Dresses Aren’t Just for Girls
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There’s a good chance you saw Harry Styles on the cover of Vogue Magazine in a frilly blue dress in December 2020. The cover fell in line with other male celebrities such as Lil Nas X, Young Thug, Jonathan Van Ness, and Jaden Smith who have also donned the skirt in the last 10 years. With the rise of androgynous fashion coinciding with modern feminism and LGBTQ+ rights, dresses for men seem to be an increasingly contentious issue, all while the popularity of the skirt for men rises to new heights.
The popularization of men wearing feminine clothing hasn’t been without its fair share of backlash. “There is no society that can survive without strong men,” Candace Owens famously tweeted in response to Styles’s Vogue cover. “Bring back manly men.” Her sentiment is shared by many who fear that masculinity is under attack by the political left.
Many of these arguments rest on the false notion that dresses have always been for women. Yet men have worn dresses for centuries without question, from the building of the pyramids to the birth of Jesus, who himself was often depicted in dresses. It was only with the rise of “breeching” parties in the mid 16th century, in which boys aged four to seven years old were introduced to their first pair of pants, that the association between masculinity and pants gained traction. Even then, young boys wore dresses as late as the 1900s: take this picture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, in chin-length hair and a dress at two years old.
“My goal is to be a walking piece of political art every time I show up. To challenge expectations. What is masculinity? What does that mean?” said Billy Porter, a queer black artist and singer, about wearing dresses to red carpets as early as 2018. By simply subverting expectations, a man wearing a dress automatically challenges the notion that masculinity should have anything to do with what one wears, more importantly, the idea of whether the cornerstones of masculinity—strength, stoicism, aggression—should be associated with men at all. The assumption for men to embody these “masculine” traits is often stifling and harms not only men but society as a whole by perpetuating toxic masculinity and reinforcing harmful gender norms.
At its core, dress-wearing and other supposedly feminine expressions serve as a way for men to break free from the pressure to be masculine. Porter said that growing up, he always wanted to be more masculine, but after donning heels for his role in “Kinky Boots,” he felt empowered to let that part of himself free.
Kurt Cobain, who described dresses as “comfortable, sexy, and free” and publicly wore them multiple times, said, “I definitely feel closer to the feminine side of the human being than I do the male—or the American idea of what a male is supposed to be.”
The stigma of men wearing feminine clothing is deeply rooted in the idea that wearing a dress is the equivalent of being gay rather than a form of self-expression. While queer men are overrepresented in the realm of androgynous fashion, this is only because expressions of femininity empower queer men to disregard the toxic masculinity that led many of them to suppress their sexualities in the first place. This association between gender, sexuality, and fashion is a testament to the deeply entrenched gender roles that are central to the world we live in.
When androgynous fashion came into the mainstream during the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was built largely on the foundation laid by queer people. Drag started percolating in molly houses in 18th century London where queer men met in secret, mimicked feminine mannerisms, and practiced cross-dressing. Later, drag balls appeared in Harlem in 1869, quickly becoming essential to the development of drag, androgyny, and queer party culture. Black queer people were deeply involved in this development, from the first drag queen—who was a former slave—to Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans woman remembered as one of the most significant figures in LGBTQ+ history.
Yet when it comes to praise for these skirt-wearing men, Harry Styles is currently getting much more positive attention than the average queer person of color. “I’m not dragging Harry Styles, but… He doesn’t care, he’s just doing it because it’s the thing to do,” said Porter, a queer black man, on Styles’ Vogue cover. “I had to fight my entire life to get to the place where I could wear a dress to the Oscars. All [Styles] had to do is be white and straight.” The ability to safely wear a dress matters deeply to people whose gender identity relies on the way they present themselves or to those who present on the feminine side. Yet men like Styles, for whom the fight isn’t as crucial, are still heralded as revolutionaries more often than their POC and LGBTQ+ counterparts.
This is largely because queer people and people of color are already viewed by society as effeminate—take the casting of Black men by Hollywood in roles requiring drag and makeup or the steady desexualization of Asian men, for example. Queer people and people of color wearing dresses, therefore, isn’t considered ground-breaking. Instead, the act is seen as par for the course of people of their race and sexuality. Challenging gender stereotypes associated with clothing, in addition to enabling free expression of one’s identity, is necessary to dismantle the expectations for queer people of color.
“I'm taking the brunt of it so that later on, my kids and the next generations of kids will all think that certain things are normal that weren't expected before my time,” said Jaden Smith. The stereotypes surrounding men who choose to wear dresses still run strong. But with new ideas about gender blossoming and male interest in skirts on the rise, the day that dresses become the norm for men just might come sooner than expected.