Today, androgyny is all the rage in the fashion industry. Some menswear shows are including waifish male models and boyish female models to exhibit clothes that traditionally appear in women’s wear collections. Gucci, Burberry and Balenciaga dispensed with gender distinctions when these fashion houses combined their women’s wear and menswear fashion shows. The creative director at Balenciaga commented, “Gender doesn’t exist anymore. Man or woman, we can choose what we want to be.”
Clearly, our culture’s thinking about gender is evolving, and quickly. One consequence of the questioning of gender roles is that retailers need to stay on top of the evolution of stereotypes. We know that a society’s conception of gender roles exerts a huge influence on the fashion industry. For some men, this notion even dictates whether they should be interested in fashion at all.
It should not be news that gender roles are always a work in progress. A behavior or product that’s considered taboo for one gender or another today may come into vogue tomorrow. The fact is, gender norms have always been in a state of flux. The definitions of feminine and masculine have been very different in different places and times. Even Mattel, which gave us the hypersexualized Barbie, recently launched a line of gender-neutral dolls.
Retailers, like other marketers, have a love affair with categories. They eagerly assign labels to what they sell, such as Bridge, Shabby Chic, Floral Notes or Athleisure. The same goes for gender: Do you sell stuff for men or for women? Take your pick, and don’t look back.
But it’s counterproductive to exclude a healthy number of customers who don’t color neatly between the lines you have drawn. They don’t regard themselves as traditional “male” or “female,” and they’re constantly exploring new ways to express their unique gender identities. A 2018 Gallup survey estimates that 4.5% of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual or questioning). That’s north of 11 million people, and this proportion has grown by 1% just since 2021.
The abandonment of traditional gender distinctions is even more pronounced among younger shoppers. An oft-cited 2015 study by Wunderman Thompson reported that 82% of respondents in its Gen Z sample (ages 12 to 19) said they don’t care about other people’s sexual orientation, 88% said they are exploring their sexuality more than in the past, and 81% do not think gender defines a person as much as it used to. These new consumers tend to reject strict male/female categories when they shop — less than half say they always buy clothes designed for their own gender.
It’s crucial to recognize that the dual dichotomies of male vs. female and men vs. women are not the same. Here is where biology and psychology part ways: We designate a person as male or female depending upon the sex chromosomes they carry, but the experience of being a man or a woman is much more fluid.
Today we’re witnessing a particularly volatile shakeup as our culture grapples with changing definitions. At least in some parts of our society, it’s increasingly commonplace for a biologically born man to “act feminine” by wearing skirts and makeup, or for a biologically born woman to “act masculine” as she dons overalls and construction boots. And that’s not to mention the legions of people who literally change their biological identity via operations and hormone injections.
In this rapidly changing world, it’s imperative for marketers to understand what it means to be male, female, agender, cis, feminine-of-center, FtM, genderqueer, third gender or any one of numerous terms that vie today to replace the man/woman dichotomy of old. They need to closely follow this conversation to be sure their messages and products sync with these evolving definitions.
And it’s not just apparel, footwear and cosmetics retailers that need to stay on top of this: As gender roles evolve, other verticals open as well. For example, one driver of this sea change relates to a rethinking of the traditional cultural dichotomy of Man’s Work vs. Woman’s Work. In the U.S., most younger couples agree that in the ideal marriage husband and wife both work and share childcare and household duties. That’s a big change from just 20 years ago, when less than half of the population approved of the dual-income family, and less than half of 1% of husbands knew how to operate a sponge mop. Today, it’s much more likely that your customer for a home product, food item or child’s toy is a man — straight, gay or something else.
The market potential of LGTBQ consumers is pegged at just shy of $1 trillion. So when manufacturers and retailers loosen up their traditional market definitions of gender, they may encounter exciting new opportunities. Products and services that used to be solely the province of one gender may now be fair game for others as well. More than three million British men say they wear makeup such as “manscara” and “guyliner.” A third of these users borrow cosmetics from their wives or girlfriends, but the online retailer MMUK Man exclusively sells products for men.
Masculinity and femininity are social constructions that vary across cultures and historical periods. However, in Western culture we seem to have reached a watershed moment when people question even the anchor points of this continuum. So-called gender binarism seems a quaint notion to many people who may not identify as either male or female (as we culturally define these categories). The cage that separates men and women has never been more fragile. Don’t get left behind as this gender revolution picks up speed.
Michael Solomon is a Global Consumer Behaviour Expert and the author of The New Chameleons: How to Connect with Consumers Who Defy Categorization, published by Kogan Page.