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.

40 thoughts on “Women in Pants, Men in Dresses: A Societal Double Standard”

  1. 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!

      1. 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!

        1. High heels are really bad for your feet and legs, no matter who or of what gender you may be. Not trying to stop anyone who really wants to wear them anyhow; I just spend a good deal of my professional life cleaning up the damage they do to the human body, so I want to make sure everyone is at least warned.

          1. Thank you Naomi.

            But may I say, they can be great for the soul.

          2. David, I certainly won’t argue that. I want people who wear them, whatever their gender, to know the physical risks and go in with their eyes open. If they decide it’s worth it to them, who am I to argue?

    1. (Sarcasm on)Yes not to mention menswear offers a stunning variety of brown, black, navy blue, or gray, how exciting! (Sarcasm off)

  2. 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.

  3. I’m a woman who donned a skirt for the last time a few years ago. I find dresses and skirts not only restricting, but uncomfortable for my thighs. I prefer breathable fabric to (possibly sweaty) skin rubbing against skin.

    I decry fundy groups that require girls to wear dresses and skirts. This garb inherently constrains and curtails its wearers’ movements. This is why I would never be able to be Orthodox (Jewish).

    1. I can understand that. Most women these days honestly wear yoga pants anyway & not dresses or skirts. Not sure if you are Jewish or Christian but any Christian who makes the claim women can’t wear pants Deut 22:5 fundamentally doesn’t understand the Christian faith. But I guarantee you they mix fibers, it’s ridiculous.

  4. sorry to say some dresses are for men and some are for women and some are for both like jeans but why do men wear a skirt or dress. on the other side its ok to wear jeans for a woman because it’s justified. But men cant wear a skirt in public.

    1. Mariyana, you’re restating the current social rule. You don’t give any reasons why that rule is a good one, however. Without reasons, why should anyone be bound by it? It makes no sense just to do things because they’ve been done for a long time. And especially for rules whose only purpose for existing was to reinforce the ways women were treated like second class citizens and men were scorned and disparaged if they dared act in any way like women, it’s a good idea to get rid of those rules along with the attitude which spawned them.

    2. The only reason pants are for both men & women is because women borrowed them from mens’ closets in the 20s & began wearing them, the same with t-shirts. Dresses & skirts are awesome, men should do the same! Femininity is very freeing & relaxing!

  5. I think u will have to start slowly. Like a national day once a month or so. Nobody wants to try it alone. If others did it I would as well.

    1. Lester I used to be the same way 6 or 7 years ago, then Irealized I’ll be 90 by the time that happens. I’m 39 now, throw caution to the wind & do it now. You will never feel more at peace with yourself & I doubt you will regret it. I go out several times a week in a dress or skirt with my wife & 3 boys.

  6. I have worn a skirt out twice to two dances and the attitude from others was very accepting. Try it. I will continue and will wear a skirt during the daytime in the summer. Men worry to much. Be happy with yourself and don’t worry what others think. I am not gay, transvestite or transgender. I love women but prefer the comfort of a floaty skirt of dress. They rock.

  7. David, thank you for joining me in the Fashion Revolution. And to you ladies who support us.
    Lester, please get up to date. As I said, last year most of the days I was working as a temporary accountant at a Fortune 50 corporation I was in a dress, heels and hose.
    Recently, I went to Hawaii for a 2-week temporary job as CFO for a public charter school. I broached the subject of my clothing preferences I sent along a photo of me in a dress. The Executive Director who is a friend said he hadn’t seen me so happy and relaxed in years! And that people coming to work in that frame of mind were more productive so I should wear whatever I was comfortable in. He warned me that I he school campus was kind of hilly and most everyone dressed casually so I packed my flats and my more casual dresses. I was still overdressed.
    As he predicted the staff took it right in stride.
    The students were another matter. They all started by looking in amazement. But after awhile a few brave, curious kids asked respectful, polite questions. In one case, I had explained myself to one little girl and a couple days later her sister had her share, the first was, “Why do you wear dresses?” The first sister answered that one for me. “Because he looks so CUTE!!””,” she squealed.
    Their mother and I (it was pickup time) also had a very nice conversation woven between the questions the girls peppered me with.
    One little girl openly laughed every time she saw me — this was an elementary school— which I didn’t respond to. Looking back, I probably should have asked her if that was how she was taught to act toward people. I now feel it wasn’t so much a sign of disrespect as her not knowing how to start such a conversation.
    While there, I did plenty of walking around, going out at night, even to church and sightseeing almost always in a skirt or dress. I even made some new friends.
    I also flew out and back in dresses. The worst that happened was I got a few skeptical and unapproving looks from a few older tourists. That and a slight hiccup flying out was it!
    So in practice, society approves of men wearing skirts and dresses. Fellow Fashion Pioneers, man up and put on your dresses!
    Trust me, the first time your lady reaches under your skirt to stroke your bottom, you’ll wish you’d started sooner.

  8. Why can’t men wear female skirts? Skirts probably look better on men then women.Women wear pants even though they are men’s clothes and I think that tight pants look better on woman then skirts so men shouldn’t be afraid of wearing skirts just like women weren’t afraid of wearing pants for the first time in the mid 20th century

    1. Right on John-Paul!
      If you’re practicing what you’re preaching, I’m sure you’re finding as I have, that it is a complete and utter non-issue for nearly everyone.
      Especially once you have found your personal style — not necessarily easy when confronted for the first time with so many tempting choices. The only suggestions I can make there is to start with fairly simple, classic styles that look like they could be unisex. For instance, I started with simple skirted suits, sheaths and shirtdresses. My wardrobe now includes floral and tropical print dresses, blouses, a bunch of special occasion dresses and even an evening gown, which I have worn to charity events.
      I tend to overdress a little which has worked for me, because people tend to compliment me on my appearance rather than feel justified in scorning me for looking shabby or out of place.
      The most important reason to find and embrace your personal style was captured in a remark the adult, Millennial daughter of a friend of mine made about why people either don’t notice what I’m wearing or so easily take it stride, she said, “Because it (the way I dress) is YOU!”
      Would be Fashion Pioneers, boldly go where few men have dared go before you!

  9. David, like you I have a wardrobe full of fabulous dresses – plain, patterned and floral, as well as several special occasion dresses and evening gowns.
    I also aim for a ‘dressier style’, which does attract compliments, particularly from women. It is also a great conversation ‘ice breaker’, again largely with women who are curious to find out more about my dress wearing habits.
    Men do need to be braver and bolder when it comes to wearing dresses and skirts. If I go into a ‘women’s fashion store’ to purchase some new clothes, I will accept the offer of help if it is offered by a sales assistant, as well saying that the item(s) are for me, and I usually find that I am offered the opportunity to try on the item(s) that I have selected. I no longer pretend that I am buying the item(s) for someone else – I have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of!!
    One store that I particularly love is ‘Long Tall Sally’ in Chiltern Street, London. I often order new clothes through their website and then visit the shop in person to collect them. I always receive a fabulous welcome from the sales assistants, and once they have retrieved my order from the stockroom, the first question, without fail, is always: ‘would you like to try your new dresses/skirts/blouses/cardigans… on?’
    Nothing is ever too much trouble for the sales assistants, and whenever I visit the store I feel that I am treated like royalty!!
    I have yet to find anyone who can give me a genuinely good reason as to why men cannot wear dresses and skirts.

    1. Top Cat: Greetings from your rebellious former colonies! Nothing like the reach of the Internet isn’t there?
      I too am received very well by clothing store sales associates and am always allowed access to the dressing rooms. In the better shops associates ask if they can “start a room” for me. I guess they can smell a shopaholic a mile away.
      I feel that by being ourselves, you and I embolden others to be their genuine selves, whoever that may be and that is the truest meaning of liberty.

  10. Sadly that only few men wearing a skirt or dress in public. I agree that there is a difference in kind of STYLE by wearing a skirt or dress between men and women. But, whatever a woman prefers to wear, she will act and behave as a female, the same counts for ma man.
    Historically there never was a ban for men to wear skirts and dresses, but it wasn’t allowed for women to wear pants in public until the 1960’s.
    In the United States laws were made in the 1980’s to stabilize the equality which included the clothing. Since this time it is an open field for men and women to dress in a appropriate way whatever they like. Unfortunately there are still a lot of humans around which are unable to adopt (or they can’t change their own outdated picture or a dressed human) the new way of understanding that people want to be free in kind of dressing, expressing, thinking and acting and not pressed anymore in rules which never let’m get out of the “cage” and away from the un-nessesarity of gender uniformed dressing.
    Yes, there are so many wonderful ways to be unique and natural.

    I like to see men in skirts and dresses which always tells me without a spoken word, that there are REAL men, don’t care what other might think, just to be the unique individual person, and it tells everybody that these guys somewhere free and honest people which do not have to cover in a un- humanly kind of clothes.

  11. I have probably 20 dresses now & probably 50 skirts, waaay more than my wife. With the exception of church & work, I wear a skirt or dress in public pretty much everytime I go out. I try to wear styles that are more conservative or elegant, nothing flamboyant or over the top floral, but that’s just my taste. If it’s what you like, who am I to judge? I am 5’10” 175 lbs. 32” waist & can fill a 36 C bra naturally so that helps fill out dresses. I don’t really care if I get snickers behind my back, you’ll never please everyone anyway no matter what you do. I barely get any reactions at all, maybe an occasional smile from women that’s about it. I don’t wear a wig or makeup, it’s very clear I’m a guy. My haircut is buzzed on the sides & spiked on top & I wear “girl” shoes, keep my legs & pits shaved & toenails painted as much as I can. I’m as str8 & conservative as they come politically…

  12. One thing I’ve always wondered is why a dressing gown is fine for a man to wear (essentially a dress tied in the middle) yet we can’t wear a normal dress. I know it’s bedtime wear but it is weird how that’s fine but anything else isn’t, or how nightgowns were normal for men to wear years ago. I enjoy a skirt/dress but I don’t go out the house in them. Reading your comments, I hope it’ll be fine one day. Seems like it’s wrong for a man to be feminine but progress for a woman to be masculine.

    1. You’re not wrong about it being considered bad for a man to want to be feminine but natural for a woman to want to be masculine. Because being male is considered “better” by pretty much everyone traditional (male and female alike) than being female, it’s generally understood, even if not approved, for women to want to behave in masculine ways. After all, that would be moving up in the world. But it challenges everything they think they know about the world to see men who voluntarily choose to dress or behave in traditionally female ways, because that looks like someone who’s *already* better voluntarily choosing to be worse. So it frightens them a great deal, because it makes some back corner of their brains fear that perhaps being male isn’t actually as conclusively and obviously better than being female as they are trying to believe it is, and that turns their whole worldview upside down.

      1. Great analysis!

        A few years ago I would have agreed. However, things have indeed changed. Three years ago, despite my fears, I started going out in public in skirts, blouses, dresses, heels and hosiery. Since then they have become my usual clothes; not to mention my favorites.

        I am well-received wherever I go and get lots of compliments on my attire and appearance (I’m a balding Baby Boomer) mostly from women but more and more from men. Almost no negative reactions, including dirty looks!

        So while the social forces you described posed a barrier to men adapting women’s fashions and to a large degree still exist, in actual practice they shouldn’t stop anyone from wearing what pleases themselves.

        1. David, I am with you 100% in as much as skirts, blouses, dresses, cardigans, heels and hosiery are without doubt my favourite clothes.

          I achieved a first this weekend, with a planned visit to ‘The Curve Fashion Festival’, which took place in Liverpool.

          I decided to make a weekend of it, so travelled to Liverpool yesterday (Friday), booked two nights hotel accommodation, and am returning home tomorrow (Sunday).

          For the first time ever, I didn’t pack any ‘male’ clothing – absolutely nothing! I wore a Marks and Spencer ‘checked skirt suit’, together with a black blouse from Roman Originals and a pair of black ankle boots (2.75 inch heels) for the 200 mile or so journey to Liverpool – by train, which included a journey across London from Paddington to Euston. The entire journey, along with the hotel check in, completed successfully!

          I can honestly say that I haven’t felt so good for a long time!

          Aside from my skirt suit, I had packed 3 dresses, 2 cardigans, and another blouse.

          I chose one of my dresses to wear to the Fashion Festival, along with a cardigan with a ‘sparkly’ trim. Before heading to the festival, I had breakfast at the hotel, again negotiated without any difficulties. All of the staff at the hotel have been incredibly friendly.

          Having looked around the festival, it was time to give the feet a bit of a rest, and I made my way to the VIP lounge. I sat close to a lady who had one of her eight year old son with her. She said: ‘can I ask you a question?’ My reply – absolutely. The question, which was for the benefit of her son was: Did I think it was okay for boys and men to wear things considered feminine, including makeup? My response – of course it’s okay – my philosophy is that we should all wear what we want and that makes us feel good, and I pointed to the fact that I was wearing a dress, which she in turn complimented me on. We talked further, and although her son was wearing a little makeup, he clearly wanted to wear clothing traditionally regarded as ‘feminine’, but was a little reluctant to do so for fear of being bullied by his ‘peers’. That is so sad, I really felt for him.

          This is the 21st century, and all clothing should be ‘gender neutral’, with everyone being able to wear their own choice of clothing, not having to accept the choices being dictated by society.

          1. Bravo for you and for that little boy’s mum!

            It is a new century, reactionaries notwithstanding, and self-liberation is not only possible, but blissful.

            Despite all that, we’re all hardwired to fear the saber-toothed tiger that isn’t there!

    2. Au contraire; if my personal experience is any indication it’s totally fine for an adult heterosexual male to wear a dress in public.

      Right now at 9 PM I’m in a bright red, ruched, faux wrap Ralph Lauren dress that I tried on and bought at Ross Dress for Less that I have had on all day. I put it on first thing this morning to go to church. This afternoon I wore it to a meeting of my church’s board.

      On my way home I stopped off at Target to buy a couple things. As usual, at the checkout stand I was called “sir.” As I was heading for the exit one of the associates said to me, “I love your dress.” For which I thanked her.

      This was a typical day. I wear dresses more often than slacks and skirts on top of that!

      If I can do it, you can do it.

      Social norms aren’t changed by Congress; they’re changed by people who ignore them.

        1. “… close to Southampton?”

          Not exactly, I live in Portland … Oregon, USA.

          Look up SkirtCafe.com. You’ll probably find someone close by you can meet up with.

        2. If you sign up for SkirtCafe, you can send me a Private Message (PM) and I will gladly reply. On the Cafe I go by Dave, the PDX Fashion Pioneer.

          If you register you can access all of the website including the photos. They will show you the range of outfits that men wear in public.

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