Here’s an irony: The fashion industry, most famous for spawning endless eating-disordered models, may become one of our deepest sources of wisdom about the fractious subject of gender. There are increasing numbers of transgender models, and companies like Target and John Lewis recently announced they were proffering gender-neutral kids’ clothes.
But it turns out that underwear — and the need for better-fitting, more stylish, and more mass-appealing options — may be the most gender-inclusive piece of apparel there is.
And for that we can thank underwear makers like TomboyX, a company specializing in boxer briefs for women that’s also going into the business of gender-neutral underwear. These pieces all have smooth fronts — no slits — and instead of “TomboyX” emblazoned on the waistband, some pieces will just say “X.” It’s almost a message about gender itself: Never mind the second chromosome. This has nothing to do with gender identity, let alone clothes. But it’s got everything to do with practicality.
“According to our informal research, men don’t use the pee hole,” co-founder Fran Dunaway tells Yahoo Lifestyle, chuckling. “They either reach down and pull it up, or tuck it under.”
She may be the only lesbian in the fashion industry to have surveyed how men handle their penises during the act of urination. And most of them, Dunaway found, don’t slip it through the slit. So even as the company branches out from skivvies for women to underwear for all, there still will be no slits.
TomboyX was born from Dunaway’s own sartorial frustrations. She wanted shirts of the same quality and style she found in men’s departments, but tailored to women. “The menswear department had lovely, high-quality fabrics, button-down shirts with cool patterns and colors on the inside of the collar,” she said. The women’s did not.
So she and her partner in life and business, Naomi Gonzalez, decided to start a clothing company. They called it TomboyX because the name was cute, they said, and because they both identified as tomboys. To them, the word meant “an energetic, sometimes boisterous girl” who “dresses and sometimes behaves the way boys are expected to” and “who is not afraid to stand up, stand out, be heard and be seen,” as per the manifesto.
They started a Kickstarter campaign — “Let us frock your world,” the campaign implored — and quickly reached, then surpassed, their goal of $75,000.
“We recognized that the name was resonating in a big way with people around the world,” Dunaway said. “We were hearing from women and girls that were so excited that there was a brand for them.” They were contacted by 12-year-old girls and 78-year-old women, gay and straight women, women who wore shorts and flannel shirts or power suits but felt, “Underneath it all, I’m a tomboy.” “People were passionate about the word,” Dunaway said.
Soon after they started manufacturing shirts, a female police officer friend of theirs showed up at the office carrying a pile of men’s boxer briefs. “She told us that for any woman doing active work like police officer or firefighter, where you have to wear loose-fitting clothes, women’s underwear is really uncomfortable.” It rides up, the woman said. “It just isn’t a good fit.” The friend, whom Dunaway describes as a “curvy gal,” said that she didn’t need the extra room in the front of the men’s briefs, but that she did want high-quality waistbands that didn’t stretch.
They took copious notes during the meeting and did some online research. “We went to Nordstrom and typed in ‘women’s boxer briefs,’ and a pair of Spanx popped up,” Dunaway says, as a quick illustration of the lack of options.
That’s when a new mission was born: to be the finest purveyor of women’s boxer briefs. TomboyX wants to be a company for all bodies — it is “all-inclusive” and “body positive” — so its wares range from size extra-small to 4X; there is no special section for plus-size wear.
But they discovered that they had many trans and nonbinary people among their customers, who loved the products but not the gendered word “tomboy” (let alone the problem of a word used to describe a boisterous girl containing the word “boy”). They realized they needed to expand their all-inclusive label, to create design products for “wherever you fall on the gender spectrum,” Dunaway says. Thus, the creation of X underwear: It’s not for everybody, goes their tagline, but it is for any body.
In some ways, TomboyX is late to the party. After all, even Thinx — a brand of absorbent underwear designed for menstruation — has offered a gender-neutral “boyshort” option, for nonbinary people or trans men who menstruate. Play Out underwear, begun in 2014, embraced gender inclusivity from the get-go. “We wanted to take men’s styles and make them available for women and people of all genders,” says co-founder Abby Sugar. That means the bold patterns and colors of men’s underwear in the boy-short style, or the flapless boxer brief.
Play Out has a slightly different approach: Some of its wares have “extra fabric and space for anatomy,” as Sugar describes it, and some have a flat front. And while TomboyX and Play Out both purvey what are essentially men’s styles of underwear that all genders can embrace, Play Out is launching a new line of more traditionally feminine styles that can accommodate whatever you’ve got going on down there.
Anyone anywhere on the gender spectrum should have access to a lacy thong, the theory goes. The goal is gender freedom, says Sugar: “All styles, cuts, and designs available for every body, whoever wants to wear them, however they identify.”
It’s easy to be, well, cheeky about it all, but there is a profundity in the experience of wearing the undergarment that fits both your biology and your gender identity: One way we announce to the world who we are is by what we wear. And while some people bristle at this development, fearing that retailers and manufacturers are conspiring to create genderless societies, the truth is that clothing companies that embrace gender inclusivity may find themselves with an edge.
Rather than pretend anatomical differences don’t exist, these companies are accommodating them; they’re just not tying them to a gender identity. In this one tiny way, we seem to be achieving equality. Everybody wants really comfortable and attractive underwear. And it turns out that the fabric around your genitals — its color, shape, and style — is not dependent on what those genitals are at all.
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