90s sportswear: an unlikely introduction to androgyny


Ben Jaffe, a second year French and Philosophy student, comments on the resurgence of '90s sportswear' fashion among Bristol students, which he believes 'offers an unlikely introduction into the world of androgynous fashion'.

Aside from a few pockets of progression, the majority of Bristol University’s student life is embedded with gender normativity and sexism. Problematic attitudes exist casually across the campus, and sports night (a weekly club night where sports teams receive discounted entry for their members) is merely a formalised demonstration where activities such as ‘pull the ugliest girl’ are reported. Surely it would follow that fashion, one of Bristol students’ best-known exports, would follow suit? That the cosmetic image of the student population would at least in part reflect the content?

Amongst Bristol University undergraduates, 90’s sportswear is evidently a leading fashion trend. To replicate the look, the iconography of brands such as Adidas or Champion is essential. If it is true vintage, even better. Fashion is famously cyclical, but the arrival of 90s sportswear pairs comfort with branding. Students are able to wear comfortable clothing while still demonstrating social status by wearing branded items that aren’t typically cheap. Simply, students wear Adidas around campus for the same reason someone else may wear Gucci. The difference is Adidas is both comfortable and holds a (false) image of not trying as hard to look stylish. What is unique however, is that this return to 90s sportswear fashion offers an unlikely introduction into the world of androgynous fashion.

For many people, clothing is a potential opportunity to dispose of a gender binary and normativity. From performative drag to everyday androgyny, if one is willing to dare, fashion is an opportunity to break beyond the rigidity of social traditions. However, whilst for the bold, fashion may be about standing out, for most it is what the people they interact with are wearing. If a community wears gender normative clothing e.g. women in skirts and men in trousers, then that is what people in the community will perceive as stylish.

But this is where 90s sportswear is different. Key components of the style (sweatshirts, sneakers and tracksuit bottoms) vary insignificantly, if even at all between the different ‘target genders’ they were designed for and consequently are somewhat androgynous. The only gender variations people could cite are the colour or size of these fairly shapeless garments. But to distinguish on size thoughtlessly assumes that all women will be smaller than men. Furthermore, to distinguish on colour is outdated; fashion has grown out of the idea that so-called effeminate colours are for women and so-called masculine colours are for men.

The notion that 90s sportswear is androgynous is due to its contemporary resurgence. During the 90s and the early 2000s, these garments were mainly promoted and worn as fashionable sportswear, not as fashion in its own right. Today, retailers have reinterpreted the style. Many vintage stores make subtle nods, recognising the androgynous nature of 90s fashion by disposing of a ‘male’ and ‘female’ sections in their stores. Even ‘Depop’, the online vintage clothing giant, makes disclosing gender optional when signing up so not to narrow down suggested items.

*Image: DEPOP Search *

Decisions to not market clothes toward a specific gender, dismantle (in part) the construct of gendered clothing as garments are no longer arbitrarily matched to a target gender. Typically, in a heterosexual couple, a girl was distinct in wearing her boyfriend’s jumper around. Under the androgynous nature of 90s sportswear, he might very well be wearing hers. Bristol students, are like many other students across the country who have transformed their wardrobes into that of casual retro sportswear. This contemporary British student style presents a comfortable and passive introduction into the genderless reality of clothing. Even if it is simply an androgynous grey Adidas sweatshirt.

Undeniably, gendered fashion traits remain popular at Bristol and on nights out clothing often accentuates gender normativity. But this does not detract from the fact that a fixation with 90s sportswear is introducing the idea of androgynous fashion to those who would otherwise shy away from the concept. This opening for androgyny in fashion does not undo the misogyny and gender normativity around campus, but items of clothing are visual props, and they undeniably contribute to the sub-conscious values of a community.

Featured Image: Instagram / @Truevintageclothing.

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