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Why big department stores should embrace more gender-neutral clothing 

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“Aggressively androgynous,” I told a coworker yesterday, wistfully quoting a term I’d heard recently. “That’s what I want to be. Aggressively androgynous.”

As badass as it sounds, the phrase feels disingenuous coming from me. I’m not an aggressive person. When I say I want to be “aggressively androgynous,” what I really mean is that I want to be confusing. I don’t want to be read as male or female, at least not on first glance and at least not every day. It’s a tame intention, as simple as any style choice meant to express myself, but androgyny is often read as aggression, a statement, a rebellion against gender norms.

But androgyny won’t be a rebellion forever, and it may not be a rebellion for long. Shortly after that conversation with my coworker, I was forwarded an email that I hope signals good things to come. Stockmann, Finland’s biggest department store, recently added an entire floor of gender-neutral clothing.

According to a press release, they’ve stocked it with brands such as Acne Studios, Calvin Klein and Marimekko “that have previously incorporated unisex styles in their collections.”

Unisex clothing isn't a new concept, nor is the concept of brands and stores specifically dedicated to gender-neutral clothing options (check out The Discriminant, if you’re into some queer-friendly styles). But to see such clothes adopted intentionally by a major company says a lot. A gender-neutral department won't only serve those who identify as nonbinary, genderqueer or gender-neutral (though it will increase comfort levels immensely when it comes to shopping), but it will hopefully also allow those who adhere to the gender binary to explore other options.

Having suffered through more than two decades of shopping strictly in women’s departments, I’ve gotten sick of sheer blouses that require an undershirt, or pocket-less pants that necessitate accessorizing with a kicky purse (I’d shop in the men’s section for the rest of my life just to have real pockets). But those who feel uncomfortable shopping in the women’s section might miss out on crop tops, sequins, short shorts — some of the greatest joys of traditionally women’s fashions.

From the Stockmann press release:
“We believe that men’s and women’s departments should function as guidelines to finding the clothes that best fit your shape and style rather than definite rules to follow," says Anna Salmi, CCO at Stockmann.

“With One Way [the gender-neutral department] we wanted to style and curate a selection of clothes that might not be designed ‘unisex’ but that work perfectly for all people. Our aim is to inspire our customers to forget the rules and shop unbiasedly,” Salmi adds.
The closest American department stores have gotten to this forward-thinking mindset: when Target did away with their gendered toy sections in 2015. That was a huge boon for America’s children, who often grow up restricted to one section of the store (be it in toys or clothing) simply because they are told that is where they belong. This mindset often forces kids into gender roles they may not fit, and those gender roles can change the way they interact with the world. What I like about Stockmann’s move is that it does for adults (most of whom having been raised in gender-restrictive environments) what Target once did for kids. Every generation could do with recognizing the middle areas of the gender spectrum a little better.

Moreover, adding a gender-neutral department doesn’t do away with gendered departments entirely, so those who are most comfortable on the binary (be they cisgender, transgender, or simply prefer to present as more masculine or more feminine) can still have easy access to clothes that work for them.

If this reads promotional on my end, well, you caught me. It is. Absolutely. I’d love to see American companies adopt this attitude. If we all felt a little more comfortable breaking fashion rules, maybe androgyny wouldn’t have to be aggressive anymore. Maybe it wouldn’t have to be a statement.

But for now, I’m glad someone’s making the statement. Now which American store has the guts to follow suit?

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