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Gender Relevance for Apparel Sizing and a Non-Binary Approach

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In his first post for 2022, fit expert Mark Charlton explores the (much needed) rise of all-gender apparel, and how this is accelerating shape-based fit. 

I have a passion for great fitting apparel and, for over 30 years, I have been helping brands understand sizing constructs and globalize fit offerings.

Most of my articles thus far have addressed the complexities of creating, perfecting, and executing fit across a diverse and ever changing consumer landscape.

In this article I would like to discuss the societal shift away from a binary delineation of gender and how this could effect product creation, sizing standards, sizing & fit tools and the potential acceleration of a movement I like to call “shape-based fit”.

So long as you are living and breathing you will have noticed increasing noise around the concept of gender, the removal of gender and the creation of more than two options when it comes to answering a gender questionnaire. No longer is offering only ‘male or female’ or only ‘man or woman’ acceptable.

The Netherlands have stated than gender identification will be removed from all government forms of identification over the next 5 years, for example. The 2022 Brit awards have merged categories like ‘Best International Female Artist’ and ‘Best International Male Artist’ simply to ‘Best International Artist’ as a nod towards removing the focus and delineation of gender.

More and more brands are now offering gender neutral, unisex or all-gender sections of apparel. Unisex apparel of course is nothing new, however what I do see as new are the Millennial and Generation Z groups having much more confidence shopping across gendered clothing, with much less significance being placed on gender. These generations buy what they like and where it / style it how they like.

The Gen Z and even Gen A generations are really driving the non-binary approach to gender. Gender is a spectrum, male being at one end and female at the other, as opposed to the traditional binary delineation (A or B). The non-binary approach is much more of a sliding scale, with options all along the scale.

Unisex and all-gender apparel is nothing new, but has previously been seen as “one product fits most”: a marriage of a male and female product into a single “unisex” one. This approach, although SKU optimal, is a compromise or trade-off from a fit perspective. I have talked previously about sizing being a ratio with made-to-measure apparel being a 1:1 ratio (1 individual body and 1 product) versus mass-produced apparel, with perhaps 8 sizes (XS through to 4XL) and infinite bodies, as a ratio of 8:infinite.

Accelerating Shape-Based Fit

I predict the evolution of non-gendered apparel to accelerate shape-based fit. Shape-based fit is an acknowledgment that there are different shapes across the human species, different skeletal structures, different ethnicities, different diets, and different gene pools all effecting body shape, size and proportion. Positive movements centred on diversity and inclusivity are wonderful, but most apparel brands’ standards are based on just one body shape – the very opposite of inclusive.

Shape-based fit acknowledges the different body shapes and allows for multiple standards within a single brand, allowing that brand to understand how their products fit multiple body shapes. Armed with this knowledge the brand can choose to communicate fit differently, create different product, distribute their product differently and so on. However, from a product creation perspective with a specific focus on fit, if you consider that the difference between a male consumer and a female consumer is merely shape this, then, brings to life shape-based fit.

Apparel fit is and has always been about measurement relationships.  Hip / seat to waist to rise and thigh, bust / chest to waist to shoulder to x-front and x-back, etc. If we start to consider and cluster these relationships without the segregation of gender, sizing structures begin to look very different.

With this consideration, all brands that offer male and female product have the tools to bring to life shape-based fit. They have a male standard and a female standard and these standards represent different body shapes / relationships of measurements.

The next step in the process is understanding how their product fits on both shapes. For illustrative purposes I will refer to the women’s standard as hourglass and the men’s standard as straight.

Take a woman’s hoodie: this will fit both the hourglass standard and the straight standard yet the visual aesthetic will be different across the different shapes / standards.  Likewise, take a men’s hoodie: this will also fit the straight and hourglass standards but the visual aesthetic will again be different.  The point here is that mens’ product is not mutually exclusive to men; the product will fit women and vice versa, therefore why not market it as such? Don’t look at gender-neutral as a middle ground between menswear and womenswear. Look at gender-neutral as: what are the products that would work across both genders and how do we communicate fit intent on different shapes and make available to different gender denominations in a platform that is not binary.

Another angle to view shape-based fit is that for decades – if not centuries – the apparel industry has offered length options (tall, petite, inseam variations, etc.). This is a version of shape-based fit and essentially an added dimension to fit, size scales and SKUs.

When a product, such as a pant, is altered for length it is almost always more than just inseam alteration; the front and back rise also undergo an adjustment, details such as pocket placements, knee articulation etc. are altered for a shape that is longer or shorter.  A future sizing structure could be a single alpha size (S, M, L) with a denotion of shape (hourglass or straight to cite the previously used crude example) versus length (medium or tall are terms most are familiar with, or 32” waist 30” inseam). Consider another dimension of shape (hourglass or straight).

Overcoming Outdated Standards

Once the thinking of shape-based and gender-specific apparel has evolved the next challenge is to overcome the outdated standards between men’s and women’s product.  If you have never shopped across gender you may have never realized this, but details such as button plackets, zip insertions, storm flaps, pant flies and anything requiring finger and thumb dexterity are different. This is the reason that most currently offered gender-neutral products are the obvious hoodies, t-shirts, and sweat pants, i.e. anything without these details.

Traditionally men’s products are built for the left-handed population and woman’s products built for the right-handed population.  Why, I hear you ask? These rules are based on Victorian standards. Approximately 90% of the population are right-handed and in Victorian times men had butlers to dress them and women dressed themselves, hence the right-hand, left-hand difference. Over time these standards have been diluted and globalized, creating different standards in different regions across the globe.

Not only is it time to revisit these outdated standards, challenging the norms of which they arose, as they are far from relevant in today’s society, I also believe it is time to re-look at our sizing structures without the segregation of gender to create more choice for the consumer and also, more importantly, diversity and inclusion with a non-binary view.

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Mark Charlton With more than 20 years’ experience in the apparel industry, Mark Charlton is a technical leader who has worked with manufacturers, trading companies, direct-to-consumer retailers,omni-channel national and global brands. His key focus is product groups from M2M tailoring to lingerie and everything in-between. He has an uncompromising approach to understanding the complexities of apparel fit, both on a consumer and global level. Additionally, Mark has a proven record of driving and implementing organizational and process change from corporate teams throughout the global supply chain.