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Why We Must Degender Fashion
By Hidhir Badaruddin
Conversations around gender neutral fashion are often discussed as a trend and seen as a novelty in fashion. The ability to express one’s self on their own terms without being guarded or controlled into other people’s ideas and beliefs of what a man or woman should be. Surpassing gender norms and fashion is not just a trend that is made popular by fast fashion, but rather a continuous resistance by trans and gender variant identities. Chromat-founder Becca shares how a single garment created by a designer can have so much power and control over how someone feels about themselves. Fashion can be a profound way of therapy, being able to create images of what freedom and liberation would look like.
As a photographer, I’ve seen this first-hand myself, where I was commissioned to photograph six male transgender models for a feature in Gay Times Magazine. We titled the shoot ‘Brotherhood’ and there was almost a sense of comfort and acceptance for these trans male models, seeing male garments all up on the clothing rail on the set of the shoot. The joyful environment and the freedom from them to be able to dress up and wear whatever outfits they wanted in the safe space we have created on set was inspiring, and an infectious feeling felt by everyone involved. Most gender-non-conforming and transgender individuals don’t get the opportunity to feel this way in their everyday lives, feeling safe and happy in the clothes and fashion choices which are simple things the cisgender community takes for granted.
Chromat’s campaign with Reebok featuring transgender athletes Andraya Yearwood, Terry Miller and more, shows how visual culture doesn’t just represent reality, it creates reality. Showing people and their viewers that it is possible to expand imagination to have representation of different identities and gender on such a platform in the media. In Alok’s words, “So often we’re fixated on critique, but I think as artists it’s important to remember that creation is the ultimate form of critique”. This quote resonates with me as a creative practitioner myself, it’s important to remember that creation is the ultimate form of critique, when we create a viable alternative then we can show people what it looks like to live in a more just, safe and alluring society. We live in a moment where people are not waiting for representation to happen, we’re in a moment to create work that makes our existence heard.
As an emerging photographer who is queer and a person of colour, I came to realise the lack of representation of Asian identities who look like me in the media growing up. There was always this preference for lighter-skinned people, and this was really evident in the media growing up. People like me were always in the background, the supporting roles, and rarely in the forefront or the protagonist. For a while, I gave into the narrative of how brown Asians were only meant to lead certain career paths and positions. Over time, I realised that if I wanted to see a change in this narrative ingrained in me (all my life), that I had to be the one making the change. My photo series ‘Younglawa’, exploring Asian masculinity, was created in response to this lack of representation of brown and Asian identity in visual culture. I hope to break the stereotypes in the media by visually creating the change I would like to see in the world for the future.
A powerful intervention by Chromat was ending ties with their industry buyers, effectively breaking free from gate-keepers of the industry who for the longest time have been calling the shots on what’s accepted and desired in fashion. This way, the brand was able to put out garments that are in line with their values and vision and have full control over concept and price point without interference from a third party. There is no longer need to appeal to old ideals of fashion that many buyers regard as aspirational, as Becca explains. Social media has allowed for a stronger direct-to-consumer relation, and this has brought a new wave of creators democratizing fashion and creating realities that they want to see themselves. I recall a time where I was just starting out in the industry as a photographer and not having the authority to make vital decisions in the direction or casting for a shoot. Over time with experience, I was able to be at the helm of these decisions where I am now subconsciously always trying to incorporate trans, queer, black or people of colour in my photography. This in turn has been a trickle-down effect where people or brands begin seeing more representation of diverse genders and identities in photography and media. There are always these designated rules that are established, but are we going to appeal to the rules, or appeal to what is right? When a creative is templating forms of liberation that people are not used to or are uncomfortable with, they will very often be misunderstood, undermined, called “ahead of their times”. At the end of the day, commitment and authenticity will shine through.
About Hidhir Badaruddin
Hidhir Badaruddin is a photographer and creative, born in Singapore, and based in London. He brings a fresh perspective into fashion with his personal narratives and experiences, using his lens to explore what it’s like being a minority within a minority as a queer, brown Asian male. Since graduating last year, he has photographed for Dazed, Gay Times Magazine and shot his first cover with artist Shygirl for Notion Magazine.