Guest Post: Redefining Masculinity through the Merging of Mens and Womens Wear

Photo:  Andre Hunter

Hegemonic Masculinity has proven a tough opponent for modern feminists, as it is both encompassing, vague, and a seemingly overpowering understanding of masculinity. However, there are certainly strong steps that can be taken to break down its power as an ideal. In this essay, the reasons that men do not typically wear womenswear in western nations will be explored through the lens of hegemonic masculinity and a historical understanding of the rise of modernity in and the continuing opposition of menswear and womenswear. Understanding the longstanding barriers those two aspects have created will highlight the importance that potential shifts in menswear could create if it begins to truly merge with womenswear. It would be a huge step in equalizing the sexes as they are now presented in the binary and would introduce a less gendered visual outlook in the future. Already, there are people, specifically celebrities, who are pushing the limits of hegemonic masculinity by wearing skirts and dresses as a part of their daily wear, however womenswear has not yet fully entered in to mainstream menswear which would be the key to its effectiveness as an equalizer.

Historical Primer

It is important, for this topic, to first have a basic understanding of the last few centuries or so of menswear and womenswear, especially as they have functioned in opposition and tandem with one another. Around the turn of the sixteenth century into the seventeenth century, “the man himself was remodeled to match the classical nude, now rediscovered as the image of truth, an ideal ‘natural man.’” (Hollander, 30). The ‘natural man’ in fact was not natural at all as there are very few men whose bodies exactly fit the clean lines, broad shoulders, etc. of the classic suit.  As for womenswear, its shift into modernity came at the turn of the seventeenth century through “copying the Neoclassic masculine program in feminine terms” but with “feminine privileges such as color, glitter, and the use of skirts.” Although womenswear came into modernity almost a century later than menswear and “the [initial] radical modernization of male dress… meant that the sexes were much more visibly divided than ever before,”  throughout modernity women have gained the ability to wear menswear which has ultimately afforded women more visual power than they had previously (32).

Womenswear shifted into modernity due to the influence of menswear and took inspiration from it and yet, still remained in opposition to it. So how did it stay manage to stay in opposition to menswear rather than fully merge with it, despite stemming from similar ideals? Womenswear retained styles and materials that have now become inherently feminine because they were discarded by modern menswear. And since “the relationship of men to women is [generally] oppressive,” it became disadvantageous for menswear to adopt materials and clothing cuts that were synonymous with femininity and therefore with the oppressed (Donaldson, 645). On the other hand, womenswear has adopted many cuts and materials from menswear and it is has not been odd to see women in a suits, pants, blazers, etc. over the last few decades. The merging of menswear in to womenswear was far easier as it afforded current wearers of womenswear with more social privilege rather than depriving them of it. From that relationship was born the dichotomy of masculinity and femininity as seen by the divide in modern menswear and womenswear.  

Photo by  Javier Reyes

Photo by Javier Reyes

The suit which is the epitome of modern menswear, and now a symbol that is inextricably tangled with hegemonic masculinity, was also the industrial template of modern men’s uniforms in work, school, the army, etc. as it had “come to symbolize mass conformity.” (Flicker qtd. in Barry, 4) Accordingly, it makes sense to then conclude that “suits are… seen as symbolic of patriarchy because they are the international uniform of government and business” (Barry, 3). Suits have spread to the masses and so they stand now as the achievable epitome of hegemonic masculinity. In addition to the current divide between menswear and womenswear, the uniformity of suits creates a dynamic in which the donning of womenswear by any gender and especially in government and business, leads to an immediate loss of credibility and social privilege. In order to then ameliorate this inherent inequality in the visual cues of menswear and womenswear, it seems pertinent to propose that all womenswear specific styles such as skirts, dresses, and shorts above the knee as well as glittery, sheer, and any other ‘feminine’ materials or cuts be introduced into menswear, especially formal menswear. It would be a particularly powerful step towards equalizing the sexes and smudging the barriers of binaristic gender in an effort to also afford queer people visual equality in both informal and formal settings. However, it is important to note that if current womenswear becomes a part of menswear but womenswear as whole then changes in response and opposition to the shift, that will defeat the equalizing effect needed to combat hegemonic masculinity.

Humanswear

Equalizing womenswear and menswear into what would essentially be a single stream of ‘humanswear’ or ‘individualswear’, as it were, however, is not and will not be particularly easy. Already prevalent ideals of masculinity, in the form of hegemonic masculinity, create a barrier to rendering clothing essentially genderless. The concept itself is queer which presents another obstacle as “heterosexuality and homophobia are the bedrock of hegemonic masculinity” and any branding of currently ‘feminine’ clothing must either carefully divorce itself from homosexuality and the queer community (without actually treading on queer people, which would be nearly impossible to achieve due to the inequalities such a separation would enforce) or homosexuality in masculinity must become a mainstream narrative (Donaldson, 645). For that reason, and others, it may seem unnecessarily difficult to try to merge menswear and womenswear.

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However, it may be possible to enforce new dressing patterns by branding the concept in both ways simultaneously. The first method might be one of presenting womenswear as more, or equally as practical, as current menswear. Examples of clothing in the past might serve as effective justifications for the merging of current menswear and womenswear as there were certainly historical periods in which clothing was streamlined into less gendered but more classist forms (Mayor, 265). The Greeks, with their draped clothing, and many Europeans in the middle ages wore similar robe-like clothing with less difference in gender than difference in class (Mayor, 263).

There are also situations in which the limitations of menswear have become an issue of practicality as there are not many shorter alternatives to pants and long sleeved suits, especially in the dresscodes of governments, businesses, and schools. In many western countries, there are four seasons and still this does not stop many businesses and schools from requiring men to wear suits or a very similar equivalent in both the dead of winter and heat of summer. In the winter, such a dress code is not much of an issue practically but, in the summer, there are clear issues of practicality since covering so much skin in high temperatures can be stifling and, in extreme temperatures, dangerous. In the summer of 2017, there were several instances of working men in England and France wearing shorts, skirts, and even dresses in protest of their dress codes (Friedman). Though these men were not necessarily wearing womenswear because they liked it, their protests, and similar ones, have led to, and could continue to lead to, policy changes which would allow alternatives to suits, and womenswear, to gain more traction amongst men particularly.

The second method that could simultaneously be used to gain traction for womenswear amongst men and others is to directly appeal to and empower queer people. Already included amongst queer people are those who identify as nonbinary, genderqueer, etc. (which can colloquially be defined as a gender identity which rests between or outside the gender binary of man and woman). While those who buy into hegemonic masculinity may not appreciate the queer tones associated with merging menswear and womenswear, those who actively resist it and/or are queer will be far more likely to support the changes as it will further their cause for equality. Already queer brands such as The Phluid Project based in Manhattan, New York, TooGood based in London, and an emerging online marketplace QueerCut, which has future plans to condense all gender neutral clothing lines into one marketplace, are creating access to clothing that is meant to allow all to wear what once was split into menswear and womenswear. Brands such as those can provide the means for the merging of menswear and womenswear.

Young Thug.    Photo by Nikko Lamere

Young Thug. Photo by Nikko Lamere

Drawing from Celebrity Culture

There are also examples of celebrities, such as Jaden Smith, Kurt Cobain, David Bowie, and Young Thug who wear and have been wearing skirts and dresses in their daily wear for years and have argued for equality and the erasure of the divide between menswear and womenswear, between men and women. Young Thug, a hip hop artist, even went so far as to say that he “feels like there is no such thing as gender” which is powerful rhetoric that shows how the concept resonates especially with those black men who have bared the brunt of hyper masculinity and hegemonic masculinity (Arceneaux). It also highlights the shift in mainstream celebrities from homophobic to queer, a step that has been important in pulling down the barriers of hegemonic masculinity.  Unfortunately, in many ways, wearing skirts has become an edgy if inconsistent trend for other masculine celebrities as well. Altogether, it has not been enough to fully make womenswear a part of mainstream menswear but it certainly has opened up some doors and created role models so those not in the spotlight can experiment with womenswear in addition to menswear without feeling entirely alone.

Photo:  Mister James

The Future

Now, how will masculinity play into clothing in such a future? Masculinity in clothing, may still exist as the term continues to be associated with more, and different, attributes outside of the overprivileged traits of hegemonic masculinity, as it is defined by Donaldson (645). However, if menswear and womenswear do in fact effectively merge, masculinity will no longer be implicit in manhood visually but a description of anyone who embodies the traits it describes. In essence, clothing trends are a powerful tool which can assist in breaking down gender boundaries and lead to instilling new meaning into previously gendered words. Up until now, modern clothing has been split into menswear and womenswear but now with a widening understanding of gender, practicality, historical precedence, and queer ideas there is huge potential for both a visual shift and a social shift to occur. Hegemonic masculinity may take on new forms, but its current form can be challenged by changes in the way we approach clothing, not as womenswear or menswear but as human wear, as individual wear. In a broader sense, it seems like an effective solution to issues of inequality stemming from patriarchy, misogyny, and hegemonic masculinity would be to slowly but surely erase any, and all, divides between men and women because as long as there are two categories they will be forced to exist in relation to one another instead of simultaneously and in all of their variedness.

—Rhys Williams

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Rhys Williams is currently a Franklin University in Switzerland student studying in Lugano, Switzerland and spreading the good cheer and stares that accompany being bald. They envision a future where gender is the last thing that is important about a person and model that mission in their art, dance, and writing. 

Visit Rhys’ personal story as part of QueerStyleStories.

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Works Cited

  • Arceneaux, Michael. “Young Thug's Opinion on Gender Is More Important Than His Dresses.” Complex, Complex, 7 June 2018, www.complex.com/style/2016/07/young-thug-says-there-is-no-such-thing-as-gender.

  • Barry, Ben, and Nathaniel Weiner. "Suited For Success? Suits, Status, And Hybrid Masculinity." SagePub (2017): 1-22. Web. 3 Dec. 2018.

  • Donaldson, Mike. “What Is Hegemonic Masculinity?” Theory and Society, vol. 22, no. 5, 1993, pp. 643–657. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/657988.

  • Duka, John. “SKIRTS FOR MEN? YES AND NO.” SKIRTS FOR MEN? YES AND NO, Oct. 1984.

  • Friedman, Vanessa. “Lessons From the Great Male Skirt Rebellion of 2017.” States News Service, 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/06/26/fashion/men-skirts-shorts-dress-code.html.

  • Hollander, Anne. “The Modernization of Fashion.” Design Quarterly, no. 154, 1992, pp. 27–33.

  • JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4091263.

  • Kacala, Alexander. “7 Male Celebs Who Wear Dresses Better Than Anyone.” Hornet Stories, Hornet Stories, 30 June 2018, hornet.com/stories/male-celebs-who-wear-dresses/.

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