Clothes are strictly gendered. In stores, some are marketed as only for men while others are marketed as exclusively for women. Clothes that are marketed as “unisex” are a rare sight in shops. Thus many consumers tend to imagine that men’s clothes always differ from women’s clothes. On top of that, there’s also a social stigma against wearing clothes that were designed for the other sex. This is why, when they go shopping, majority of consumers only browse the isles that are marked as intended for their gender, and they don’t even glance at the stuff that can be found at the other side of the store.
The reality is different. A lot of clothes are essentially unisex, because there simply is no real difference between men’s and women’s version, the only thing that varies being tags, placement in a store, and marketing. Sometimes male and female products also do not cost the same, which is how we get gender-based price discrimination aka the pink tax. That’s one more reason why shoppers would benefit from comparing things that can be found in men’s and women’s isle.
The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs published an interesting study called From Cradle to Cane: The Cost of Being a Female Consumer, which compares the price of analogous products (from the same brand, in the same sizes, with the same active ingredients) marketed towards men and women. After comparing nearly 800 products (toys and accessories, children’s clothing, adult clothing, personal care products, and home health care products for seniors) researchers found out that, on average, women’s products cost 7 percent more than similar products for men. This means that women are paying thousands of dollars more over the course of their lives to purchase similar products as men. Often they are completely unaware about how they are getting ripped off.
Unnecessarily gendered products—often with different price tags for the men’s and women’s version—are a common sight in shops. Sometimes targeting some product exclusively at male or female shoppers makes sense. For example, most men don’t want to wear bras. It also makes sense to market menstrual pads to women given how trans men who might also need them are, statistically, a minority of the consumers interested in buying these products. And I am also fine with women’s underwear not having room for a penis. Thus, occasionally, marketing some product to only men or women makes sense.
The problem is that more often than not there is no good reason why some product should have a men’s and women’s version. Back when I was a child, everybody in my family used one and the same shampoo bottle. We also used the same bar of soap. Growing up, the first time I saw a TV commercial advertising separate shampoo “for him” and “for her,” I was puzzled. Why would men and women need different shampoo? We all have hair, and we all have to regularly wash it in order to keep it clean. Over the years, I didn’t pay close attention to the shifting shampoo placement in stores. Thus I was unpleasantly surprised when I suddenly realized that shampoo, soap, deodorants, etc. products are now placed on separate shelves for men and women.
I hope that I don’t need to explain to my readers why men and women don’t necessarily need different shampoo bottles, differently colored razors, and different food. This ought to be obvious, because for such products the main difference between men’s and women’s products is the packaging. Advertising uses color, shape, texture, verbiage, logos, graphics, sound, and names to define the gender of a brand. Lighter colors, smoother edges, flower motives, and softer lines are for ladies. Darker colors, harder lines, square or angular shapes, and science-related pictures are for men. Besides the packaging and marketing, often there is no real difference whatsoever in the product itself. It’s the same product with the same active ingredients. Thus people, mostly women, lose money for no good reason whatsoever simply by shopping in the women’s isle.
Clothing is where people expect to see real, tangible differences in the products themselves, not just their packaging and advertisements. Men’s and women’s clothing does differ. But only sometimes. In this article I will explain when and how male and female clothes differ and which clothes could be treated as unisex for practical purposes. I strongly believe that each person should be free to dress in any way they like, and marketing specialists shouldn’t impose any artificial restrictions on what’s allowed for each of us.
Here are some photos I made for the purpose of illustrating the differences between typical male and female jackets and waistcoats. They look visually different. If a woman used men’s shampoo at home, nobody would notice without visiting her and taking a look at her bathroom shelves. If she wore male clothing in public, some people would notice the difference. I say “some,” because I have been wearing male clothes for years, and my own mother still hasn’t figured it out. The thing is that while some male and female garments (like business jackets or waistcoats shown in these photos) do have significant visual differences, others look pretty much the same.
The general trend is that tailored and formal clothes are what differs the most. Athletic garments, clothing that isn’t tailored to tightly fit the wearer’s body, and clothing that doesn’t have any strict sizes at all usually doesn’t come in men’s and women’s versions with actual differences.
Here’s a scarf I own. Is it men’s or women’s? I purchased it in Frankfurt, at the men’s section of a store. The catch is that at the same store they had another extremely similar scarf for women. Women’s version was the same color, same pattern, even approximately the same size. The only difference was that the men’s scarf was 100% cashmere. Women’s scarf was 100% acrylic. This time women’s scarf was cheaper, but, given the superior material, I consider men’s version the better deal.
Let’s try again. Can you tell whether I am wearing male or female clothing in this vacation photo? Here my T-shirt, pants, shoes, even socks are all purchased in men’s clothing stores. Could you tell that? Probably no. When it comes to more formal attire like business suits, there really are easily noticeable visual differences between male and female clothing, but when it comes to more casual or athletic garments, often they are pretty much the same. Men’s and women’s T-shirts are often identical. Running shoes, unless they are pink and covered with glitter, might as well be considered unisex. Never mind socks, which are, well, just socks.
Here’s a photo I took in a store selling men’s and women’s socks. Kudos for the same price, but the packaging seems silly to me. Both pairs of socks are identical. They are made from the same material (linen and cotton blend), they look the same, they are identical (yes, I double checked). Why do people perceive socks as an item that must be gendered? Because of differences in shoe size? Well, there are some women with large feet just like there are some men with small feet, so this explanation doesn’t hold water. Obviously, the real reason are silly cultural expectations, which demand that male and female clothes must be strictly separated even when they are literally the same.
Athletic socks are fun to analyze if you are in a mood for facepalming. Here are some hiking socks marketed towards men and women. Can you spot the differences between them? Yep, this time we have some minor palette swaps. This seller probably didn’t want to market an identical product to men and women, so they shoehorned some odd minor differences. Apparently, men need to wear hiking socks that are in a slightly different blue hue than the women’s version.
I am happy to say that occasionally brands that sell athletic apparel do the sensible thing and clearly market their garments as unisex. Here’s an example of exactly that. Does this down jacket looks like something that both men and women can wear? Of course it does. Which is why it is marketed towards both male and female hikers and mountaineers.
My point is that sometimes male and female clothes are pretty much the same. This is why I can recommend people to check out the other range and see for themselves, maybe they will find something cheaper or better fitting or something that they like better among the garments marketed for the other sex.
Assuming that your feet are large enough and you can find men’s socks that fit you, this time picking the men’s version of the product is the sensible thing to do regardless of whether you are male or female. Paying more just for the packaging is pointless when both products are literally identical.
Regardless of your gender identity or whether you prefer a masculine or feminine gender performance, in reality you have more options than you might imagine if until now you only looked at shop isles that were marketed as intended for your gender.
Speaking of clothing and shoes in general, I have gotten the impression that often men’s products are better made and more durable, they are also made from better materials. I only have anecdotal evidence to support this claim, but I do believe that it’s happening.
A few years ago, back when I wanted to buy business trousers, I combed multiple women’s clothing stores in Frankfurt in search for pants that were made from wool rather than polyester. After hours of search, I did find one pair of wool women’s pants, but finding those pants was no easy feat. Finding quality men’s trousers was much simpler in the exact same stores in Frankfurt.
I have also gotten the impression that men’s shoes and boots tend to be made from better materials and are more durable. Of course, it depends on the brand—some brands do make men’s and women’s shoes that are about the same quality, but often enough this is not the case. Men’s shoes are made from leather rather than synthetic materials more often, their construction tends to be more durable and just better.
I used to wear women’s clothing up until I was 23 years old. Nowadays I wear men’s clothes and shoes. Back when I made the switch, I was surprised by how much better all the male items were. I was used to polyester women’s blouses and trousers, so I was surprised to see how often men’s shirts were made from cotton and their business trousers were made from wool. I was used to flimsy women’s shoes made from synthetic leather, so I was delighted to see quality men’s shoes made from real leather.
I know that without statistical evidence anecdotes do not prove anything. I haven’t done any extensive research on the differences in quality between male and female clothing. I can only share my observations from shopping in both men’s and women’s departments of the same stores. Still, if anybody assumes that women’s clothing is more expensive due to better quality, then that’s definitely not the case.
I strongly believe that we don’t have to just accept gender-based price discrimination or some social norm stating that we have to wear only clothes that are marketed as intended for our gender. Each person should feel free to pick and choose. Maybe you like one version better than the other or maybe you prefer to just buy the cheaper version regardless of what your gender is.
Before purchasing something, ask yourself, “Am I buying this just because it says it is for my gender?” You can compare products and check out the other half of the range. Not only we shouldn’t need our shampoo bottle to inform and reassure us that it is intended for our gender, we can also pick and choose when it comes to clothing.
“Just buy the cheaper version or whatever you like for any other reason” is what I’d like to say. Unfortunately, it can be more complicated than that. There is a social stigma associated with buying and using a product that is intended for the other gender. The word “transvestite” has some negative connotations attached to it. People who actually are transgender get discriminated and abused on a regular basis. People fear that getting caught using the wrong product can result in others incorrectly assuming that they must be gay or lesbian.
Marketing specialists have spent billions of dollars on enforcing the idea that a person’s gender identity must be tied to whatever products they consume. Thus consumers are reluctant or even afraid to use a product that’s intended for the other gender as if using a the wrong product could make a man too feminine (or vice versa—a man’s product make a woman more masculine).
For the record: Nowadays I mostly wear clothes that come from men’s section of stores, but some of my clothes were originally marketed for women. As long as something fits my preferences, I don’t care whether the tags inform me that the garment was intended for men.
Note: The contents of this blog post are partially copied from an article I wrote last year and published in my website here.