UK Designers, Models Redefining Gender in Fashion

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday May 11, 2021

UK designers and models are looking to move the needle when it comes to gender and fashion.

While the U.S. finds itself in a cultural meltdown regarding transgender rights and representation, gender expression and fluidity overseas — in at least some parts of Europe —†tells a different story.

Willingness to bend, transcend and side-step gender has occupied a marginal place in fashion for years, in parallel with outliers in the entertainment world such as Conchita Wurst, the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest winner whose dramatic style combined elegant gowns and judicious makeup with a well-groomed full beard (and sparked a thousand conservative pundit meltdowns).

But the fashion world's trend toward a freer flair around gender might be approaching a tipping point. From Harry Styles proudly clutching a Jackie bag by Gucchi or covering Vogue in a dress to a fresh and creative new generation of designers, clothing seems to be getting more gender-creative.

One bastion of traditionally gender-specific design that's unexpectedly starting to broaden its horizons is the bridal gown, thanks to 32-year-old Curtis Cassell and his Queera Wang label, reports Vogue UK in an article that dubs Queera Wang a "Non-Binary, Billy-Porter-Approved Bridal Label."

Cassell's wedding wear is "not the standard tuxedo or a princess wedding dress, but rather looks with a baroque, almost renaissance feel with high collars and exaggerated puffed sleeves, modernized with slices up and down the sleeves or ties trailing up the slit of a skirt," Vogue UK details. "The pieces aren't made to fit a specific person, but rather, everyone, especially those within the LGTBQIA+ community."

Porter, the story notes, dressed in one of Cassell's shirts for this year's Oscars after-party.

But Cassell's pieces are not mere fluff drawn from imagination and given provisional life; instead, his designs are "based in architecture," states Vogue UK. They also emerged, the article shared, from conversations Cassell had with a lesbian colleague while working as a wedding caterer.

Imagining how she might dress at her wedding, Cassell started "sketching her in these tuxedo onesies. And then I was sketching myself in ballgowns. Then it was just these exquisite designs of tops and bottoms in a scale of feminine and masculine."

The duo behind underwear company Urbody also takes a different approach to apparel that's been hidebound, in a manner of speaking, for far too long. A Guardian profile on Mere Abrams and Anna Graham underscored the philosophy that the two designers have brought to their line.

"The very fabric of the industry is grounded in a binary understanding of bodies and self-expression," Graham told the British newspaper. "There's the men's section and the women's and everyone is assumed to be cisgender or gender-conforming."

But, she added, "I don't believe that that is where the future of fashion is headed."

Nor should it be, she said, saying that she and Mere — who uses they/them pronouns —†"want to see just as many trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people at the table making decisions and having input" as are taking to the covers of fashion magazines in daring new looks.

Urbody makes "undergarments designed to help people 'outwardly dress for who they are within,'" the article said, quoting from the company's website. "These items include bralettes for those without a bust and packing underwear to create the illusion of a bulge."

Non-binary fashion sensibilities don't have to stop with a "mix and match" approach based on what's come before. Proudly occupying an in-between space is agender model Olly Eley, who recently related in Elle UK what it was like to grow up in rural Australia with no sense of a definite gender, only to then discover, as a young adult venturing out into the world, previously-unknown words and concepts that they instinctively knew fit them.

"The first time someone used the pronoun 'they' instead of 'she' for me, it felt like peace. Finally, the way others saw me was the way I understood myself," Eley, who appears in Elle UK this month as the magazine's first non-binary cover model.

"After years of despising the body that I was born with, unable to relate in any way to the gender I was assigned at birth, I had at last found a way of existing in the world that made sense to me."

Eley, who grew up with five brothers and only had the inadequate word "tomboy" available as a child, summarized their gender identity not in terms of male or female, but rather as "a dot floating somewhere between the two, but untethered to the line [connecting them] altogether."

Eventually, Eley adds, "I realized I was not a gay girl when I realized that I was not a girl." Rather, they declared, "I am agender and what I do with my body, whether I'm naked or in a full snowsuit, doesn't change that. I've accepted that I'm a non-binary person living in a binary world (that I have every intention of disrupting!)."

It may take some time for the familiar gender binary to fall away to the point that agender, non-binary, genderqueer, or in-between people who don't happen to be models have a chance to wear clothing that fits them inside as well as out. Off-the-rack attire is still deeply tied to those pink and blue notions. But the day may yet be coming. And it may be sooner than we think.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.