Words by Anna Parviainen | Artwork by Ville Andersson courtesy of Helsinki Contemporary | English editor Julie Uusinarkaus

In celebration of the 50th birthday of the iconic Tasaraita collection, art historian Anna Parviainen retraces the different phases of Marimekko’s unisex fashion and the recent history of an aesthetic freely titled Nordic unisex.

The history of unisex fashion is still relatively unexamined, especially from the Nordic point of view. Finland developed into a welfare state rapidly during the 1960s and ‘70s. If you examine Marimekko’s unisex fashion of that period, you can see the rapid change in the Finnish fashion industry, which affected the style, materials and international market. 

Marimekko was ahead of its time, as unisex clothing was already being designed in the 1950s, a decade before the international breakthrough of unisex fashion. The Jokapoika shirt and kitchen aprons worn by both women and men were followed by the iconic Tasaraita collection and other less ubiquitous 1960s and ‘70s designs that deserve a moment in spotlight.

In the 1960s Marimekko’s unisex fashion sculpted the aesthetics of the Finnish welfare state and carried its ethos abroad. Marimekko was constantly growing and had become the biggest clothing brand in Finland. It was quite well known also abroad, thanks to Jacqueline Kennedy, who bought seven Marimekko dresses and posed on the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing a Marimekko dress. 

If you visit the Marimekko website today, you’ll find a couple of examples of the minimalistic, highly graphic unisex fashion of Marimekko, designs that date back to the 1950s and ‘60s. The website presents a category called ‘men and unisex’, which includes well-known classics, the even-striped Tasaraita collection and the iconic Jokapoika shirts. Those two classics form the unisex fashion – as well as the men’s fashion – of today’s Marimekko.

Ville Andersson, Gesture II (version 2/2), 2016. Ink and pencil on paper, 27,9 x 21,6 cm. Photograph by Ville Anderson, courtesy of Helsinki Contemporary.

The stories of Marimekko’s unisex and men’s fashion are consistent with one another. The Jokapoika shirt (1956) was designed by Vuokko Nurmesniemi, the most important designer of 1950s Marimekko. It began the history of Marimekko’s menswear. The shirt was first intended to be worn by men, but already in the late ‘50s it was also worn by Marimekko’s founder Armi Ratia and the designer Nurmesniemi herself. Various photographs from the ‘50s show Ratia and Nurmesniemi confidently wearing the shirt. Ratia is known to have worn Jokapoika as her atelier coat, perhaps for practical reasons and because as a man’s shirt it gave her a powerful look as a Marimekko lead. Jokapoika wasn’t intended to be sold as a unisex garment; however, it became unisex through use. 

Annika Rimala was the first of the Marimekko designers who deliberately designed a collection to be worn by both men and women. The collection served the whole family, offering clothing from playsuits for babies to gowns, T-shirts, underwear and socks for both men and women, as well as children and adults. Tasaraita (1968) echoed the manifold discussions and themes of the 1960s: the collection was the culmination of socio-democratic ideals of equality, marked the international ethos of unisex and represented the general aesthetics of the era of minimalism, in Bauhaus-inspired pure colours. In my research, I have found similarities between Marimekko and Swedish unisex-pioneer Sighsten Herrgård’s designs, but have also discovered a link between the Tasaraita collection and Polarn O. Pyret’s 1970s classic, striped unisex collection, which was established seven years after Tasaraita.

Annika Rimala designed many collections that suited all ages, sizes and genders. She made Finnish cotton and tricot fashionable by designing graphic, timeless tricot collections. In the 1970s Rimala realised the potential of sportswear and designed Hyttyssuoja – a tracksuit manufactured of cotton – which prefigured the great fad of unisex tracksuits. In addition to Rimala, the designers Pentti Rinta, Liisa Suvanto and Katsuji Wakisaka established unisex garments and collections for Marimekko. Together with Rimala, Rinta made unisex fashion a bigger part of the Marimekko brand. Rinta, for example, designed a suit called Kuski, which was at the same time Marimekko’s first suit made for men and their first unisex suit.

Ville Andersson, Folded, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 20 cm. Photograph by Ville Andersson, courtesy of Helsinki Contemporary.

What makes unisex clothing so interesting is how easily we take it for granted today. In Western culture, it was only about a half decade ago when denim fashion made trousers finally fashionable for women. Before that, girls and women could often only wear trousers on specific occasions. For men, unisex fashion appeared as new options of colours, fabrics and patterns. The so-called Peacock Revolution had a great impact on men’s fashion of the 1960s and ‘70s. For example, Marimekko made bold choices by designing nightgowns for all genders and sizes: in domestic magazines Tasaraita nightgowns were presented in extensive family portraits, worn by women, men and children. The nightgowns worn by men balanced between feminine and masculine, highlighting alternately the softness and muscularity of the depicted men.

Marimekko is a company that really means something to every Finn – even if you don’t like the brand, I assume you are still at least proud of its history and fame. I would like to see Marimekko become a unisex brand once again, by broadening its collections, either by bringing old classics back into production or by designing new unisex collections – or at least by offering more for men, as it used to do. 

The writer is an art historian who did her Master’s Thesis on unisex fashion designed by Marimekko in the 1960s and ‘70s. The thesis ‘Uniforms of equality: Marimekko’s unisex fashion in the 1960s and ‘70s’ can be read online in Finnish from the University of Helsinki thesis database. The writer is currently planning a PhD on unisex fashion in the Nordic countries.