When Harry Styles graced the cover of US Vogue’s December edition in a gown and a tuxedo jacket, it reflected a shift in conversation around masculinity and depicted gender non-conformism. Many already hail the pop star as a flag-bearer for gender-fluid fashion, and this boundary-pushing act was another significant move. But did you know India has a long rich history of gender-neutral clothes?
If you study Indian costumes and clothing over millennia, for instance, there is a large visibility of genderless fashion, explains stylist and creative consultant Ekta Rajani. “Our goddesses were bare-chested, and men and women both wore loincloths. Ditto with kurtas-pyjamas, dhotis, even angarakhas. We had it, we lost touch with it, and now the world is waking up to it again.”
The shift that we see today is a movement of the youth—it is about genderless fashion being worn for self-expression as opposed to as a part of one’s cultural identity, says Rajani.
It was a spirit Arjun Saluja captured in his label Rishta as early as 2000. Referencing the half-male and half-female Ardhanarishvara, the line featured silhouettes like dhotis and lehenga pants without dictating who it should be worn by, she explains.
Since then, an increasing number of Indian brands, like NorBlack NorWhite, Chola by Sohaya Misra, Bloni, Bobo and Antar-Agni, have emerged that are creating gender-fluid collections.
Brother-sister duo Avni and Ambar Aneja’s brand SIX5SIX has, for instance, released the Question Everything collection, which features unisex joggers, hoodies, oversized shirts and roomy Bermudas. Jaywalking features patchwork trousers, multi-pocket jackets, flared pants and co-ord sets for “the people who aren’t scared to cross the line and prove a point.” HOS’ “street ghetto” sensibility includes clashing print shirts and printed denims for him, her and them.
Slow fashion label Moral Science releases limited handcrafted graphic pieces. “Instead of shying away from heavily gendered design elements, we blend them in playful ways,” says founder Isha Ahluwalia, who is inspired by functional clothing like uniforms, which are at the core of unisex dressing. Their current collection is all about safari suits, bomber jackets, co-ord sets, Star Trek-inspired space suits and multi-functional pants. “We are living in a time where norms are being questioned. So clothing becomes that layer through which we can challenge pre-existing notions,” adds Ahluwalia.
Sustainable label Sthala’s mandate was formed by founder Aastha Jhunjhunwala’s own questioning of gender and sexuality. “Gender, for me, is a social construct,” she says. “Any garment can be gender-fluid if you want it to be. We have those who identify as cisgender buying pieces that do not play into heteronormative roles. So, we just want to encourage people to be who they want to be and wear what they want to wear.” MIXX, founded by Ruchika Parab and Shruti Singhi, is based on the values of building a non-discriminatory community that starts conversations on gender-equality and identity. “Our core philosophy is freedom to be, the freedom to love, the freedom to express oneself,” Parab says. Their tees, for instance, have slogans like “Boys equal girls” to draw attention to an issue.
The change 2020 brought
This year has been a unifier in many ways. Sartorially, we’ve all reached out for the common uniform of comfortable sweatshirts or T-shirts and track pants or shorts when confined in our homes. “The concepts of masculinity and femininity no longer define the clothing people wear. My partner and I share clothes all the time,” says Kanika Goyal, whose latest designs for her diffusion line, Ease, are a gender-agnostic range of tees, tracks suits, denim sets and shackets. “We wanted to go beyond basic unisex sets. We wanted the garment to be defined by the wearer.”
The approach of Arnav Malhotra’s two-month-old brand No Grey Area is also fluid. “Our aesthetic goes beyond just oversized clothing. Our resort shirts, printed pants, bomber jackets and tees are being worn across genders,” explains Malhotra. His biggest observation is the average Gen-Z male’s willingness to experiment. “Women have been wearing menswear for years. But it’s the men who are comfortable going beyond just the masculine now. It’s a testament to the changing gender norms in society, particularly among the younger generation.”
As Goyal says, “Gender fluid isn’t just a phase in fashion, it’s a step toward an evolution.”