Women in Pants, Men in Dresses: A Societal Double Standard

 

By Chelsea Whitlow Shay

Clothing has long been used to regulate culture and express ones social standing. Whether it’s women wearing corset dresses, a staple in women’s fashion from the 16th -18th centuries, or businessmen wearing two button verse three button suits to the office, clothing is often used as a visual marker of belonging or as a sign of being an outcast. There have been eras of fashion trends that have come and gone; from skirt hemlines rising and falling and rising again to women’s fight to wear pants, a trend that became socially acceptable in the 1930s in the U.S. even though women were not permitted to wear pants in the U.S. Senate until 1993. One trend that has never seemed to catch on is men wearing skirts or dresses. With the occasional exception of men wearing kilts or utilikilts, a summer fashion trend in the Pacific Northwest. We don’t often see men in dresses or skirts and even when a kilt is worn there is a certain amount of staring and whispering that one can expect.

I want to reflect on why this is. Why don’t men wear dresses or skirts? I know most people’s immediate response is: “Well, those are girl clothes.” I’m looking for more than this, because really this type of statement is a copout that shuts down the conversation without any critical thought. Clothing, just like colors and toys are for everyone. Historically, cities across the United States haven’t felt this way – starting in the mid-1800s cities started legislating what type of clothing an individual could wear based on their sex. Most of these laws were abolished in the mid 1980s, so, what’s the real hold up? Most men I’ve spoken with that have dared to wear a dress or skirt, often in the confines of someone’s home, find the experience rather freeing. So, why not in public?

Historically, dresses and their form have been used to restrict women’s bodies and their movement. Corsets, petticoats, and long hemlines forced women to move slowly and travel only short distances. This type of restrictiveness of women’s clothing can be seen in architecture from time periods where this type of dress was more common. On the Oregon State University campus The Women’s Building has a poignant example of how women’s dress influenced architecture. The stairs in this building have very low rises that were specially designed to allow women in petticoats and long dresses to be able to climb the stairs. Many second wave feminists may be puzzled by my argument in this article as they have often pushed against fashion trends and the confining restricting aspects of dresses since the 1960s. This is when women’s dress in general and dresses specifically became much more open and free flowing. Allowing women’s bodies to breathe and move more freely. Although there are certainly aspects of women’s fashion today that are still intended to confine and constrain bodies.

Sadly, I believe that the reason men aren’t wearing dresses and skirts has to do with the way our society views women, as something lesser than man, more fragile and more delicate. Besides the standard response of dresses and skirts being “girl” clothes men often say they are afraid of feeling emasculated. Why is a lack of masculinity such a bad thing? For most men in U.S. society femininity and its expression are often seen as a bad thing, a weak thing, and again something lesser than men and masculinity. This has a direct link with how women are viewed and valued in our society, as something lesser to man.

We are in an exciting period of change in our country –gender, gender expression and identity are being talked about on the national level. There are increasing amounts of publicity and education happening around gender variant and gender non-conforming individuals. The gender binary (women/man & feminine/masculine) this country is used to is beginning to bend into a spectrum where femininity and masculinity can be expressed by any of the sexes (yes, there are more than two). Clothing seems to be a spark for this conversation or a backlash to this bending of the binary.

Jaden Smith caused an uproar on social media a few weeks ago by wearing a dress and shopping at “Top Shop” – a clothing store traditionally reserved for young women. Jaden, however, didn’t see what the big deal was; stating “they’re just clothes.” This is the type of gender bending feminist I hope to see rise up in the next decade. Wearing what makes you feel good regardless of its intended audience. One department store in the UK, Selfridges, has decided to scrap its traditionally sexed clothing and is opting for an all gender-neutral store; a trend we have not seen hit the U.S. yet.

So, this is my challenge to you as readers- wear what makes you feel comfortable and fabulous. Gentlemen, I challenge you to wear a skirt or a dress even if it’s just in your house at first. It will not take away your masculinity. If anything it will spur inner reflection and dialogue on the kind of person you are and what kind of person you want to be. Try wearing a dress and free yourself from the confines of gendered clothing.

5 Comments

  1. TopCat

    I am a straight guy who loves to wear dresses and skirts – my own favourites are maxi dresses and skirts, also sweater dresses. They are just so comfortable to wear and I do feel fabulous when I am wearing a skirt or dress. And the best bit……….. when I am out and about and get positive comments about what I am wearing, with most coming from women. For men who have never tried wearing a dress or skirt, you don’t know what you are missing!

    Reply
    1. Martin Barr-David

      Yeah, they’re more comfortable then menswear. Dresses & skirts should be made gender neutral.

      Reply
      1. David DeMarkey

        I first want to say “Ditto!” in response to Top Cat and Martin’s comments.
        Thanks to the hard work, sacrifice and struggle of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and The transgendered in Oregon the law forbids employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or even gender expression. Most companies have adopted such policies to be in compliance with the law and some, especially large corporations, are serious about those policies.
        I know because right now I am working as a temp at one of them and am going to work, when I feel like it, in a dress or skirt, heels and hose. With management’s blessings and support.
        If you live in a state with such laws and have the same inclinations as Top Hat, Martin and I, check into your employer’s policies and go for it!

        Reply
  2. Working Hypothesis

    It’s not only clothes. In general, boys and men receive far more contempt for behaving in ways traditionally considered “feminine” than girls and women do for behaving in ways traditionally considered “masculine,” and that’s been true clear back to the 1700s, at least. It’s also not hard to understand, if you look at the thinking behind sexism.

    Because masculinity is considered the standard of everything positive and worthy, it’s always been perceived as comprehensible that women should want to be like men. Oh, they have to be kept in their place, so you don’t usually let them DO it (goes the thinking), but you can certainly understand why they would WANT to. It’s so obviously a step up from where they naturally are!

    So women may have been punished for behaving in a masculine fashion, but every once in a while a stubborn woman or one who had indulgent male relatives could always get away with it anyway. This expectation that women would want to behave like men if they were permitted to do so actually meant that the few exceptional women who did get away with it served to reinforce the same system against which they were rebelling — they were living examples that masculinity was better than femininity. One tries to step up, after all; not down.

    It also, however, meant that once society abandoned the use of force to keep women behaving according to prescribed feminine roles, societal comfort with women dressing and behaving in traditionally masculine ways jumped forward very quickly, because of the unconscious expectation that everyone would behave in masculine ways if they could. But with the entire culture assuming that masculine ways were superior, it was — and still is — outright *incomprehensible* to many people that a man would want to dress or behave in ways which are traditionally feminine.

    It’s also a threat to the system, and patriarchy has shown itself at least as adaptive as racism in responding to threats against its hold on power. If women who want to dress and behave masculinely help to reinforce the concept that masculinity is superior, then men who want to dress and behave femininely help to undermine that concept. Nobody actively chooses to do something that’s worse instead of something that’s better, after all… so if there are men out there who would prefer to follow traditionally feminine behavior patterns, then those patterns must not be inherently inferior. This is a serious danger to the hold of patriarchal myths on the collective consciousness, and so it’s met with fear and anger in a way which women who reinforce the belief in masculine superiority by seeking to emulate it don’t face.

    I cheer all men who are happy to wear dresses and skirts and willing to face down the responses. And I look forward to the day when those responses, instead of bewilderment contempt and vitriol, consist mostly of, “Hey, nice dress!” Both women and men will benefit greatly from the dismantling of expectations which keep men hedged in with unnecessary restraints and women under the continued half-conscious assumption of inferiority.

    Reply
    1. David DeMarkey

      Right on! Very comprehensively and succinctly stated.

      Reply

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