In the early aughts, you couldn’t swing a satchel or shoulder bag without having someone comment on your “man bag” or “murse” – if you were male-identifying, that is. The designation always gave me pause, because in my eyes, a bag is a bag is a bag. What made these styles, which were free of the frills and other embellishments that have historically come to classify an object as being “feminine,” worthy of an entirely separate category?
The way the fashion industry creates and talks about a wardrobe’s finishing touches has come a long way since those days. For the fall 2021 season, Gucci sent models of all genders down its runway clutching bamboo top-handle handbags. Botter, a Paris-based brand, showcased models wearing fanny packs and shoulder-slung bags in looks that exuded modern gender neutrality. Designer Marc Jacobs’s newest line, Heaven, is one of the most high-profile and freewheeling examples of degendering accessories. The label’s social media posts boast a diverse cast of models wearing candy-coloured charm jewellery that has traditionally been seen as for young girls.
For all this perceived progress, however, many retailers and brands still separate bags, hats, scarves, socks and other accessories into traditionally gendered departments. “Our society continues to gender these objects because of the gender binary,” says author Alok Vaid-Menon, an advocate for the degendering and decolonizing of fashion. Vaid-Menon has made a splash on social media with their eclectic ensembles that position garments and accessories such as bold jewellery as being for anyone who wishes to wear them.
“Aesthetic objects become a way of ‘proving’ the distinction between genders,” Vaid-Menon says. “Society is invested in enhancing a visual distinction between genders in order to establish and reinforce gender norms that dictate “appropriate” behaviour and the role that men and women should respectively have in society. Also, brands know that they can make more profit if they make products gender-specific.”
As long as marketing and merchandising can reflect or sway consumer behaviour, we’re going to see accessories – even those that are bereft of gendered design tropes such as colour or embellishment – continue to be categorized.
Yann Cornil, an assistant professor of marketing and behavioural sciences at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, notes that marketers in the fashion industry have traditionally segmented their customers based on gender and perpetuating traditional gender roles, expectations and stereotypes (i.e. pink clothes for girls and blue ones for boys). “Today, gender as a binary construct, as well as traditional gender role representations, are being increasingly contested in society – especially among younger generations,” Cornil says. “Marketers are adapting, but this process of adaptation to new societal requests takes time, therefore most clothes are still being marketed as either for men or for women.”
Some emerging brands are addressing the irrelevance of binary marketing, pricing and design head-on. Warren Steven Scott, who launched his brand with an array of earrings influenced by his Salish ancestry, describes his jewellery as simply “for pierced ears.” Bain, the Montreal-based bag brand, describes its goods as “genderless.” Offerings are minimalist-with-a-punch totes in mini and maxi sizes, as well as backpacks and waist bags that come in black, white and a pop of bright blue. Founder and designer Linsey Myriam Bain said that it was interesting to see her range of customers during a pop-up event held in August. “[It] can be a 50-year-old man, or a 50-year-old woman, or it can be a 20-year-old that’s really into fashion,” she says. “I realized that anyone that needed a bag, saw the value of leather, and really understood the functions of the bags were really attracted to them.”
As some fashion brands and retailers move away from traditional gendered categories, some in the LGBTQ2S+ community are flipping the script and adopting gendered accessories as a way to express who they are. On the new CBC series Sort Of, Toronto actor Bilal Baig plays lead character Sabi, “a gender-fluid Pakistani-Canadian millennial,” according to the show’s marketing materials. Clothing and accessories, from gold bangles to silver chain necklaces, are fundamental to the exploration and manifestation of all the sides of who Sabi is.
“I just like when people feel safe enough to express themselves however they want,” Baig says. “It’s a conversation I have so frequently with so many of my friends and people from the community – they have the impulse to want to wear something, and then just getting to the act of opening their door and getting out into public life could totally change how they want to express themselves that day.
“I’ve gotten to a point now where I feel like I can really, for the most part, wear whatever I want and step outside,” Baig says about tuning out expectations that persist around who should wear what. “I’ve kind of built the tools to not let the rest of the world impact how I feel about what I look like and what I’m wearing.”
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