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.