The genesis of Dr. Meg Michelsen’s recent research— a comparative study of the perception of unisex fashion among millennials and Gen Z in the U.S. and China— was a bright pink T-shirt she borrowed from her husband. She posted a photo on Facebook, prompting numerous comments from her Chinese friends who were surprised she and her husband would share clothing.

So she set out to examine the cultural perceptions of unisex clothing—items that blur gender lines or aren’t easily categorized as masculine or feminine.

“Deciding what to wear is not just a choice of clothing. It’s more than that,” Michelsen said. “It’s meaningful. It’s a social practice related to social factors, cultural factors and even political agendas.”

The study by Michelsen and a co-author based in China is currently in the review process before being published. Their research found respondents in both countries had positive attitudes toward the unisex clothing trend, but there were differences in how they defined and practiced it based on the social and political climates in each country.

Millennials and Gen Z in China embrace unisex fashion, but in a more careful and inconspicuous way due to the communist central government. One example is women wearing a “power look”—a power suit to show they are empowered. Younger Chinese also embrace Muji style, named after a famous Japanese retail company, which is a gender-neutral design aesthetic rooted in minimalism and Zen principles.

“There are some creative ways for these young people to not completely follow the central government’s message of gender conformity,” Michelsen said. “They still show their individuality, their empowerment and what they want to express with this type of fashion style.”

Michelsen’s focus on fashion marketing research is rooted in her personal love of fashion. Her other specialization is sensory research, specifically smells  and fragrance. She likes that her research is relatable and accessible  to many people.

“I want to understand why consumers think this way, why they behave this way, why they buy this,” she said.

Her interest in consumer behavior and habits was sparked when she was completing her Ph.D. program and received some sage advice from her advisor. “He said if your research is not focused on something you are passionate about, you cannot do this for a living,” she recalled. “It has to be something you really love.”

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