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Sizing up gender-fluid fashion: When skirts and saris are not just for women

Sales staff would often redirect Sumiran Kabir Sharma to the men’s section when he ventured into the women’s section for clothes to suit his taste and petite frame. As someone who does not identify with the gender assigned to him at birth, shopping became tricky.

So, when he set up his own clothing brand, he chose to make it gender fluid. Today, Anaam is among the clutch of Indian fashion brands set up to create gender-fluid and inclusive fashion. Gender-fluid fashion refers to breaking gender barriers and creating clothing that is inclusive of all genders such as male, female, queer, transgender and more.

While fashion is evolving to reflect the crumbling of rigid binary classification of gender, can clothing truly be gender fluid while sizing continues to be binary as men’s and women’s?

“It was easier for me to find petite men’s clothing in Europe than in India because Indian men are not usually built small. So, it comes down to the demographic and the culture of the place you are in,” said Sharma.

“It is high time we came up with new sizing, which is more accepting of all genders.”

Anaam, he said, works with an average size that is a medium between small and large as well as men and women. The medium size is then graded up or down to arrive at other sizes, he added.

But gender fluidity has so far largely been the preserve of niche, expensive and bespoke tailoring. This is why it is understandable for a Ranveer Singh to sashay in skirts, but how is an average male-body type to fit in a skirt with cinched waist?

Another route for gender-fluid fashion is through unstitched, draped garments. “Indian textiles and fashion were always gender fluid because drapes were the main mode of clothing in India. If it’s a dhoti for a man, it’s a sari for a woman,” said Himanshu Verma, known as ‘India’s sari man’.

Verma, who has been a proponent of saris and wears one himself almost every day, says ancient Indian costumes did not have many clear demarcations between men’s and women’s clothing.

“This binary classification is a product of colonisation and modernisation.”

But how can mass produced fashion, an indicator of widespread adoption, embrace gender-fluid sizing? “A kurta or pajama can be worn by anyone. Scottish men wear kilts, which are basically skirts, irrespective of their sexuality,” said Sharma.

If you look at the cut of a man’s slim-fit shirt, it is similar to a woman’s regular shirt because both have a dip at the waist, The Pot Plant co-founder Resham Karmchandani said.

“One way to address the issue at the most basic level is to stop labelling garments and just lay them out based on the pattern. Right now, the mental block is less about the clothing and more about the labelling that comes with it,” the brand’s cofounder Sanya Suri said.

This binary messaging continues through promotional photoshoots, marketing and visual merchandising of the product, Karmchandani and Suri added.

Further, clothes come with strict gender markers that are so ingrained that few people stop to think about them. Women’s clothing have zippers and buttons on the left side while men’s clothing have them on the right. These are redundant hangovers from the Victorian era, when women were dressed by their maids and men dressed themselves. They can easily be done away with, without affecting the aesthetic or utility of the garment, designers pointed out.

“It’s not like I can’t wear a men’s shirt just because the buttons are on a different side,” said Karmchandani. There was a time when women didn’t wear trousers but now unisex pants and denims are based on just the waist size, she added.

Besides, Sharma said, you can also use traditional finishing like dori and nada to work around the problem to an extent. And anti-fit, relaxed fit and oversized clothes do away with the need for gender-defining bust darts that are often used to give shape in womenswear, he added.

“Clothes have no gender. The distinctions were only made by us. We, certainly can, overcome them,” seems to be the progressive chant. But is fast fashion in sync with these sensibilities?

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