A version of this article originally appeared on Broadly Denmark.
The elevator doors open, and the first image to greet us is a Moomin. I stare at the elevator buttons, perplexed, because the floor I’m looking for doesn’t seem to exist.
I’ve traveled from Copenhagen to visit Finland’s biggest department store, Stockmann, because media outlets around the world have reported that this place has an entire floor dedicated to gender-neutral clothing. Vox writes that Stockmann goes “all in on the androgynous approach” and wonders whether this “gender-free revolution” will have the rest of the world following suit. The Danish newspaper Berlingske even claims that Stockmann is “shutting down its men’s and women’s departments” to make way for “one big gender-neutral floor.”
It all sounds very progressive, which is why I’ve made the trip. But Berlingske’s claim that the traditional men’s and women’s clothing departments have closed is quickly disproved. They’re definitely still here.
In the press release I received, Stockmann writes that the gender-neutral department is located on level 1.5, symbolically placed between the men’s and women’s floors. The problem is that now that I’m here, I’m having trouble finding this fabled middle level.
Before coming to Finland, I asked the British fashion expert Sara Magionni, who works for the international trend forecasting company WGSN, if gender-neutral fashion is hip. “There’s definitely a demand,” she replied. “It’s no longer just a fad; it’s bigger than that. It’s rooted in a deeper societal shift.” So yes, gender-neutral fashion is a thing, and it’s especially younger generations that are buying it. “Young people are more forward-thinking, diverse, and fluid,” Maggioni explained.
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I meet one such young person while looking for the gender-neutral floor of Stockmann. Linus Mäkelä is 19, and wears a military jacket over a pink hoodie. “I think all stores should be gender-neutral. There’s no such thing as ‘men’s clothing’ and ‘women’s clothing.' People can wear whatever they want,” Linus tells me. But he’s unfortunately not much help in my search for the gender-neutral section, because he hasn’t seen it either.
Then again, I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for. Because what is gender-neutral clothing, anyway? In the past few years, Burberry, Gucci, Acne Studios, Zara, H&M, and Asos have all launched unisex collections. They often consist of white T-shirts, hoodies, and baggy jeans, none of which really transgress that many norms. In my opinion, the truly radical thing would be to have dresses, ties, crop tops, and chinos in one big hodgepodge, and it would be up to the consumer to decide whether each piece was for them or not. That’s what I hope to find at Stockmann, in any case.
After much time spent searching, I find a section of the store with a male mannequin wearing a skirt and button-up shirt. So I ask a sales clerk if this is the gender-neutral area. “There’s some gender-neutral clothing over there,” he says and points toward a blue stripe on the floor that’s roughly 5 feet wide, runs across the store, and ends in a circle with the mannequin display. It’s about 100 square feet in total. I walk over and notice a sign that says the initiative is only going to be here for a month.
I’m having a hard time concealing my disappointment. “It’s not about the size, it’s about the idea,” Stockmann CCO Anna Salmi tells me. I meet her upstairs on the eighth floor, in the boardroom. “Our customers have really been enjoying the gender-neutral pop-up project. They had a bit of trouble finding it at first, but it’s not as much of a problem now that it’s been there for a while.”
Salmi explains that the 156-year-old department store “has always had very progressive customers,” but that they wanted to test out public response first, as they usually do, before making the concept permanent. “Based on the feedback we’ve received, this is definitely something we’ll continue in the future. I don’t foresee it being its own separate department, but something that runs through the whole store,” Salmi says.
At this point, my pinkwashing alarm is already going off. “Pinkwashing” is a concept that describes the growing phenomenon of large companies and brands attempting to market themselves as progressive and LGBTQ-friendly—even though it’s just business as usual underneath the pink veneer. You know, like when banks sponsor Pride parades. I contact Minna Kortesmaa from Helsinki Pride, which collaborated with Stockmann last year. Do campaigns like the one Stockmann introduced really make a difference for LGBTQ Finns? From her perspective, the short answer is yes. “When a department store as prominent as Stockmann takes a topic like gender diversity seriously, it makes people rethink their own perceptions instead of just brushing it off as something a group of irksome activists came up with,” she explained.
Over the last five years, Helsinki Pride has experienced growing interest from businesses and brands that want to be associated with the LGBTQ cause. And even though Minna Kortesmaa definitely sympathizes with the pinkwashing critique, she still thinks it’s a positive thing overall: “As we see more non-normative campaigns, we’re also seeing a greater acceptance of different identities.”
Back on the blue stripe, I’m trying to observe the customers that do support this concept. Before I arrived at Stockmann, I'd expected to meet a bunch of cool androgynous-looking people shopping for dresses and boxer shorts and not giving a fuck about gender norms. But the reality is that I mostly see middle-aged men who probably didn’t quite get the memo that the clothes on this blue stripe are supposed to be different from the classic menswear on the other side. When I finally see a woman, it turns out that she’s shopping for “warm clothing” for her sons. She hadn’t noticed that she was looking at a selection of gender-neutral clothing.
I catch sight of two young men wearing distinctive glasses walking purposefully toward the blue stripe. One of them is 36-year-old Jesse Kaikuranta, who I found out later is a famous Finnish pop singer. “I read about this place in the news and thought it sounded really cool. I’ve always worn a lot of women’s clothing, and it’s great that that’s not a problem anymore,” he said. When Kaikuranta shops at Zara and H&M, he usually checks out both the men’s and women’s sections, but thinks it would be cool if everything was gathered in one place like it is here “because it removes people’s inhibitions about what they can wear,” he says.
When I tell Kaikuranta that I was a bit disappointed that this “floor” wasn’t bigger, he replies, “Yeah, it could be bigger, but I think this is a good start.”
I walk back and forth to get a good look at the articles of clothing that have been deemed gender-neutral. The piece that most defies traditional gender norms is a glittery silver turtleneck with both men’s and women’s sizes on the tag. But my overall impression is that most of this stuff is just men’s clothing that would be socially acceptable for me to wear. And that’s not completely off the mark, confirms trend analyst Sara Maggioni. “Unisex collections are very much about loose silhouettes that suit both genders, and ‘genderless’ colors. There are some amazing designers that are experimenting with more traditionally ‘feminine’ looks for men, but on an everyday commercial level, I agree with you.”
That’s why Maggioni doesn’t think that unisex lines are what’s actually going to shift our perceptions of what men and women can wear. “We need to move beyond these dubious unisex collections and instead focus more on inclusion in a more general sense,” she says. She mentions how several brands have begun removing the small "boy" and "girl" labels on children’s clothing, thus leaving it up to the consumer to decide. Another method is the one Stockmann utilizes, where gender isn't specified by an in-store department, leaving things up for interpretation. “It’s a much more powerful approach, because you’re slowly pushing things forward without driving customers away.”
Maggioni understands why a department store like Stockmann hasn’t chosen to dedicate an entire floor to gender-neutral fashion. Because although younger generations may have no problem shopping across gender lines, the majority of the population still shops the old-fashioned way. “Established brands and stores risk alienating the part of their customer base whose way of thinking isn’t quite there yet. It would be financial suicide.”
Before I leave Stockmann, I try on one of the gender-neutral outfits modeled by a mannequin. It consists of a black kilt, a white button-up shirt, and a black bomber jacket. I feel pretty silly, mostly because I’m not used to wearing skirts. Afterwards, I put my regular clothes back on: black slacks, a blue T-shirt, and a wrinkly corduroy shirt. It feels pretty unisex too, actually. Maybe Maggioni is right; the strongest force for gender-neutral fashion isn’t the hyped and carefully orchestrated stories that department stores tell us in press releases. Maybe it’s the revolution that’s so quiet that we don’t even notice it happening.