Mar 5, 2014
Readers, why must our clothing be gendered?
Presumably, for evolutionary reasons, men and women at the height of their reproductive age might have benefited from enhancing their secondary sexual characteristics through dress. But why do we still cling to this today? Can we only recognize who's a man and who's a woman by their clothes?
Also, it seems contemporary women can dress as masculine as they wish. Decades ago, there might have been some (largely whispered) backlash that women who dressed like men were lesbian -- dating back at least as far as the days of Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Katherine Hepburn, all of whom were rumored to have had affairs with other women. But most women who sport manly looks today do so with no controversy whatsoever. It's just another style, and an easy, casual, and convenient one at that.
Men don't have it so easy. While fashion-forward types are coming around to the idea of a man wearing a skirt, it's generally accepted only if it's styled in a way that is appropriately masculine: with biker boots, sewn in traditional Scottish plaids, if it maintains a "straight" silhouette (as opposed to A-line), or if it echoes ancient (or folkloric) menswear. Just check out the comments in my culottes post and you'll see what I mean.
Why this double standard?
I think it comes down to our culture (by which I mean Western culture), its definition of masculine and feminine qualities, and the relative value it assigns these qualities. So-called feminine traits include being nurturing, gentle, empathic, soft, and sensitive. "Masculine" traits are the opposite: being aggressive, standing your ground, taking up space, looking out for number one, taking action.
All you have to do is spend a day immersed in American media to understand which qualities are valued and which are demeaned. While women might be admonished for having too many "masculine" qualities, they are still given grudging respect by the culture at large (Hillary Clinton, Martha Stewart, Barbra Streisand). Men who are deemed to display "feminine" qualities, on the other hand, are publicly mocked and bullied (Al Gore, Barack Obama, the French).
Times are changing, and the greater acceptance of gay people and their relationships seems to reflect more open-mindedness about traditional definitions of masculine and feminine. But with greater acceptance comes the expectation that gay people act "normal," an attitude that's prevalent within the gay community itself.
Why should dressing in a skirt be balanced with "butch" styling? What if you're wearing it, not to evoke its ancient masculine roots, but because you like the fabric, the swirl, or just think it's pretty? Can you be fully self-identified as male and be OK with looking feminine?
What is it about male-to-female gender-bending style that makes so many people so uncomfortable? After all, clothes are just what's on the surface. Why must our clothing be gendered? Why can't people decorate themselves the way they want?
I see Timothy John (above) -- who often appears in Bill Cunningham's fashion photo essays in the NY Times -- at the flea market nearly every weekend. It's hard to describe his style in a sentence, but he mixes men's and women's clothes in a unique way, while always looking recognizably male. I strongly recommend watching his video interview below, made for the blog, Style Like U. He brings a great deal of wisdom and consciousness to the way we present ourselves to the world. I also find it very moving.
I don't have all the answers to my questions, but I'd like to know what you think. Particularly if this issue pushes your buttons, I'd be curious to know why.
We all live in the world and are a product of a lifetime's worth of cultural conditioning (me included!). But if we can step back and examine our attitudes it can be helpful to identify what's really at stake for us personally and perhaps broaden our ability to feel comfortable with different ways of being human.