Gender and Fashion: Selfridges ‘Agender’ concept

Agender concept store at SelfridgesLast week, I visited Selfridges’ much talked about Agender concept space. When I walked into the Oxford Street department store, I had no idea where I was headed and so I sought the advice of a friendly customer service assistant who explained that there were three of the concept spaces throughout the store – one on the first floor near the central escalators, one on the floor above, and a smaller space in the Shoe Galleries which is also on the second floor. I headed up to the first floor and was greeted by a pleasing poster with the words “He” and “She” crossed out in masking tape, and the word “Me” standing proudly underneath. On the Selfridges website, the designer of the Agender concept space, Faye Toogood, says of the project:

We are increasingly aware that gender is not a simple binary, yet clothing is still marketed along those lines. You only have to look at the preponderance of the ‘pink is for girls’ mentality in children’s departments to see how the choices we make when buying clothing can reinforce artificial gender roles. […] Fashion is an industry that prides itself on being ahead of the curve, so naturally it’s important that it keeps pace with the progress we are seeing in society as a whole. The blurring of gender distinctions also gives designers greater freedom, with a much broader range of forms and silhouettes to explore.

The journalist from Dazed who visited on the opening day wondered in advance what the space would look like: “Does a giant, kindly bust of Judith Butler look over you and your gender non-conforming boyfriend as you peruse unisex Stan Smiths and HBA sweatshirts?” Although that sounds rather fun – well, the Judith Butler part did to me! – the reality was somewhat more stylish. The canvas garment bags that the clothing was in at the start of the project was gone by the time I visited, so the prints and colours could be seen in all their glory and my eye was straight away drawn to tulle and floral fabrics. As I browsed, I was approached by a friendly sales assistant called Aggie and, as the clothing appeared to be mostly sportswear and I was dressed in my femme finest, I confessed that my interest in the concept was predominantly intellectual.

Agender concept store at SelfridgesThis did not bother Aggie in the slightest and we went on to have a fascinating discussion about the pop-up and its customers, how the space has been received, and a broader discussion on fashion and gender. Apparently the clothes bags that were initially covering the garments had a gap down the back so that customers caught a glimpse of the fabric as they were flicking through the rails. A couple of weeks later there was only one garment per style in the bags and the rest were loose. The day before I visited, the bags were removed completely and so we pondered why that would be and whether the concept was evolving as a retail space throughout the project. I discovered that floral tees had been purchased by customers presenting as male, and that there had indeed been visitors who looked like they had found their ideal gender-free shopping space. Sadly, I had to cut the conversation short in order to pop upstairs to see the selection of more structured/tailored clothing and the shoes before the end of my lunch break.

Impressively, the online Agender shop is just as striking as the in-store space, but it would have been nice if the clothing had been photographed on people whose gender was ambiguous. Instead, we get a rather “his and hers” feeling, like the unisex fashions of the 1960s which isn’t especially revolutionary. The best thing about this concept space for me was the fact that it has fuelled many conversations about fashion and gender in some unexpected places. Hopefully, this will be the start of an ongoing rather than passing trend.

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