Can Uniform Designs Really Be Gender Neutral?
As Retail Week asks whether retailers should abandon gender labels, we examine how gender fluidity translates to corporate uniform design.
Societal norms are changing. As part of a drive for gender equality, there is growing demand to break down gender stereotypes and for children, not assign them in the first place. One obvious place to start is what we wear.
When couture fashion brands first introduced the concept of gender neutral collections and mixed gender runway shows, it was viewed as forward thinking and breaking down boundaries, but most anticipated it to be a passing trend.
That no longer looks to be the case. According to a recent Havas survey of 12,000 people across 32 countries, 52% of female and 44% of male respondents said they did not believe in set genders and that gender is fluid, with UK respondents being among the most supportive. High street retailers have also responded to this market trend. Zara and H&M have both launched genderless lines while River Island uses “dual displays” – male and female models wearing the same items to showcase its wares.
So what does this mean for uniform design? Corporate uniforms have historically tended to err on the side of formality and tradition, with distinct outfits for men and women. Flight attendants and beauty counter assistants are just two examples where more female-oriented uniforms have been key branding features. These days, the definition of a uniform is more fluid and spans a wide range of styles, that has led to more casual, less tailored, and more individualistic looks.
Gender Fluidity – A changing landscape
Companies must first decide if they should adopt a more gender fluid uniform, which will be determined by your market sector, customer base and corporate values. It’s an opportunity for brands to rethink how they present their values through what they require their employees to wear. After all, a uniform is a very powerful visual statement.
Aside from the political and social implications, uniforms must also be fit for purpose. Increasingly stringent (some might say sensible) health and safety regulations are being put into place to safeguard employee wellbeing. High heels, while elegant, may not be the ideal footwear if your job requires you to stand all day – and some might argue an outdated expression of femininity.
When the weather’s hot, dress codes may need to be relaxed to allow staff to wear more appropriate attire despite gender-based uniforms. This was highlighted very effectively during this summer’s heatwave, when a group of schoolboys protested their school’s strict “no shorts” policy by wearing skirts. Organisations need to check their dress codes to ensure that it is fair to all employees.
So how can corporate workwear designers help companies address gender fluidity in their uniforms?
Tailoring for Genderless Uniforms
By focusing on body shape rather than gender, uniform designs can be more unisex. Looser, more generous cuts can insinuate a more genderless look that can be easily worn by anybody. London Underground have followed this trend, choosing a more unisex, tailored look for their corporate uniform.
This could be as simple as choosing a one size fits all t-shirt and trousers, opting for a more casual, athleisure style using fabrics with stretch. Designers can also look at more creative, stylish and sharp uniform looks. Many retail uniforms are now based around a unisex t shirt or polo shirt for example.
Avoc, an award-winning French-based fashion design duo with a gender neutral bias, have just launched their S/S18 collection, entitled “Strictly Business”, which explores “corporate dressing for today’s younger generations”. Their vision of workwear takes gender out of the equation altogether by focusing around the “same aesthetic, language and creative direction” rather than approaching it as fitting both men and women.
Mix and Match Unisex Uniforms
Rather than design male and female uniforms, companies can opt for a flexible unisex wardrobe that all employees can choose from and wear. This might include: t-shirts, shirts, trousers, jumpers, jackets, shorts, and even skirts. Why not? This approach has worked well for some of JSD’s transport clients.
One way to avoid contentiousness around gendered uniforms is to use accessories or one particular item of clothing as the key element to distinguish your employees. This might be an apron like Starbucks, a hat, scarf, or a distinctive jacket.
A Gender Neutral Fashion Future?
The most decisive push towards gender neutrality so far has come in children’s clothing and toys. Two of the UK’s most traditional retailers, John Lewis and Clarks, led the charge this summer and launched gender-neutral children’s ranges, in response to parents’ desire for a more non-binary approach to childrearing.
However, it’s also important for global brands to consider that not all markets are as open to the idea of gender neutrality as Western European countries. In the Havas report, three-quarters of respondents in China and 91% in Russia, and 100% in Indonesia feel that children should be raised according to traditional gender norms. Being seen as progressive is one thing but be careful that your uniform doesn’t offend customers in other regions.
Havas head of group insight Alison Tsang believes gender neutral is a key trend that’s here to stay so “if retailers are seen to be responding to it in a positive and proactive way now they will reap the rewards rather than coming to it too late.”
Brands who want to be seen as progressive and companies who haven’t updated their uniforms in a while may want to consider this when they next undertake a uniform redesign. In fact, given the definition and purpose of a uniform, doesn’t it make sense that there is uniformity across gender lines?
If you’re interested in how we incorporate fashion and individuality into our corporate workwear, you may also enjoy our blog on Designing Individuality into Staff Uniforms.