When you’re shopping for apparel and gear, how often do you search by gender? It’s a convenient binary to organize products under: men shop these products, women shop those. Most of us fit under these categories in a way that feels natural, so we overlook the inherent structure. In recent years, we’ve seen an intentional effort from the outdoor industry to create more inclusive, less gendered garments. These pieces aren’t overtly masculine or feminine. Instead, they speak to the growing desire for clothing that doesn’t fit a certain mold, expressing a more nuanced and fluid sartorial (and functional) bent.
It’s not restricted to outdoor trappings, of course: genderless clothing has been catching on with fitness brands like Girlfriend Collective and loads of fashion labels, as well. As we humans continue to open it up and break down barriers, some of our favorite brands are doing so, too.
Sartorial history can be nebulous, but one could argue unisex clothing in the U.S. dates back to 1851, when Elizabeth Smith Miller designed the first predecessor to a full pant for women. Before then, women could wear pants-like clothing if they were doing manual work or chores around the house, but never in public.
Almost two centuries later, we’ve seen cycles of fashion where “acceptable” clothing for either gender goes in and out of vogue. Pants, skirts, shoulder pads ... you can probably recall some items from your own life that have been at times “okay” for men to wear — and other times when they raised judgmental eyebrows.
In the early ’90s, long after women stepped out in trousers and broke the mold, Robert Jungmann launched a clothing line with the intention to put hemp in the spotlight — in a positive fashion. (This was during the War on Drugs era, making it a rather subversive move.) As Jungmann was developing his brand, which would evolve into the sustainability-focused, outdoors-oriented Jungmaven of today, he was balancing both the needs of a fledgling business and his personal ideals.
“Ever since those early days, I’ve been determined to design inclusive clothing for everyone,” he says. “That said ... creating unisex clothing was also a survival tactic when I was trying to launch a clothing line on a shoestring budget.” During those days, Jungmann showed a collection of men’s items at a women’s trade show — it was all he had. But the quality of the fabric, the “Made in the USA” tag and the fit and feel were what brought customers flocking, gendered label or not.
The origins of unisex clothing in the outdoors may have been pragmatic, but over the past few years, the industry (and its cousin, the fitness sphere) has seen a shift in perspective. Unisex has transitioned from a path taken out of necessity into an ideology. The forward-thinking brands of today understand that it’s not just about utility — it’s about self-expression.
Currently, when it comes to making unisex clothing and gear, one size does not fit all. Brands across different categories confront the challenge of physiology in different ways, spurring myriad treatments and solutions.
Last fall, Smartwool released a six-item collaboration capsule with Jiberish. Pictured on male and female models, the capsule includes two hoodies and two pants with roomier fits designed around Smartwool’s men’s regular sizing. Men are encouraged to order their standard size, while women are instructed to size down — fairly common instructions with unisex sizing.
Later this year, the brand plans to expand. “Smartwool will launch our first-ever unisex collection in the fall of 2022,” says Maggie Meisinger, manager of strategic communications. “We believe it is crucial to make performance products that benefit all people to go far and feel good.”
For other manufacturers, it’s not on the customer to adjust their sizing, but the brands themselves.
Take Burton’s AG Hedstall Gore-Tex 2L One Piece — part of Burton’s reimagining of its fashion-forward ’90s sub-line, Analog. An oversized silhouette helps combat the issue of differing waist-to-hip ratios between men and women, and it offers some flexibility in fit.
Another iconic brand stepping into the space in a big way is Patagonia. Come this fall, the brand will offer 33 unisex adult styles — and convert 71 percent of its kids’ styles to unisex.
“We recognize gender inclusivity as a brand value and our goal is to reduce gender constraints in style, color and textile,” says Patagonia spokesperson Corey Simpson. “We also realize that by reducing the gender constraint of specific products and categories, we live in closer harmony to our other goals of making less, reducing redundancies and overlaps, and providing an inclusive environment for our customers.”
However, like Smartwool, Patagonia’s approach currently bases adult unisex fit on its men’s sizing, which means it still fits some better than others. That remains the core conundrum: the more technical the garment, the more difficult it is to achieve a uni-sex product that doesn’t just appeal to everyone, but works, too.
For example, Allbirds’ newest trail running shoe, the SWT, is comfortable, capable and appeals to both men and women in sizing and color. But when comparing its specs with its more technical competitors, the shoe tracks one step behind. That is not due entirely to the unisex nature; Allbirds also doesn’t have the well-heeled history of a brand like Nike or Adidas to lean on. But it also exposes the limitations of trying to make a shoe that works for all feet.
Even so, the overall trend of being less attached to gendered labels and offering a wider variety of fits is a step forward for everyone. Just look at Adidas x Ivy Park, the brand’s fashion-forward team-up with Beyoncé. Its online store features a wide variety of models rocking the apparel, plus eight different sizing options, including gender-neutral regular fit and gender-neutral oversized fit.
“Getting the fit right can be hard — you can’t please everyone, so you can see an increase in returns when navigating a unisex fit,” Jungmann says. “It’s worth it, though. Unisex is the future and it’s only going to continue ... brands shouldn’t be deciding which apparel is right for you based on your gender identity.”