planned Parenthood, by definition, gender roles in society are “rules” set forth on how we’re expected to act, speak, dress, groom, and conduct ourselves based upon our assigned sex. For example, girls and women are generally expected to dress in typically feminine ways and be polite, accommodating, and nurturing. Men are generally expected to be strong, aggressive, and bold (Planned Parenthood). Due to the fact that so many people were taught and brought up in a way where this was all they were told you needed to know about genders, it makes it so much harder for people who identify as other than male or female to have people understand them or this concept. This is especially harder for older generations since the idea of gender fluidity, gender roles, and the sexuality changes in fashion weren’t as prevalent.


Due to this, I asked Taylor whether they believed that new and future generations would benefit from the blurring lines between gender “norms”. They responded with, “Absolutely. It will give individuals the opportunity to freely express themselves in one of the most gratifying ways. They just need to get past the anxiety of what others will think of their expressions”. Before Taylor had expressed to me how they were struggling with their own personal identification, it was prevalent to my family and I that they were always feeling sick, anxious, or just overall not like them self. I’ve never been one to have any negative feelings towards the way someone wants to identify themselves or live their life, so when I finally made Taylor feel comfortable enough to share how they were feeling, it was heartbreaking to see how much holding it in had taken out of them.


Not only is the identification of gender fluidity changing how people act and get along with one another, but it’s opening up more categories within the fashion industry in order to meet the needs of all genders on this spectrum. I asked Taylor what other social changes they thought would come from changes in the fashion trends and how they’re making fashion in general more gender fluid. They explained, “I feel that clothing and accessories are a great way to engage people in new ideas and open their eyes to new things. Blurring or eliminating gender “norms” associated with these I think is a huge step in allowing the conversation about gender identity to be had in a more positive and productive environment, while working to erase some of the stereotypes associated with gender”.


While it’s unfortunately common for people to assume someone’s gender or sexual preference due to their appearance, the more that gender fluidity and the idea of being non-binary are talked about and expressed the more people will know how someone’s appearance doesn’t dictate who they are. An article from Medium expresses the experiences a non-binary person named Hannah (or as they would rather be addressed as, Harry), goes through in their daily life as a non-binary person.


They’re in high school, utterly the most judgmental place and age range one could be put in, and they are learning how to deal with their society adjusting to the way they identify themselves. “I am aware that some may find it uncomfortable to ask about a person’s gender identity, but there are many that would be grateful that someone took the time to ask them what pronouns they would like people to use. Some of the teachers at my school asked me first thing when I introduced myself as Harry despite my name being Hannah on the attendance sheet. I was at first a little surprised, but I was, ultimately, delighted that someone would care enough to ask, and many people feel the same way” (Medium-Best). While these things may have just been looked past or addressed differently since an assumption could just be made based on how Harry was dressed, the fact that they were asked shows a positive change in society due to being non-binary becoming a norm and being recognized in society.


Another topic that was included in the article from Medium was the use of pronouns and how they are used as a way of identifying. I went on to ask Taylor how they felt about the use of pronouns, and if they believed they should be used, how they would explain this way of identifying to people who don’t understand. They went on to say, “Have you ever had someone call your friend or pet the wrong pronoun, and the initial reaction of you or others surrounding you was to correct that person? Some pet owners get offended when someone calls their Fluffy a “he” instead of a “she”. Trans and queer folks feel that same sense of hurt when their correct pronouns aren’t used because it is something these individuals fight to have recognized and it resonates strongly with them, similarly to someone addressing you by a name or nickname that isn’t your own. I don’t feel that pronouns are a sole way of identifying, but I would agree that it plays a role in how one identifies themselves”.


Tips for using and understanding these pronouns: Normalize them, ask people about theirs, put in the effort to learn and understand, practice using them in aspects of your daily life, don’t assume someone’s gender/pronouns, include the use of pronouns where you can, apologize when misused/misunderstood, use non-binary greetings, correct other people who use the incorrect pronouns, and lastly, realize that not “one size fits all”, so you need to be open to asking and understanding in order to use the pronouns each person identifies with (Huffpost).


Going off of the use of pronouns and how they can be easily misused or misunderstood, I wanted to ask Taylor how in their experiences they’ve handled situations with people who don’t understand the idea of gender fluidity. “In a situation where said person is truly coming from a lack of understanding but is receptive to learning about gender fluidity, I would gladly take the time to help them understand. If the situation is flipped and said person is hateful or not mature enough to hold a respectable conversation, I let it go. I simply am not responsible for teaching or forcing others to understand what they have no desire to understand. It is, however, something that is becoming more normalized whether they are ready to accept and understand it or not. It is an important concept for people understand, but at the same time I cannot waste my efforts on someone who won't even consider listening”.


It’s no surprise to me that many people are unfortunately, not very receptive to non-binary folks or learning to understand them. Being that there is still so much hate and negativity towards people who are gay, transgender, or bisexual, I believe the idea of non-binary gender roles and identifications are more complicated to understand bringing with it less acceptance right away. In an incredibly informative article from The New York Times Magazine, they express what it’s like to be in a world where you feel no one accepts you for who you are, or that people would rather you conform to what they consider to be “normal” or comfortable rather than expressing your true feelings and voice. The article is titled, “The Struggles of Rejecting the Gender Binary”, written by a therapist who shares her experiences helping these clients understand and express themselves and the pain that seems to be ingrained in them at the thought of sharing it with others.


“While I’m presenting myself as more comfortable,” Salem mumbled, head bowed, “the feeling I have is that I hate myself.” They sometimes called themselves a monster. Tate has another non-binary client who cut themselves relentlessly across their shoulders, leaving “scars on scars on scars” that the client asked Tate to touch. Weeks before this session, Salem stripped naked in their bedroom and, with a marker, scrawled “tranny” and “faggot” all over their body, slurs that were inaccurate but screamed their self-disgust” (The New York Times Magazine). Put simply, because Salem felt that no matter how they felt or expressed themselves they would be referred as all of those demeaning phrases, they carved those words into their body to shame themselves before others could, even if they didn't relate to those words.


If you haven’t noticed between the visuals you see, the things you read, or the people you talk to, the fashion industry has become much more than just black and white. This holds true for gender identity as well, and many believe these are in a way, reflections of each other. Taylor had said to me that they believe a majority of things in our lives exist on a spectrum and aren’t simply black and white. In fact, being that fashion and gender identity are so diverse this is why they go hand-in-hand which each other so cohesively. Both are so diverse and therefore can both be explored and expressed in an infinite amount of ways.

It’s known that one of the main reasons why people don’t break societal norms is because they don’t want to be seen as “different” or “going against the crowd”, but in a world where there is a new thing made every day, it’s interesting how people can’t be as receptive to a new way of self-confidence, identification, or expression. I think we can agree that our society is good at making all genders feel equally inclined to have a label, and this plays a role in the fashion industry of how women who are addressed as “women” are supposed to look and dress a certain way, just like men should abide by their “norms” in appearance and dress.


“Today’s fashion revolutionaries are not interested in feminizing men or emasculating women, Fashion wants to eliminate those labels. This means fashion wants to deconstruct gender stereotypes in the context of wearing styles. Also, this means that fashion is aiming to blur the masculine/feminine divide because of the idea which argues that garments have no gender” (The Prospector). Fashion has always been about interpretation of each person’s individual interests and personalities, and with that being said fashion also needs to fit the wants and needs of all genders on the spectrum.


More recently, I’ve noticed how even baby’s clothes come in pink for girls and blue for boys, but boy’s clothes even have quotes or pictures that already express what is expected of them when they grow older. Whether it be related to how strong they are, pick up lines, etc., girl baby clothes always contain things about beauty, looks, and innocence. In addition to these, I asked Taylor for other examples of how they believe “norms” are expressed in our daily lives and they responded with, “I feel almost everything you can think of our society has to categorize. From hobbies and interests, to TV shows and colors, pretty much everything is classified as masculine or feminine. It’s hard to think of something that isn’t comparable to something else based on binary”.


Whether it be TV shows projecting the gender “norms” for their characters to act like or society dictating what shows are made for male or female viewers, we face the same situation of assigned gender roles and “norms”. In an article from Reel Rundown, they address how the show, “The Big Bang Theory” showcases this exact problem. “Sheldon possesses the male stereotype of aggression, however his aggression is verbal, whereas in her study, Blum refers to physical aggression. He often appears making fun of Penny, the typical girl next door who is blonde and attractive and being occasionally mean to her. In other words, he is intellectually demeaning towards her, which conveys the stereotypical viewpoint that men like to display their success and dominant status in their social group" (Reel Rundown).


Like I mentioned previously, older generations have a harder time understanding the changes in the “norms” of gender roles as well as non-binary folk and the adaptions made to fashion. In order to have future generations understand these things, I asked Taylor about what role they believe parents play in the identification of one’s gender. In addition to this, I also asked how they believe parents can change their approaches to these topics when it comes to their kids.


Taylor suggested, “I believe parents have one of the biggest roles in understanding one’s gender. From before the child is even born their parents are anticipating a “boy” or “girl”, and as soon as they’re out of the womb their gender is decided for them and they are dressed and referred to as that gender. Unless the parents explain to the child that from a young age they are not required to look or act a certain way due to their ‘private parts’, or that a child can be themselves freely, the parent or guardian have a huge impact on their self-expression and identity. Unfortunately, this idea of letting a child decide their gender may be a difficult thing for most of our society to peel away from”.


In the time that has passed since Taylor expressed their feelings to my family and I, I’ve seen a change in how each one of us use the correct pronouns as well as how we encourage Taylor to dress and express themselves in whatever way makes them comfortable. Taylor is such a hard worker, and I’ve always looked to them for inspiration and encouragement due to their incredible sense of determination and work ethic. On top of that, they’ve always been someone who is easy to trust and confide in, even to those who don’t know them well, and I admire the beautiful heart and mind they have that everyone who comes in contact with them is lucky to get to know. Being the person that they are, I believe that the last thing they should feel is that they have to hide it for any reason.


In a recent study from the 2018 LGBTQ+ Youth Report, about 42% of transgender and non-binary folk stated that they had attempted suicide at some point in their life (HRC). Not only is this percentage feeling that they don’t belong, they also feel as if there isn’t much that lets them express themselves or a platform to do this on actually supports them. The fashion industry has continued to make strides to blur the lines between gender roles, the masculine/feminine divide, and to eliminate these stereotypes, but only so much can change without help. Just like fashion, gender isn’t just black and white, and it consists of a whole spectrum made of many different colors within it that are just as important as the others.


References

Pacific Standard- THE FUTURE IS NON-BINARY, AND TEENS ARE LEADING THE WAY. 2019. Retrieved from

Medium- The Everyday Effects of Gender Identity and Expression. 2017. Retrieved from

Huffpost- A Guide to Non-Binary Pronouns and Why They Matter. 2017. Retrieved from

The New York Times Magazine- The Struggles of Rejecting the Gender Binary. 2019. Retrieved from

Rife Magazine- Gender: It’s Not All Black or White. 2017. Retrieved from

ReelRundown- Gender Stereotypes in TV Series. 2019. Retrieved from

HRC- New Study Reveals Shocking Rates of Attempted Suicide Amongst Trans Adolescents. 2018. Retrieved from

The Prospector- Gender Stereotypes in Fashion. 2018. Retrieved from

Interview- Taylor Grimes

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