Both& Is Reimagining Fashion for Trans-Masculine and Non-Binary Bodies

Finnegan Shepard discusses how binary fashion is failing trans-masculine and non-binary people, and how his new start-up, Both&, is tackling this through community-led research and design.

WORDS Finnegan Shepard

IMAGES Courtesy of Both&

For the last hundred years, clothing has operated off a binary fit and sizing system. Rooted in government research to optimise the manufacturing of army uniforms, these systems are constructed using statistical averages collected by clothing companies to make ‘average’ sizes that will fit the highest number of people. The systems vary from country to country, but a constant across the board is that all of these ‘averages’ are derived from cisgender bodies.

This is easy to spot if you visit essentially any ecommerce store today. When searching for a ‘men’s’ t-shirt, for instance, it is common to be presented with only a single cis-male model (almost always between 6’ and 6’2”) wearing a medium in various colors. From these pictures, and a sizing chart that very few people actually find useful, customers are expected to decide on the suitable size. While this may work for a portion of the cisgendered population, it only further marginalises masculine presenting people who are not cis male.

“I can never find a top that fits me in the right way,” said Tyla, a trans man based in London. “If I buy a large I look ridiculous, but, because I bind, if I buy a medium it’s too tight on the chest.”

Shopping for trousers also comes with a raft of issues for trans masculine individuals. Unlike the ‘small, medium, large, etc.’ sizing system for t-shirts, male trouser size is built off a waist and an inseam length. The relative waist to inseam length is, again, decided upon using the average height and waist measurements for cisgendered men. Most brands stick to close proportions (30×30, 32×32, 34×34) or very small deviations (32×30, 34×32). However, if you are a trans man or masculine presenting person who was assigned female at birth, these proportions almost never work – a majority of the interviewees I’ve spoken with fall somewhere in the 34-38 x 26-28 range.

As Theo, a trans man based out of London said: “If trousers fit around my hips, they will be way too baggy all the way down and far too wide.”

Regardless of whether someone has medically transitioned or not, bone structure never changes. This means that trans men and gender non-conforming (gnc) individuals’ height and hip width is almost never comparable to ‘average’ cis-male dimensions. The discomfort caused by poorly fitting trousers, especially around the waist, often pressures trans masculine people to give up on certain styles entirely, hindering their ability to experience gender affirmation through presentation.

“My favorite trouser type is dark wash jeans, but they are so uncomfortable that it’s not even worth it,” shared Frank, a trans man based in Chicago.

While there has been a growing awareness over the last decade that the world isn’t neatly divided into solely cisgendered bodies, and a movement towards unisex or agender clothing in the fashion world, none of the proposed approaches have meaningfully tweaked clothing proportions such that they are optimised for trans, non-binary, and gnc bodies.

There are numerous consequences that emerge from the community being so poorly served. Firstly, there is a deep mistrust in the process of shopping. In a survey conducted by Both& (a transmasculine start-up I founded) that received 323 responses, 40% of respondents selected at least one of the listed negative associations with shopping, including ‘dysphoria’, ‘binary clothes don’t fit’, and ‘no size is right for me’, while all respondents selected at least one (see Fig. 1).

This lack of trust is also tied to experiences of feeling ignored, ashamed, and sometimes even unsafe. Many of the people I’ve interviewed report being kicked out of dressing rooms or feeling unsafe in shopping environments.

At its most benign, shopping as a trans, non-binary, or gnc person reinforces a sense of alienation. 

Fig 1. Both& analysis of survey research

When you shop from cis outfitters, they don’t have your body in mind. They don’t even conceive of your body. The result is that your self esteem gets eroded over time.

Marlo, a trans man based in London

While there has been a growing awareness over the last decade that the world isn’t neatly divided into solely cisgendered bodies, and a movement towards unisex or agender clothing in the fashion world, none of the proposed approaches have meaningfully tweaked clothing proportions such that they are optimised for trans, non-binary, and gnc bodies. Moreover, many of the ‘unisex’ lines centre an adrogynous aesthetic that is shapeless and uninspired. In a recent viral Twitter thread regarding the announcement of yet another ‘agender clothing line,’ members of the trans+ community criticised this trend of presenting sweatshirts and sweatpants in boring colors on binary female and male models, only to then label the clothing as agender.

In an attempt to combat this current state of affairs, we founded Both&. It all began in the summer of 2020, as I was laying around healing from top surgery, when I started to wonder why no one had taken on this design challenge. I had a lifetime of experience trying (and failing) to find clothing from the cis fashion world that fit my body well; I also had countless hypotheses regarding what wasn’t currently working, and what would work better. With no background in fashion, I set out to talk with as many other trans-masculine and non-binary people as I could, asking them to share their stories of trying to find clothing that fits and feels like an accurate representation of self.

Very soon, I realised that the problems I faced within the fashion world were shared by essentially everyone I spoke with. I compiled all of the design solutions I could think of, as well as those I gathered through research, and began to design a line of three t-shirts for the first capsule collection. These t-shirts have been built off proprietary base shapes with tweaked proportions of length to width, heavier weight cottons to minimise cling and maximise a square shape, side slits for extra movement around the hips, and raised collars to cover binder lines, among other features.

The Both& team has spent the last year perfecting these designs in dialogue with the community. To date, I have conducted over sixty interviews and collected over five hundred responses to surveys. While we have been extremely limited with in-person fittings during the Covid-19 pandemic, this March we were able to get four fit models to try on the shirts and give feedback. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive so far.

Alongside the development of our first capsule, Both& has run an ongoing photojournalism series led by photographer and cofounder Mischa de Stroumillo. Mischa and I both see storytelling as a core element of the brand, a connective tissue between the research and design process, as well as the community-building at the heart of our mission. We hope to expand this photojournalism project to more countries and much wider groups of people, as Covid-19 and funding allow.

I am incredibly honored to see the reaction Both& has already received, and excited about the future. Now that preorders for our first line have closed, we are moving on to develop our summer capsules. Please reach out to us and become a part of our design process – we are always looking to hear more stories and to continue learning about how we can better serve our community.

Tyla (he/him), 26

I’ve never put on a top and felt so confident. I didn’t need to adjust the binder on my chest or anything. It just fit perfectly and made me feel confident. I’m amazed by what Both& created.

Over the years, I’ve struggled with clothing and I just thought it was me and my body shape, since it’s not the “normal”. I never thought my struggle was just caused by the way clothes are designed, which is to fit the binary.

I like the way they are reaching out to everyone in the community for their ideas and thoughts, so they can take put them together to create something amazing – something that’s going to work for us all.

Arthur (he/him), 29

Both& is doing something unique. They’re not just selling clothes – they’re telling trans-masculine people or masculine-presenting people that their needs matter. It’s community-led, so you see people who look like you and who have shared experiences with you. It’s a breath of fresh air when you’re shopping for clothes because it can be so challenging when you don’t fit the binary.

I think it’s really significant that it’s just t-shirts at the moment. It’s basic. It’s something that can really change your day. I like that the t-shirts come in different styles that cater to your personal style, your body type, whether you’re binding or not.

Both& has developed a fit guide that’s very detailed and inclusive with pictures that help you make informed choices.

Nan (they/them), 22

I wear a binder, so I’m very specific on what fits and styles of clothing that I usually go for. Both& solves a lot of pet peeves that I have when it comes to clothing. I love everything about these t-shirts.

The neckline for these t-shirts is nice and snug against my neck. It kind of extends the shoulder a little bit to give me a broader shape, which I really like. You can’t see anything underneath.

I really like the material – it’s a nice, thick, and heavy material that doesn’t cling to parts of my body that I don’t want it to cling to. It falls very nicely, very straight, and gives the beautiful silhouette that I am looking for.

Alex (he/him), 25

I wear Both& and I feel confident, I feel happy, and I feel proud. That’s it.

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