From their time spent in the halls of Benjamin Franklin High School to performances at gospel dance and local drag shows, drag artist, emcee, and activist Icon Ebony-Fierce has long bucked traditional gender norms. And their style follows suit.
“Being a black person [assigned male at birth] that’s tall and plus-sized, people have this expectation of how you should present yourself,” said the nonbinary Philadelphia native, who uses the pronouns they and them. “I’ve always defined myself as someone that breaks the rules with the standard of styling across not only gender lines, but cultural lines.”
Ebony-Fierce’s self-described “gender-limitless” style — a mix of the feminine and masculine — speaks to that of a growing community of millennials and Generation Zers. A 2016 report by J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group found that only 44 percent of Gen Zers said they “always bought clothes designed for their own gender, versus 54 percent of millennials.” Rather than buying traditional mens- and womenswear, these shoppers seek out something at once less specific and more expressive.
“We are tall, short, big, small, disabled. We want things that don’t explicitly say a gender but have an array of styles... [that work] for our body," Ebony-Fierce says.
If you’re looking for ways to expand your current wardrobe, read on for a guide on how and where to find these looks in Philadelphia.
These looks get labeled lots of ways: genderless, gender-neutral, gender-inclusive, and gender-fluid. While often used interchangeably, these terms can signal subtle design and style differences.
“Someone once told me that when you say something is gender-neutral, you’re basically saying there is no gender at all, whereas when you phrase something as inclusive, it means that it’s open to any gender,” Philadelphia Fashion Incubator designer in residence Allie Pearce explained.
When Pearce launched her online shop, Pearce, three years ago, she identified her modern basics line as gender-neutral to help underscore that “clothing doesn’t have genitalia," but she’s since opted to embrace the label “gender-inclusive.”
Functionality and individuality are driving principles behind this fashion. Bela Shehu, owner of Rittenhouse Square retailer NINObrand, sticks to a monochromatic black and gray palette intended to ensure every buyer, regardless of race, looks good, while detachable elements (like collars, sleeves, and dress bottoms) offer the wearer a range of looks in a single item. On Pearce’s site, tops, skirts, and pants tend to come in bright or bold colors and have more drape or flow — a common aspect of this style.
West Philadelphia resident Jourdan Porter, owner of online apparel store Naturally Queer, says gender-inclusive design also tends to avoid specific cuts or certain graphic placements, especially those that accentuate the torso.
“I painted [a shirt] for a good friend, and usually I put the text across the chest, but instead I put it a little lower,” Porter said. “Putting it across the chest would have highlighted an aspect of their body they’re uncomfortable with.”
Beyond colors, cuts, and even hardware like buttons or zippers, fabric plays a role in how each designer composes their desired look. Pearce’s brand, which sources materials that are produced sustainably and ethically, relies on fine, natural fabrics like silks and organic cotton to achieve an “adaptable-type style” that downplays certain parts of the body and that can be worn in various ways.
For Shehu, the longevity of the fabrics are foremost in her material-selection process; she also considers the level of care necessary to maintain the clothing. Her line includes pieces made with canvas, mesh, satin, and stretch fabric. “My focus is always on fabrics that perform well,” Shehu says. “The material has to aid one’s lifestyle.”
These design choices often result in a less-restrictive fit, but that’s not synonymous with one-size-fits-all. “Since I’m designing not just for women, I kind of skew my sizes a little bit bigger,” Pearce says. “They can cover more body types that way.”
Pearce currently uses a small-to-large system. Shehu’s genderless-inspired brand launched in 2016 with a 1-to-5 size chart, encouraging customers to play with sizing to get very different looks. If a client wants a more fitted piece for a professional setting, they might size lower. A bigger size might result in a looser, more casual look.
Despite the rise in gender-neutral and gender-inclusive lines, there aren’t many brick-and-mortar stores selling these looks in Philadelphia. Small boutiques producing these styles generally have a higher price tag — at Shehu’s appointment-only storefront, T-shirts can start at $65 — but shoppers get to try pieces on in-person and enjoy a more personalized experience.
“The main advantage is the ability of one to consult with a well-trained staff while trying things on, and discussing any adjustments,” Shehu says.
Some buyers have a preference for the privacy and social ease of online shopping, which also offers wider selection and pricing. Dresses, jumpsuits, shorts, and outerwear can range from $80 to $280 on Pearce’s site, with online retailers like 69 Clothing, Too Good, Cilium, Sharpe Suiting, Agender, and One DNA offering pieces in a similar or higher price range. Gender Free World, ASOS, and Outplay stock more affordable options, while designer marketplaces like Radimo and the popular the Phluid Project — akin to gender-inclusive department stores — offer extensive style selections with price points from the low teens to the high hundreds.
Since you can’t try it before you buy it, online stores like Pearce often use photos and videos featuring a diverse set of models to illustrate how each item fits on different bodies. (Philadelphians can spot some of Pearce’s designs in the windows of the Center City Macy’s, where the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator is located.) Still, models aren’t the real thing, so having your measurements — hips, waist, and chest — before you buy will ensure you get the size you want.
You don’t need to buy new to get this style. If you look hard enough, you can stitch together a closet of more genderless or gender-inclusive outfits by thrifting, Ebony-Fierce says. Philly AIDS Thrift and Buffalo Exchange are two popular and LGBTQ-friendly shops that have a broad, affordably priced inventory.
Inclusive clothing swaps, such as Learn Reiki Philadelphia’s annual All Bodies Clothing Swap and SAGA Community Center’s seasonal queer clothing swaps in Hatboro, are also environmentally friendly, no-cost ways to expand your closet. Simply show up with a donation of gently used clothing in any size or style. Organized by purpose and type (outerwear, undergarments, casual, formal, etc.) instead of men’s and women’s labels, items from coats to chest binders can be tried on in gender-neutral bathrooms.
“We don’t have any official fittings rooms," says Jennifer Angelina Petro, SAGA Community Center executive board member. “But people will come out and ask other people at the swap how they look. To see people really support one another — especially for those that are a bit unsure — is one the funnest parts of the clothing swaps for me.”
And if you find something that doesn’t seem like a perfect fit, don’t discount it.
When picking out pieces at a swap or thrift store, Gabi Mirelez, owner of Sweetlime Alterations, a queer tailoring business based in Cleveland, Ohio, advises choosing them with your widest measurement in mind, whether that’s your chest, shoulders, or hips. That, along with visual references, will help your tailor more easily sculpt the piece to your body and desired look.
Mirelez says clients frequently ask to have the bust size reduced in dresses or to have excess fabric around bottoms removed. But she adds this isn’t a hard and fast rule, as the needs of clients can change depending on their personal style and body type. Making alterations to the length of shirtsleeves and pant legs can be as cheap as $15, while tailoring a suit runs closer to $280.
Jeans and formalwear like suits should be brought to a professional, and when it comes to cutting clothing, Mirelez cautions against doing it yourself. If you’re OK with a less-tailored look, though, Ebony-Fierce says scissors can remix things like tights, old T-shirts, and sequined pieces.