As the fashion industry grapples with the identity politics electrifying this cultural moment, terms like agender and ungender have found purchase. Over the last half-decade, they have been used interchangeably by the industry as umbrella terms for androgynous garments (mainly geared towards women), unisex styles (often drab, nondescript his ‘n’ hers sets), and, to a lesser extent, clear cross-dressing (that has had negligible runway-to-real-life conversion for men). But – in the context of the current zeitgeist – what does genderless dressing mean, exactly? Is it the erasure of gender altogether; or an expansion, a customization, to accommodate its spectrum? Or, then, both?

In January, at Queer Aesthetics Now!, a celebration of the LGBTQ community’s engagement with culture at the Godrej India Culture Lab in Mumbai, up-and-coming designers ventured answers via a garment installation each.

Alan Alexander Kaleekal, whose eponymous label has become known for using Indian crafts and handloom fabrics inventively to subvert norms of beauty, fit and tailoring, presented a “reconstructed shirt”. The sheer, ankle-length garment made of silk organza and Eri silk was devoid of darts, contouring or button placements coding it male or female (men’s shirts traditionally have buttons on the right; women’s, on the left).

“Society has conditioned us to demarcate gender at every stage of creating a garment, starting from the choice of colours to the choice of fabrics,” he said. “But we [his label] reinterpret contemporary wardrobe staples during the construction stage. Most of our garments are cut from a single block of fabric, and manipulated for minimal fabric wastage, which results in baggy silhouettes. The majority of what we do is limited to a very neutral palette of black and white.”

Apeksha Maker. Image courtesy: Alan Alexander Kaleekal.

Two Point Two by Anvita Sharma and Asit Barik, which debuted on the GenNext runway at Lakme Fashion Week in February, presented a floor-length grey robe with knotted sleeves and embroidery made up of abstract, semi-obscured faces. They called it Ze (after the widely-accepted gender-neutral pronoun).

Finding answers

These newcomers are by no means the first to engage with gender narratives in Indian fashion. Stalwarts like Rohit Bal and Rajesh Pratap Singh subtly tipped menswear towards androgyny with elaborate drapes, infusions of floral prints and unisex metallic separates. Arjun Saluja’s label Rishta’s intensely manipulated architectural creations smudged the gender divide out of classic staples.

Kallol Datta’s “sexless” silhouettes with free-flowing 3D folds under his label Kallol Datta 1955, weren’t led by, but instead, interacted with the wearer’s body type. Bodice by Ruchika Sachdev, Lovebirds and DRVV took the baton forward with their versatile shapes, clever tailoring and global aesthetic. The difference now, perhaps, is the volume and vehemence with which the youngest in fashion voice their politics – even if it remains to be seen if strong sentiment can always translate into conceptually- and commercially-sound clothes.

“The newer generation of designers is more informed and less inhibited,” agreed Datta, whose designs were more of a curiosity when he started out 10 years ago. His personal style – billowing kurtas and kaftans, long hair, kohl-rimmed eyes and a Chinese hand-fan for hot days – only confounded people further. “They thought, what spaceship did he arrive in? Is it a gimmick? How long would it be before I succumbed and started making lehenga-cholis?”

International movement

The needle has inarguably been moved – here, and globally. Legacy houses like Gucci, Burberry and Calvin Klein, as well as gritty new players like Vetements, have collapsed male-female dichotomies by merging their womenswear and menswear shows over the last couple of seasons.

Gucci’s Spring/Summer 2018 show had male models in wispy slip dresses and hoop earrings and just as often, women in boxy suits and baggy trousers – when you could tell men and women apart, that is. The grand dame of British punk fashion, Vivienne Westwood, closed out her menswear show with her signature black taffeta gowns. And following H&M, which dropped its first-ever unisex collection (of denim) last year, Abercrombie & Fitch released their gender-neutral children’s line, Everybody Collection, this January.

At Queer Aesthetics Now!, a flowing black sleeveless dress – with an entirely missing bust – teamed with a gender-agnostic androgynous white shirt with darts in the back instead of the front, was Sumiran Kabir Sharma’s exhibit. It gave a strong sense of the balance of masculine and feminine that has distinguished his label Anaam since its launch on the Gen Next runway at Lakme Fashion Week last year.

Queer Aesthetics Now!. Image credit: IndiaCultureLab/Facebook.

The Pot Plant’s Resham Karmchandani and Sanya Suri used handwoven bandhani silk and chanderi – pretty, delicate and ostensibly feminine fabrics – to create a unisex stripes-and-polka-print kurta-pyjama-jacket.

“We aim to create a third identity which stands for neither of the binaries and yet for both,” says Sharma. “So we incorporate colours, details and silhouettes which might be considered both, feminine and masculine, thus blurring the line.”

But for all these good optics, the movement is nowhere near causing the seismic culture shifts that, say, Coco Chanel did, when she introduced trousers for women post WWI; or Yves Saint Laurent, when he upped the ante with his mannish Le Smoking tuxedo. This is because, while women forged across gender lines, codes of male dressing stayed rigid, but for blips in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s courtesy the pop-cultural wildfire that were David Bowie’s flame-haired Ziggy Stardust, Kurt Cobain’s tea dresses and Prince’s bouffants and winged eyeliner.

It’s why Jaden Smith wearing a relatively sober skirt in Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer campaign in 2016 grabs headlines. And closer home, Ranveer Singh’s floral tracksuits and man skirts feel revolutionary – and are – even though the history of Indian menswear, especially before British rule, is rife with swishing angarkhas, anarkalis, lungis and dupattas, and heavy jewellery.

Image courtesy: BOBO Calcutta.

Freelance fashion stylist Kshitij Kankaria, whom it is not uncommon to spot in roomy, gender-bending silhouettes like tunics, palazzos and fluid jackets, says practical problems of sizing and availability contribute to stunted male androgyny. “Women’s clothes sit tighter on a man’s body and are not readily available in men’s sizes. I myself have had instances where I’ve loved a women’s shirt and have gone to the designer and said please don’t change anything, just the size.”

New York-based poet, performance artist and transgender-rights activist Alok Vaid-Menon (who identifies as a non-binary, transfeminine person and goes by the singular pronoun they), agrees. “A lot of gender-neutral fashion is associated with menswear like suits and button-downs, but we can’t yet envision dresses as gender neutral, and that’s a problem…It’s difficult to find clothing typically associated with women, that fits me. And it’s frustrating to have to constantly try to fit into clothes that were never made with you in mind.”

“Besides, in India, there is a dogma of putting a guy wearing a skirt or a sari into a particular bracket of sexuality,” added Kankaria. “So if he’s going through the effort of sourcing a women’s outfit and then altering it to his body, it’s assumed he has a fascination for it that goes beyond it just being a trend or style he wants to try.”

Alok Vaid-Menon. Image credit: Abhinav Anguria

Vaid-Menon’s visceral spoken-word performances comment on the hardship and violence binary gender codes precipitate for the trans community, and the potentially life-threatening act it can be to just get dressed in the morning. (It has been much worse since Trump came to power, they admit. “I think people now have permission to express the hatred they have always harbored for us.”) And late last year, Vaid-Menon collaborated with Delhi-based technical artist Adrianne Keishing to create a capsule collection of genderless clothes that they would wear if they didn’t have to worry about public harassment.

“I wanted the garments to take up a lot of space and I emphasised areas that we’re typically told to constrain to look more feminine,” Vaid-Menon said. “For example, a lot of transfeminine people are made to feel self-conscious about having broad shoulders – so I wanted to have big, dramatic shoulders to say, ‘take that!’”

To view images of Vaid-Menon sassily modeling these ultra-feminine pieces – a high-shine jacquard shift with overblown bishop sleeves, a frilly tulle babydoll dress, a pink-fur-fringed houndstooth hanfu-style robe, all flatter and free his hirsute, masculine proportions – is to understand what genderless dressing at its best could be. And how far we are from a reality where everyone is free to find their perfect fit.

Alok Vaid-Menon. Image credit: Abhinav Anguria

Fashion can lead the change, Datta believes. “As a movement, as a philosophy, removing gender has to evolve. Just like we’re evolving from ‘being a feminist’ to ‘undertaking feminist actions’”.

Kristy De Cunha, and Ayushman Mitra of BOBO Calcutta, both of whose aesthetic runs to high-colour, costume-like creations, paid homage to Pride at Queer Aesthetics Now!. De Cunha’s patchwork suede jumpsuit-dress hybrid – with a dramatic corset, embellished with rusted fencing wire entwined with golden metal flowers – spoke to the marginalisation of those who defy gender and sexual mores.

Heavily embroidered psychedelic prints depicting split faces locked in a kiss drenched Mitra’s androgynous cotton jumpsuit and were meant to embody the queer movement in all its colour, positivity and ecstatic love. “I started my clothing line so that I could move art out of the gallery and give it to the streets,” said Mitra, whose unique prints are developed from his original paintings. “Visibility leads to conversation, which then leads to acceptance in one way or the other.”

Kankaria agrees, but says it will take time. “If you walk into a men’s store and see a skirt, your mind gets used to it. Then when you see a man wearing it, it doesn’t seem so odd. In 20 years, maybe men wearing skirts and dresses will be like women wearing pants today.”

Image courtesy: BOBO Calcutta.