When Fashion Gets Gender Wrong
Techwear is supposed to be a boundary-breaking, avant-garde fashion subculture. So why is the community mostly men?
Techwear is centered around one simple principle: utility through innovation. The fashion subculture’s aesthetic leans toward the futuristic (think: urban ninja meets astronaut chic), but nothing is inherently gendered; everyone wants a raincoat when it rains. Yet, for the most part, the big-name techwear designers are all men, and the popular brands produce only men’s sizes.
Recently, a Reddit user asked whether the popular techwear subreddit r/techwearclothing was only for dialogue around men’s clothes. The majority of commenters replied with a welcoming attitude: Techwear is androgynous, unisex, or gender neutral, they said; anyone can wear anything, and women are welcome to participate.
The community’s response is encouraging, yet the Redditor’s question hits at the heart of a problem pulsing through this otherwise vibrant subculture: If techwear is, in fact, androgynous, then where are the clothing designs for anyone who is not male?
It’s easy to design something for men, call it unisex, and say it’s for everyone. This bias is extremely common even outside of fashion, with everything from adventure gear to artificial hearts to medical care. This is where techwear’s relationship with androgyny becomes a problem. Without addressing how gender bias affects techwear, women, transfolk, and gender nonconforming people will continue to be outliers in the subculture.
Techwear’s gender problem filters down from the fashion industry as a whole, which has long treated androgynous styles as little more than roomier versions of men’s clothing. Our general culture presents men as the default body type, so androgyny is expressed as not-men wearing men’s clothing.
In current fashion, androgyny carries the added connotation of hot women wearing men’s suits. A simple Google image search for androgynous fashion shows image after image associated with (thin, often white) women wearing men’s styles. As Bustle’s Meg Zulch notes, fashion items are presented as “cis-passing women modeling loose and boyish neutral-hued clothing.”
Remember, we’re talking about a world in which women are still trying to get clothes with goddamn functional pockets.
By definition, an androgynous fashion or subculture would have to embrace elements of both female- and male-coded styles (consider rapper Young Thug and model Rain Dove). But in practice, the industry has embraced a very narrow reading of androgyny that’s exclusionary to all but a few body types. As Kris Nelson outlines in Everyday Feminism, androgynous clothing styles often fall into problematic tropes. “Thinness is code for gender neutrality,” Nelson writes, while whiteness and masculinity are presented as the genderless default. Femininity in this context, however, is still socially and culturally loaded.
A recent Riot Division campaign depicting a female-presenting person in a dress is a perfect example of how techwear is designed for (and to appeal to) cisgendered, heterosexual men. I was so excited to see a popular techwear brand make a dress until I learned it wasn’t a dress at all: It’s a men’s parka belted to fit like a minidress. Worn this way, it loses the utility that techwear promises. It’s not a functional garment — it’s eye candy.
If clothing styles cater to a default body that is thin, white, and male, it’s a lot harder to fit an ideal aesthetic if your body matches none of those descriptions. It’s even harder to fit the actual clothing. This would attract normal levels of frustration if it wasn’t for the fact that techwear’s underlying principle is performance.
When Outlier, a popular techwear brand, stopped producing women’s clothes, the company explained it was too hard to produce a women’s line. But it’s not as though Outlier lacked a market seeking out diverse styles. Fewer women buy techwear because the majority of the options available to them are ill-fitting men’s clothing. If the only choices are expensive, poorly fitting items made for someone else, female customers won’t be interested. This speaks to a parallel issue for the plus-size market: For years, brands said it was not worth the effort to produce plus-size ranges, and they were wrong. People weren’t buying plus-size clothing because most styles were ugly and poorly made.
There would be more women, transfolk, and gender nonconforming people in techwear if there were more creators, like Gracia at Rosen-X, making better clothing to fit their bodies. Because the subculture remains relatively tight-knit, options are already limited within techwear. The market becomes even smaller when people are forced to look elsewhere for clothes that actually fit their bodies. That means the entire fashion subculture will lose out on their contribution to the community.
Remember, we’re talking about a world in which women are still trying to get clothes with goddamn functional pockets. When clothing is designed for a particular body (male, thin), everyone who doesn’t have that body must compromise. Those concessions cause techwear to lose value to the wearer: Ill-fitting gear is ineffective gear.
When menswear clothing is made for movement and composed of technical materials that embody a futuristic or avant-garde mentality, it’s called techwear. When women wear clothing made for movement and composed of technical materials that embody a futuristic or avant-garde mentality, it’s called athleisure.
Athleisure is demeaned as lazy and produces screeds by columnists fist-shaking at women for having the audacity to wear yoga pants outside the gym. But Lululemon, particularly its Lab line, is making some of the most stylish technical clothing for women. Stella McCartney for Adidas, Charli Cohen, NikeLab x JFS, and Sacai x NikeLab offer even more examples where avant-garde techwear is lumped into athleisure.
Female designers, meanwhile, rarely get their due. There’s a reverence for male techwear designer Errolson Hugh that veers toward hero worship, yet I’ve never seen a single reference on Reddit forum r/techwearclothing to Johanna F. Schneider, who also designs for Hugh’s Acronym line, as well as Stone Island Shadow Project and the Nike collaboration referenced above. Her work is an important contribution to the aesthetic and should be recognized.
There is nothing inherently masculine about techwear. The hyperfocus on Acronym and other military-inspired apparel, as well as gray-man brands like Outlier and Veilance that design only for a male body, is exclusionary. It ignores an entire lineage of design that could influence the aesthetic in new and exciting ways. To stay interesting and relevant, to keep innovating, to remain avant garde, techwear needs to make room for all gender expressions and bodies.