An interview about Unisex Fashion for Good Weekend

Good Weekend Magazine recently published a feature article titled 'Dressed for Unisex', examining recent gender-neutral attitudes towards fashion and style which have seeped into the popular mainstream through the power of celebrity. 

We were delighted to be featured as one of the local Melbourne designers making our own small but special mark on the local design scene, gently voicing our opinion on the topic of unisex dress with each passing season, each piece we design and each customer we talk to.

We had the absolute pleasure to speak on the phone with Sharon Bradley, a journalist with Good Weekend, about how our label came about and how we started creating a prominent line of unisex clothing in our evolving collections. 

Sharon was particularly interested in my background and inspiration as a designer, and what had led me to create my unisex clothing line. My memories went right back to my childhood days in Singapore. It was the early 90s, and growing up with three older sisters who were all tomboys and into androgynous grunge dressing certainly had it's effect. Juxtapose that with a dreamy little boy who was always in his own world, constantly sketching, as well as discovering his own sexuality and being utterly fascinated with experimenting with his mum's designer wardrobe and expensive makeup set, and you get a heady concoction from where to draw inspiration!

Designer Jude Ng AW20 Runway
Designer Jude Ng at the JUDE A/W Runway
Photography by Daniel Mallia

Also, growing up in South East Asia and the cultural melting pot of Singapore, I was exposed to a rich and varied tapestry of clothing forms, constantly observing the way people dressed for both ceremony and everyday life. I was, and I guess always will be, fascinated with the complex simplicity of Japanese style cutting. This eastern influence has always been the basis for the way I think of how to put clothes together, and to cut my shapes in a style which suits the diversity of the people I have encountered.

Jude AW20 Runway
Lorraine Moreno at the JUDE A/W 20 Runway
Photography by Daniel Mallia

When I first started my label, I honestly did not have too much of a plan, except to create womenswear which was relaxed, wearable yet still had a clear point of difference. Naturally, there was a unisex slant to all the pieces I made, nothing was ultra feminine and every piece would be something my sisters or myself would realistically wear. With a leap of faith, I put the range out there, each piece hand made by me. Women of all ages bought the pieces, and gradually men were also attracted to the relaxed-fit tops and pants. I was intrigued by how excited they were that there was an alternative to traditional menswear for them, and was surprised at how open they were to trying new shapes on. Before long, a capsule men's range was born. I decided that each piece would be something I would wear myself, that I would be creating the wardrobe I would love to wear. Surprisingly, many women also gravitated to these menswear designs! It was then that I decided that the collection should develop to have a strong unisex line which everybody would choose from. It did take time to refine a new gender-fluid style of tailoring, and learning that unisex clothing did not just include a staple wardrobe of square or sack like pieces which fitted everyone, whether flattering or not; but that people still wanted a sense of shape which brought out their best features and skimmed over things they would rather hide.

Designer Jude Ng at Work in the Studio
Designer Jude Ng at work in the studio

As a clothing label which has evolved to place an emphasis on ageless and gender-less dressing, we know that the concept of unisex fashion is not a new one. Gender-fluid dressing has been practiced by many cultures through the ages - for example in ancient Egypt, tunics, kilts, wigs and makeup were worn by both sexes of a kingdom who viewed women as equals and whose fashion sense was nearly unisex long before that word, or concept, was understood by the more 'advanced' culture of the present day. 

Seated Couple Maya & Meryt Detail (18th Century, Saqqara, Egypt).

Unisex dress has almost always been a product of the challenges towards the patriarchy and used as a tool to fight for equality and recognition. In 1851, American women's rights activist Amelia Bloomer shocked the establishment by announcing in her women's newspaper The Lily that she had adopted the "Turkish Dress" for daily wear - a pair of light weight pants worn under a dress which dispensed with the heavy petticoats and undergarments worn in women's fashion of the day. These 'Turkish' pants which came to be known as 'bloomers' emancipated women from the constraints of fashion, allowing them freedom of movement, and became one of the symbols of the new women's suffrage movement.

Amelia Bloomer
A Currier & Ives rendition of the bloomer costume
influenced by Amelia Jenks Bloomer.

Especially through the 20th century until today, our ideas towards unisex dressing have evolved a great deal with each decade and with each season's passing trends, have gradually transformed the way we view clothing, ourselves and how we get dressed each day. The term "unisex clothing" itself was a baby-boomer corrective to the rigid gender stereotyping of the 1950s, itself a reaction to the perplexing new roles imposed on men and women alike by World War II. The term “gender” began to be used to describe the social and cultural aspects of biological sex in the 1950s, a tacit acknowledgement that one’s sex and one’s gender might not match up neatly.

Twiggy 60's
Model Twiggy in a Pant Suit photographed by Helmut Newton.

Examples of unisex clothing from the 1960's and 1970's can be seen from the daily wardrobe of the working woman, to the costumes of glam rock musicians.  Who could forget the iconic pant suits and shirt dresses worn by high powered businesswomen, or the skin tight metallic jumpsuits worn by David Bowie, or the ponchos and flared trousers worn by everyone? The 1980's saw a “stylistic whiplash” of more obviously gendered clothing for women and children, and a 1950's inspired resurgence in ultra feminine and ultra masculine styles appeared. The 80's did however see the continued rise of the peacock male, expressing himself in an opulent manner as inspired by such movements as the New Romantics. Since the 1990's, fashion has been blurring gender lines once again. Jean Paul Gaultier had launched his skirt for men, Rei Kawakubo had shocked Paris with her all black collection subverting stereotypes and deconstructing traditional silhouettes while literally telling us to dress "like the boys"; and modern androgyny can be traced back to grunge.

David Bowie
David Bowie Photographed by Masayoshi Sukita

Rei Kawakubo Comme Des Garcons
Commes Des Garcons A/W 1982

Today's retail landscape is as rich and varied as gender itself. Although many unisex movements have brought up questions about sex and gender, I believe we are still in constant conversation about them and there are no final answers to anything. Psychologically, there’s still a vast gap between a male garment adapted for a woman’s body and vice versa, with many social norms to disprove. Is it comforting to note though, that the pioneering efforts of activists and designers through history have created clothing trends which are now timeless staples; and the new wave of celebrity, has brought unisex fashion into focus again. Without this background, we would not be wearing alot of the things we now take for granted; and designers like myself would not be able to create a philosophy of designing unisex clothing for daily life.

Read the full article, Dressed for unisex: how celebrities are stepping up – and out – for fashion fluidity HERE.

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