Skirts & Floofy Dresses: A Referendum on Masculinity

Every few years, society is rocked by the evidently shocking display of men wearing whatever they want. Whether out of fear of a homosexual agenda or leftist conspiracy, many seem fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of men expressing themselves in nontraditional ways. From the dress that so iconically graced the cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” to Billy Porter’s show-stopping “tuxedo gown,” popular culture seems to habitually rehash this conversation every so often. Most recently, anxieties about men in dresses were revived by Harry Styles’s Vogue cover shoot, which prompted the fiery ire of conservative pundits.

Here we find (in actual usage, not just in some cheap joke) that “Conspiracy! Deep State! Cultural Marxism!” cry that has become the trademark of the modern American right. For Owens, “feminization” is the first step towards a loss of power in the West which the East seems to have maintained. Hers is a jingoistic, fear mongering argument that implies true American values are “manly,” anti-communist, and under threat. Yes, Candace Owens, there is, in fact, a secret mission uniting the entire West that is dedicated solely to the “steady feminization of our men,” completed alongside our lesson plans stuffed full of general Marxism. It seems that no incident happens within a vacuum for conservatives; rather, anytime a man dons a dress, the right sees only proof of some new world order hiding in the shadows. Harry Styles’s cover shoot is only the latest in the left’s master plan, and unfortunately, Owens is not alone in peddling this conspiracy.

Ah, Ben Shapiro! Our generation’s very own Zarathustra, down from his abode in the mountains to preach to us common folk. Owens’ outrage isn’t only justified, but “perfectly obvious” in the eyes of Shapiro. In fact, a “full-on idiot” is anyone unwilling to admit this entire affair is a “referendum” on masculinity. I’d like to draw attention to that word choice. “Referendum” surely isn’t arbitrary. It is deliberate, meant to signify that this dastardly cover shoot is not just about a single person’s expression or experience, but rather, it is part of a democratic conversation on the nature of gender that threatens to undermine all who partake in it — namely, everyone. 

As part of this referendum, Shapiro offers his concise yet oh-so-profound musings on gender in another tweet. Like Moses on Sinai, Ben Shapiro proudly declares for all to hear, “Masculinity and femininity exist. Outward indicators of masculinity and femininity exist in nearly every human culture.” Wow! Move over Judith Butler. THIS is the future of gender theory. 

For Shapiro, it’s significant that, “boys are taught to be more masculine in virtually every human culture,” but he fails to note what it even means for someone to be more masculine than someone else, or how “floofy dresses” make men less masculine. What about them is feminine, or un-masculine, in nature? Would wearing dresses make men stop doing manly things, whatever those activities happen to be? In fact, does any change in wardrobe affect the internal character or personality of the person wearing them? The assumption underlying Shapiro’s declaration is that there are two distinct camps and that each have certain immutable properties about them: suits, ties, strength, and steely faces for men, and dresses, skirts, weakness, and dependence for women. To Shapiro and Owens, “men dressing like women” prevents them from being “manly men,” ostensibly because they make men more similar to women in character. By emphasizing that all societies require strong men, Owens makes clear that men invoking femininity by donning dresses means those men are no longer strong, but weak, like women. Not resolute and collected, but emotional and disorderly, like women. Not leaders in the vanguard fighting for freedom, but suppliant domestic servants, like women. By demanding men stay in their lanes with their pantaloons and cufflinks so as to maintain their strength, Owens only designates herself and her entire gender as inferior to men. In the end, attaching ourselves to these rigid gender categories and their arbitrary indicators forces a worldview that has no basis in reality.

Yet, the question remains whether clothing is an appropriate indicator of gender at all. Historically, and in the West, since Owens and Shapiro seem desperate to maintain the East/West binary distinction, skirts and “floofy” gowns were decidedly un-gendered. In Ancient Greece and Rome, men, especially of the upper classes, wore togas. Aztec men wore cloaks called tilmatli. In the 16th century, men in the Scottish highlands wore great kilts, which look like skirts from the waist down and cloaks above the navel. Even when trousers entered the European fashion mainstream in the 16th century, they still had the proportions of a skirt until they became a tighter fitting norm in the 19th century.  

In the East, which Owens believes to be the capital of strong men, dresses form part of traditional wear even today. The Middle Eastern bisht is a cloak worn by secular government leaders, tribal chiefs, or men attending special weddings or ceremonies. The Indian sherwani is a long garment worn by all state officials in Pakistan, as well as by Indian men for formal occasions. Ultimately, there doesn’t seem to be any stringent connection between clothing and a person’s gender identity. People use clothing as forms of gender expression all the time, but those specific garments don’t objectively entail any sort of gendered experience.

Of course, the fact that men used to wear more flowy attire doesn’t mean much in a society that has treated dresses as feminine wear for centuries. However, this only further proves that there is nothing inherent to the garment that makes it more appropriate for men or women. The difference between Styles and a Scottish Highlander is Styles’s luxuriation in a culture which treats dresses as feminine. Dresses and skirts didn’t become more feminine — social attitudes about certain items of clothing changed. If that development could come about through time, so can its reversal, and I believe that is a worthy goal to pursue. Our experience should not be restricted by clothing. By deconstructing the gendered relationship society has towards fashion, we could help engineer a more freeing and empowering form of self-expression.

Some conservatives, believing they have caught leftists in their own contradiction, will sometimes point to transgender people and the ways in which their fashion choices change after they transition as proof of some objective relationship between gender and clothing. It is true that transgender individuals will sometimes wear the clothing most traditionally associated with their gender identity, but not because their gender resides within the clothing. Rather, they are seeking to be seen by society at large as a member of their specific gender community, and it is the hatred and anger of people like Owens that make transgender people’s transition that much harder. Conservatives’ insistence on rigid notions of gender alienates anyone who lives outside of or in between those categories. These opinions aren’t harmless; they actively promote attitudes that have led to increases in violence towards the community, and suicidal thoughts and attempts within the community. If rejecting any form of gender fluidity has proven to be so violent, what makes espousing these attitudes worth it to people like Owens and Shapiro? What does Western culture lose by promoting a freer form of expression?

However, though deconstructing our relationship with fashion and gender is a worthy pursuit, it is unclear what the best way to go about that is. Harry Styles’s Vogue cover became such a hot button topic because many people celebrated the shoot as some revolutionary reversal of gender norms. Yet, this celebration drew more attention to it instead of making it seem normal. Instead of normalizing people expressing themselves through fashion in whichever way they choose, celebrating it makes it seem that much more of an anomaly. Moreover, this celebration seems incredibly hypocritical when it’s being directed only at famous, straight, white men. I don’t remember a reaction this big when people of color like Jaden Smith, Keiynan Lonsdale, or Young Thug proudly wore dresses in the public eye. How about the drag queens that have been mastering the art for decades now? Is dress wearing less impressive when it’s being done by non-heterosexual or non-Caucasian men? 

Nonetheless, I believe these inconsistencies to be the awkward starts and stops of a society that has only recently begun to unravel traditional notions of gender on such a large scale. For Shapiro, these inconsistencies point to a paradox on the left, noting that, “Pretending that men dressing like women does not feminize men is ridiculous, particularly coming from the same people who are celebrating Styles BECAUSE he is feminizing masculinity.” However, Shapiro misunderstands why Styles was celebrated. It’s not because he’s feminizing masculinity; rather, he is displaying for the entire world that masculinity is not harmed or changed by fashion at all. Evidently, there’s a lot more to being a man than what men decide to wear on their backs. 

Harry Styles’s cover is most definitely not a referendum on masculinity. The fashion choices of one person do not affect anyone aside from themselves, and pretending otherwise, from any political perspective, only works to hamper our freedom of expression, keeping us from moving past the historically imposed hierarchy of the sexes. 

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