His, hers, everyone’s: gender-sensitive underwear is becoming (a little more) mainstream
“We’re building the brand we would have liked to have existed when we were younger.”
– Abby Sugar, co-founder and CEO of Play Out Apparel
Most fashion deals are gender-specific, but for the gender-disagreed, this can make tasks as mundane as shopping for underwear becomes a downright sisyphus.
Look at Victoria’s Secret. After opening in 1977, it dominated the $ 38 billion lingerie market by selling a hypersexualized, gendered beauty standard. The only problem was that it was conceived of itself as a mall brand for white, skinny, cisgender, and traditionally female consumers.
After years of ignoring transgender and plus-size women’s calls for inclusion, the brand replaced its Angels with the VS Collaborative – a group of reps including a transgender model, Valentina Sampaio, and openly gay celebrities like that Soccer player Megan Rapinoe, who will appear in advertising campaigns and on Victoria’s Secret social media platforms.
According to Victoria’s Secret, the idea behind the rebranding was to convey the “true spectrum” of “what women want”. But some criticized it as spurious, and too little too late.
In the mid-2010s, direct-to-consumer underwear brands began to fill the void – like Parade in 2019. However, critics said they fell short on full-body inclusivity: for example, every model on Parade’s website featured themselves as female.
And as younger generations increasingly expressed their non-binary or gender-inconsistent identities, the lingerie industry fell behind in meeting their needs.
More than 12 percent of US millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming, and one in six Generation Z members in America identify as queer or transgender. A majority of both generations believe that the gender binary is out of date. Globally, 25 percent of Generation Z people expect to change their gender identity at least once in their lifetime.
Accordingly, Generation Z is less willing to spend money on brands that they perceive to be spurious, not diverse or not sustainable. They currently have $ 143 billion purchasing power and 56 percent of Generation Z shoppers buy clothes outside of their gender at birth. In addition, LGBTQ + people now have a global purchasing power of over $ 3.7 trillion.
A new generation of underwear brands are hoping to meet this growing need for change, even if gender-neutral brands currently only make up a small portion of the overall underwear market.
Urbody is one such brand. Mere Abrams, a non-binary influencer, and Anna Graham, an entrepreneur, founded the brand in March. The website sells underwear that, according to its website, “inspires acceptance, self-love and gender freedom”. Urbody’s technical garments – compression fabrics, built-in storage, thongs with pouches – come in a variety of sizes and are designed for people of all gender identities.
Another brand, TomboyX, founded in 2012 through a Kickstarter campaign, makes underwear in a range from XS to 4X. TomboyX is known for its brightly colored boys’ shorts and boxer shorts – for people who need bow ties or hammocks and those who don’t – TomboyX has seen a 50 percent year-over-year sales increase since 2017.
Then there is Play Out Apparel.
Founded in 2013 by Abby Sugar, who calls herself queer, and fashion designer E Leifer, who calls herself non-binary, Play Out designs underwear (besides streetwear) for all gender identities and sizes from XS to 5X. Twenty percent of all net profits go to LGBTQ + and Black Lives Matter organizations, and the brand is backed by fashion investors like Andy Dunn, a founder and former CEO of Bonobos, a popular men’s fashion brand.
Play Out is known for elevating the term “gender equitable” – as opposed to genderless or gender neutral – clothing. The differentiation goes beyond the semantics, it is said. It’s not about dampening femininity or masculinity with androgynous clothing, but about making a variety of styles available to people across gender and size range.
In Her Words, Sugar and Leifer asked us to tell us more about the gender equality market and what lies ahead in this growing industry.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.
What is the difference between gender equitable and gender neutral clothing?
Leifer: There is an assumption that making something gender neutral means taking it completely off the gender spectrum.
For many people, gender neutrality or androgyny is read as masculine. This is not what we are building. For us, the vision is more about inclusivity and expanding what a product can be and by whom it can be worn. We have colorful prints and simple solids, but any style can be worn by anyone – they are to the everyone. We do not have any men’s or women’s sections on our website or make assumptions about what you should wear based on how you express your gender.
There’s this post-apocalyptic, beige, baggy style that people think of when they hear genderless, which is limiting. We want to create an equal shopping experience for everyone, however you express yourself. All of our bottoms have either a flat front design or a pouch front design, and all of our tops are essentially unisex. Whether you are extra small or 5X, it’s always the same price and every style comes in all prints and colors alike.
What was the most missing thing about fashion when you founded Play Out?
Sugar: Years ago when I was buying underwear as a lesbian – or shopping as friends from the LGBTQ + community – the options for women were super gender-specific: lace, skimpy things. Men’s underwear was more comfortable, but it didn’t go with the bow ties and pouches. I kept wondering why can’t we have the same comfy, cute designs with shapes that suit our bodies equally?
We’re building the brand we would have wished for when we were younger.
Every week we receive emails from customers saying it feels like a safe place when they land on our website. I’ll send them to the whole team. Queer, transsexual, non-binary, gay and lesbian people have been styling themselves for longer than we live. People want to be seen. You want to feel safe. They want to feel comfortable and find clothes that will help them move freely through the world.
Why did it take so long for gender-sensitive styles to find their way into mainstream fashion?
Leifer: “Gender neutral” has always been in fashion, but even if less gender specific items are sold to women or girls, conceptually they are more likely to be positioned as “borrowed from the boys”. For example “boy shorts” for girls or “boyfriend jeans” for women, which are simply looser fitting jeans. Today’s marketing remains hyper-gendered and primarily for the male gaze because the gender binary language sells. And once big companies start making money, they rarely change.
By dividing the sexes, you create a social hierarchy. So I don’t see that equality in fashion or beyond can be achieved without the abolition of the gender binary. That doesn’t mean everyone doesn’t have to be binary. Everyone can be as femme or as mask as they want. The younger generations get that. They don’t want how to shop or express themselves. They want to be marketed in a completely different way. And for me that speaks for progress.
The fashion industry has long since marginalized and downsized fringe groups who simply have the same cute styles in their sizes and want to see themselves represented in marketing. It wasn’t supposed to be revolutionary, but it still is.
Is gender equitable clothing the future for all clothing brands?
Leifer: Yes. The bigger cultural conversation is just beginning to meet us where we are, which is great because it’s hard to fight alone.
But as with any culture shift, there will be brands that do gender equality authentically and brands that don’t. Food tastes better when it is prepared with love. This also applies to fashion, especially gender-sensitive clothing, as it is mission-oriented and serves the larger LGBTQ + community.
Shopping can be incredibly tense for anyone, but it’s especially difficult for gender-disregarded and non-binary people. It always means: I don’t see myself in the way these things are presented. I don’t know if to grab this because it’s modeled after a stick figure, and I don’t know if I’ll pass.
These fears exist for everyone because we have been so marginalized in the way we market clothes. But if you go to a website and see cute underwear modeled after a person with top surgical scars but wearing flat-front boxer shorts, you will have a different experience. There has to be a place to shop that is all about people and products: these are underwear, these are pants, these are tops – and you can style them however you want. You can finally feel free.
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