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To 'Skirt' Around: The Dilemma of Men in Skirts

If one were to see a man wearing a skirt and casually walking down the street, it might be considered an effect of being 'woke,' and videos would be posted on how masculinity has been ruined by this accepting vibe.

But why do we even need to gender clothes?

Is it because people want to focus on that false sense of comfort and security that they feel when they see strict and rigid categorizations? Even among clothes? Or is it an age-old Reddit conspiracy theory to make sure men never get the chance to flaunt their good-looking legs and curves? The fashion industry has come up with terms like ‘androgynous’ to describe a very gender-neutral idea about clothes, but why do we even need this neutrality to be emphasized?

To 'Skirt' Around: The Dilemma of Men in Skirts. Harry Styles in Skirt for Vogue Magazine Shoot

Did clothes ever need the gender tag?

From ancient times, both men and women wore the same clothes, without the strict gender binaries that divide modern aesthetic standards. The kingdom of Sumer in Mesopotamia has records of men using skirts for rituals, known as Kaunakes. The Egyptians had their loincloths and gauzy wraps, while the Aztecs adorned themselves with ornate military armor. In Ancient Greece, the skirt symbolized youth and virility, as did the kilt in Scotland. Even young children were dressed in skirts, regardless of their gender. Asian cultures were not far behind in making their own statements with de-gendered fashion. History tells us that robes, flashy qun, tunics, the lungi, and more were clothing that men used to wear. Some of these garments were even used for traditional ceremonies. In aristocratic Europe, for family portraits, children had to be dressed in their finest gowns, the flashier, the better display of the family's wealth. The shift began when young boys started wearing breeches, signifying their passage beyond the 'infancy stage' and into adulthood. The concept of masculinity came into use, encouraged by the Church. The skirt was categorized as something 'feminine' and associated with weakness. It became a symbol for women to know that they should gift young girls skirts and young boys trousers.

It was during the 1920s that the concept of women wearing suits first came into play. While society accepted women adopting a more masculine style relatively quickly, we seldom observe the same acceptance for men wearing skirts or, in fact, any feminine clothing. What could be the reason for this?

Fashion has always been the channel for producing non-conformist, creative, and liberating forms of self-expression through clothing. Toxic masculinity has crumbled under the powerful influence of fashion because in fashion, individuals have the power to define what they want to wear on their own terms. Avant-garde brands, such as Vivienne Westwood, Raf Simons, Walter Van Beirendonck, Alexander McQueen, and Rick Owens, have played a significant role in this transformation. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 2003, aimed to analyze the phenomenon of gender-liberated clothing with an exhibition titled 'Bravehearts: Men in Skirts,' sponsored by Jean Paul Gaultier. Those who flip through magazine pages would come across Harry Styles' record-breaking Vogue cover, featuring him in a Gucci gown. This is an example that is often referenced in many Gender Studies classes.

There have been a wide range of male (or AMAB, which stands for 'Assigned Male at Birth') icons who, in their own right, have comfortably worn skirts to transcend their supposed public image or the image based on physical features denoted as 'manly,' such as Vin Diesel, Kanye West, and Odell Beckham. These artists have returned time and again, reaffirming the genderless clothing we wear. There is an intrinsically linked idea of submissiveness and frailty that speaks to the way power has been assigned to clothing. For a long time, men have been associated with power and dominance, and suits contribute to this pseudo-empowerment. When a woman wears a suit, it is often seen as an example of 'changing times.' However, when a man wears a skirt, he may face scrutiny related to his religion, sexuality, gender identity, and, at times, even his mental stability.

Then there is the concept of 'woke' discourse circulating on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, suggesting that this awareness of broader social issues is merely a way to promote superficiality and, to some extent, boost sales. This phenomenon is often referred to as 'woke-washing,' where ethically problematic companies use the cover of social activism and solidarity to further their own agenda. Apparently, in mid-2020, this term gained momentum after becoming the focus of an organization called the Slow Factory Foundation in their open education program. In this program, a writer-consultant named Aja Barber explores the intersection of fashion with feminism, race, and colonization. She spoke about 'woke-washing,' drawing a parallel with 'green-washing' (another term related to using environmentalism as a marketing cover). To illustrate this better, we can look at Kendall Jenner's infamous Pepsi commercial incident. The company released an advertisement that appeared to promote the acceptance of uniformed police officers in some protests. This occurred during the Black Lives Matter movement, and the audience felt that it trivialized the entire issue of police brutality and the underlying intentions. This is quite similar to what occurs during 'woke-washing'—the sentiments of a movement or community are commercialized and put on display as brands introduce new products to attract a 'sympathetic' image.

Feminine wear' for men falls into that category. Terms like 'unisex' have been used to represent the idea of gender neutrality, but does it work as it's portrayed in advertisements?

The answer would be no.

We might support and advocate, but achieving acceptance for such a widespread idea would be challenging. Feminism has been used in tags and colloquial speech, yet its meaning is often distorted. While we support it, parts of the message get chipped away, leading to misconstrued thoughts. We intend to support all sides, but it often turns into cheering for just one. In this case, what's considered normal is presented as something unusual. Conservatives may lament and write melancholic tweets about masculinity, which was never a fixed concept; 'masculine' and 'feminine' are socially constructed notions.

It has always been about feeling good in what you wear. If someone chooses to wear skirts because they believe they will look good in them, then why should anyone else insist on putting them in a pair of jeans? We limit ourselves as we impose more categories. There's no need to force-feed the idea of men wearing skirts; we need to normalize it.

And perhaps that can only be achieved when branding and marketing are held accountable properly. It depends on brands to embrace that accountability, and on consumers to thoroughly scrutinize a brand's actions, rather than being swayed solely by flashy marketing campaigns that emerge during Pride Month or BIPOC Awareness Month.

As mentioned earlier, it boils down to understanding that the initiation of an inclusive community requires genuine support, not just a '10 Things to Cover' checklist for brands to complete. Tokenized support only contributes to obscuring the true reason for change. We often rally behind the inclusivity label, regardless of whether we fully grasp the commercialized traps that companies create to attract consumers.

Clothes should not be used to confine one's own skin and identity; instead, they should offer freedom, choice, and comfort, as true comfort is seldom attainable without choice. Everyone has their own interpretation of 'comfortable,' with their unique versions of glitz and glam or Sunday pajamas.

So why force your choices on someone’s wardrobe?


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