When trying to find an issue in which men have less privilege than women, I thought of clothing. For decades, it’s been socially acceptable for women to wear pants, suits, and almost anything else in the men’s section. Being a “tomboy” isn’t derogatory, and even considered cool in some cases. On the other hand, it’s not socially acceptable (in the US) for a man to wear fake long nails, high heels, and a dress. My parents never batted an eye when I wore my brother’s shirts. However, if my brother wore my sister’s crop top at the dinner table, my mom would be paralyzed due to shock. In general, women’s fashion has much more variety and expression. Clothes worn in the 1800’s for men, though, aren’t too far off from what they wear now. So clearly, this is an avenue where men have less freedom. But, why is this the case? Why can women wear men’s clothes, but men can’t wear women’s?
Abridged Timeline of Women's Pants Becoming a Staple in US Fashion
But, why hasn’t there been a prevalent trend for men wearing women’s clothing? Although male celebrities like David Bowie and Jaden Smith have been styled in feminine wear, it has yet to become a common sight within most public areas. I asked my male friends if they ever wanted to wear female clothes and why they don’t. After a long pause to think, their responses were, “No, I don’t want to look weird to other people,” “Skirts seem comfortable, but I don’t want to look feminine,” “People might think I’m gay,” and, “Society isn’t ready for that.”
What Gendered Clothes Symbolize
From the history lesson and those conversations, I gathered that women adopted men’s fashion as a sign of empowerment because men are symbolized as powerful. Wearing men’s clothing gives the illusion of a male body frame along with the characteristics that are attached to masculinity. Shoulder pads emphasize strength; Pants indicate authority; Neckties evoke credibility. Female blazers and pant suits were signals that women have entered businesses, politics, and other positions of power. So not only can women wear men’s clothing, they want to. Reaching the level of a man’s wardrobe is aspirational because they are perceived to be of a higher status. This perception is physically evident by how we feel based on what we wear.
At ELLE’s 2018 Women in Hollywood event, singer and lead actress of A Star is Born, Lady Gaga, wore an oversized Marc Jacobs power suit to make a statement. During her speech, she said, “We have the power to speak and be heard and fight back when we are silenced…So, after trying 10 or so dresses, with a sad feeling in my heart, that all that would matter was what I wore to this red carpet, I saw an oversized Marc Jacobs suit buried quietly in the corner… I decided today I wanted to take the power back. Today I wear the pants.” Wearing the “pants” mentally empowered her because a male-inspired outfit made her feel like she had the power of a man’s.
A woman wearing men’s clothes has elevated her status to a man’s, but a man wearing women’s clothes has downgraded his status to a woman’s.
However, there is no empowerment linked to a pencil skirt. If a man wears a dress, he doesn’t seem strong, he seems “feminine,” which is often tied to a weaker, submissive character. A man cannot dress in a gown without their sexuality being questioned. You must be gay, trans, or anything else but a straight man. Because a man who likes wearing a skirt undermines the display of male power. But if you’re gay, it’s different because gay men aren’t “real” men since “real” men aren’t feminine. There is fear and shame in wearing women’s clothes because it would force men to view and express themselves in ways they were conditioned not to. Sundresses are soft and airy; Sleeveless tops vulnerably expose your shoulders and arms; Bejeweled hair pieces emotes flamboyancy. These types of feelings are restricted for many men, which is showcased in their restrictive fashion.
Harry Styles, singer and former member of One Direction, wore a ruffled dress for the Guardian Weekend Cover. During his interview with the Guardian, the reporter asked Styles about his sexuality. In fact, the title of at article is “Harry Styles: ‘I’m not just sprinkling in sexual ambiguity to be interesting.’” He has increasingly been the subject of fan speculation regarding his sexual orientation in large part because of his fashion. Since he has worn bright, colorful outfits that would be considered women’s wear, people question if he is bisexual or queer. Styles’ response to the reporter was, “What women wear. What men wear. For me it’s not a question of that.” Whether Styles is queer or not doesn’t matter. It’s the fact that society automatically assumes he is queer for wearing feminine clothes. While Harry finds it freeing, the power dress has yet to become a staple in men’s closets.
Achieving gender equality would not only benefit women, but also men. If men and women were seen as truly equal, then there would be no shame for a man to shop in the women’s section. If “girly” wasn’t associated with weakness, then men can be more expressive and finally feel the comforting breeze that comes with a flowy skirt.
But this goes beyond having more options to add to your wardrobe. Although females are reported to have higher rates of depression in the US, males die by suicide 3.54 times more often than women. A common explanation relies on the social constructions of heteronormative masculinity and femininity. Male gender roles tend to emphasize greater levels of strength, independence, risk-taking behavior, and individualism. Reinforcement of this gender role often prevents males from seeking help for suicidal feelings.
Takeaway: Remind people, especially men, that there should be no shame in expressing themselves and doing things that are “feminine.” Be that person who makes someone feel comfortable enough to wear what they want and share what they feel. Gender roles are a burden for women, men, non-binary, trans, and everyone else.