There is a well-known trope when it comes to wardrobes and romantic relationships: the girl who steals her boyfriend’s clothes.
This is a trope so well known that a few years ago men started fighting back, playfully stealing their girlfriend’s clothes in revenge, under the guise of the #TakeHerHoodie movement. It was wonderfully silly, but when the cold weather started rolling back around a few months ago it also got me thinking.
Sharing clothes with your partner or friends, of any gender, should most definitely be encouraged.
The most obvious reason for this is that it’s more sustainable. When it comes to clothes we no longer want, donating them should be our last resort. In the move towards a more circular economy the ideal option is to keep them in use for as long as possible, which is much more achievable when swapping or selling. If we only swap within the boundaries of gender then we miss out on doing this as effectively as we could; keeping more clothes out of landfill and getting them into the hands of people who’ll genuinely enjoy them.
Plus, we miss out on some potentially great clothes. I’m an only child, so never had siblings to receive hand-me-downs from. Imagine the joy I discovered when, aged 15, I became best friends with a boy who was both taller than me and had a great sense of style that was as explorative as mine. For a few golden years I received an array of unique pieces that were incredibly fun to wear, some of which stayed with me well into my twenties. If I felt I couldn’t wear these because they weren’t ‘girls’ clothing, then I would’ve missed out on a lot of fun, and sometimes questionable, outfits in my teen years.
But, of course, it’s much easier when the swapping dynamic works this way. Because masculinity is so highly valued in today’s western world it becomes easier for women to wear traditionally male pieces, because it’s seen as ‘aspirational’. On the other hand, female clothing contains no social capital as it represents traits that aren’t valued by this society, so men receive a lot more ridicule when trying to wear traditionally female clothing. And because these ideas of gender are socialised into us from an extremely young age, the idea of wearing women’s clothes hasn’t even crossed the minds of many western men. Despite the fact that men historically wore skirts and dresses, and still do in many non-western cultures, with the enlightenment in the west came men adopting dress that reflected values of rationality and practicality, whilst women remained irrational, emotional and decorative. It shows just how much fashion matters, both for what it says about a person and how it encourages our thoughts and behaviours.
fashion is so much more than just clothing. For people who live it, it is a continual dialogue, a confluence of concepts, references, and ideas.
Sustainable fashion, in its truest sense, exists both to minimise our impact on the planet and to protect the wellbeing of those who inhabit it. So, beyond keeping clothes in circulation for as long as we can, here’s why I think that abolishing the idea of gendered clothing as we currently know it is one of the best routes to a more sustainable future.
It’s more inclusive
Parisian fashion stylist Schanel Bakkouche is quick to admit that she routinely turns to the closet of her boyfriend, Vogue Art Director Fernando Dias de Souza… While the majority of her closet is off-limits due to their size discrepancy, he has been known to swipe a white shirt or two and generally sees no stigma in occasionally shopping in the women’s department. A proponent of the gender-fluid movement, he sees it as a direct consequence of our evolution as a society: “I like the direction things are going. I’m for freedom and equality and I think that not necessarily buying what you’ve been assigned to reflects that.”
First thing’s first, let’s just acknowledge that gender and sex are not binary. Despite how we’ve been educated, there’s a lot of science that shows this to be true. Human bodies are complex, and there are a host of factors that place people outside of a simple binary including people who are born intersex, or with conditions such as Kenefelter syndrome, androgen insensitivity syndrome, congenital adrenal hyperplasia and more. Studies of genitals, chromosomes, hormones and even bones all suggest that sex and gender fall on a spectrum. As many as 1 in 100 people are born with a DSD (a difference/disorder of sex development), and science continues to show that, even at a cellular level, there is great complexity, diversity and overlap that means both gender and sex can’t be neatly categorised. And really, it’s about time society caught up.
There are multiple reasons why prescribed gender roles still exist today. After all, gender stereotypes are great for capitalism. Corporations often use the gender binary to define consumer categories and create marketing strategy, and advertising has long encouraged certain expectations of gender identities, in order to connect consumers to identities beliefs, and ultimately products. To break free of the binary, fashion can instead encourage people to truly wear whatever they want instead.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with designing with varying bodies in mind to still accommodate for things like breasts or genitals. What we can do, however, is stop putting random gender labels on clothes; instead encouraging anyone and everyone to buy whatever pieces they prefer, and to share them with anyone they please. Not only do people who are intersex, trans, or born with DSDs get to be included, but everyone else gets to shake off the arbitrarily rigid rules of gendered clothing too. If sustainable fashion seeks to care for others, it also must seek to include them, and doing away with random gendering of products is an important step in that direction.
My boyfriend and I have been swapping wardrobes from the very beginning. In fact, it was only a few weeks into the relationship when I gave him multiple shirts I wasn’t wearing any more. This isn’t my usual method for dating, but I was moving house and packing up my entire life, and I knew they had a chance of a better home with him. Naturally, I was right. He wears them all the time, and there’s a particularly gleeful note in his voice when he gets a compliment on them and gets to explain that they came from his girlfriend’s wardrobe (this also arises whenever I pay for a date, 9 times out of 10 the waiter hands the card machine to the wrong person and I have to correct them. Ah the small thrill of subverting gender norms).
In fact, when it comes to our wardrobes my boyfriend wears a lot more of my clothes than I do his. I think that’s great! I have more clothes than he does, so when something wears out why should he needlessly buy something new what he can borrow something of mine? We have some pieces that are so similar that if one reaches the end of its life, we can just share the survivor. It saves money and resources, it stops us mindlessly consuming, and it reduces overall demand for new clothing. And if we want fashion to slow down, reducing demand is key.
These days, if I do buy clothes, I now usually buy with gender fluidity in mind. In anticipation of an upcoming trip to Scandinavia for him, I popped into the charity shops in December to pick up some warm layers I knew my boyfriend didn’t own. He got great wear out of them abroad, and now he’s back in the UK I’ve gotten great wear out of them too. I’ve found that when you actively buy to share, you generally do buy less and better quality automatically so that it can go the distance for two wearers. Buying better quality, built to last items will always save you money over time, but now you get to apply that principle to two people simultaneously.
Entire outfit secondhand. Jacket stolen from my boyfriend’s wardrobe, turtleneck mine but almost identical to one he owns, meaning we can share if one becomes unwearable in future.
It’s more fun
There’s no scientific backing for this one, just plain old experience. Sharing with others means bringing together different aesthetics and silhouettes, combining colours and concepts that you wouldn’t necessarily have thought up alone. I’m constantly wearing turtlenecks and jeans through winter, but would I have thought to pair them with a bright blue welding jacket on my own? Probably not. Whether it be social justice or creative expression, people always work better together, and your sense of style gets to benefit too.
Beyond the fun of experimentation, sharing wardrobes is also an inherently communal experience. To me there are few things as fun as getting a few friends together and laying out all your old clothes and to sift through, or to throw an impromptu fashion show of your new outfits with your partner before dinner, parading around like your tiny flat is suddenly an avant-garde catwalk. The clothes are the vehicle, but the true joy is found in being together and doing something that ignites creativity. It’s been years since I bought fast fashion, but I can say with confidence that, for me, swapping is much more of a good time.
Overall, I think moving to a more gender-neutral way of designing clothes and curating a wardrobe just makes more sense. It’s sustainable, it’s open to all, it keeps your wallet happier. I’m not saying every man has to go out in a dress tomorrow (although if that’s your jam please, go for it!), but I think it’s time to catch up with science and ditch unecessary labels for a more fun, flexible, and communal approach instead.