The opposite of neutral is female

@taggingneutral. Instagram, photographed by Nicole Spakman, 28 November 2019.

Last year 3 out of 9 of the nominees for the annual LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers were designing gender-neutral clothing. The semi-finalists reflect the current trends in fashion and claim to challenge current traditional categories of masculine and feminine. In the past few years, high street designers such as H&M and Zara have subsequently launched gender-neutral collections. There was a lot of talk about gender-neutral clothes in the media this year and some of the descriptions include‘clothes for everyone and anyone’ and ‘beyond the binary’.

In our work, we look at the question of what does gender-neutral means in our patriarchy? When the system that is judging what is gender-neutral is already male-biased then there are problems with the notion of neutrality. We have focused on H&M’s gender-neutral line because of their responsibility as large global retailers to influence a large number of people and their claim to be #Conscious in previous campaigns for sustainable clothing. H&M’s gender-neutral line was launched as a line that would disrupt the idea that categories of clothes should be defined as female or male however the line only contained variations on men’s clothing. For clothes to become gender-neutral H&M have just removed any traditional female signifiers. Contrary to being forward-thinking the line continues along a path of thinking that already sees femaleness as ‘otherness’. Through the reframing of men’s clothes as gender-neutral H&M is creating male as the standard and simultaneously reinforcing a belief that a man wearing anything other than menswear is subversive.

In response, we have produced an alternative H&M campaign to highlight the absence of female signifiers from H&M’s gender-neutral campaign. The alternative campaign features typically feminine looks on male models in the style of H&M’s typical online store images. We have put our link to the campaign’s Instagram account @taggingneutral as a QR code on 200 labels and stickers which we infiltrated one of the Rotterdam H&M stores with. By imitating H&M’s ‘conscious’ labels we ensured our work remains undetected by the staff of H&M but visible to the buyer upon removal of the tag. By copying their ‘conscious’ message we are also holding them accountable to a value they claim to have.

Tagging the neutral. Photograph by Nicole Spakman.

By targeting this range at H&M we want people shopping there to be confronted by H&M’s narrow views on neutrality. Women’s fashion excluded from the gender-neutral range is symptomatic of the way society views women secondary to men and places masculine values at a higher level of importance. The underlying idea that femininity is an undesirable trait in anyone other than females held by the store is inevitably transferred to the consumer. This subtle difference in value is what we are trying to highlight to the audience who encounters our work.

We want H&M as the second-largest global retailer to take a bigger responsibility in altering what society deems acceptable for gender expression. For high street stores to reconsider how they can more effectively erase boundaries rather than replicating structures already in place to keep men as the universal standard. The more we see advertising campaigns subverting the norms of gender, the more we can actually hope to erase boundaries. The more we see femininity as something positive and less narrowly defined the more we can expect to value those traits across the spectrum of gender.

Article written by Mary Kervick as part of the project ‘Tagging Neutral’
by Mary Kervick, She Xiaojuan and Nicole Spakman.
Design and photography by Nicole Spakman

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