Why Can’t Men Wear Dresses?

By Nancy Jane Moore

dressAfter my father’s hip surgery back in June, a member of the staff at the place where he lives asked me to get him some elastic-waist shorts and pants so he could get dressed more easily and with less pain.

“What he really needs,” I said, “is a dress, a nice loose shift that can go on over his head.”

The aide laughed. We both knew it was impossible. My father has always supported women’s rights, especially since he had a strong-minded wife and two feminist daughters, but there’s no way in the world you could convince a West Texas man like him to wear a dress.

Women can wear anything they want to these days, but real men still don’t wear dresses.

What I want to know is why.

OK, to be honest, I know why. We’ve made a lot of progress in making room for women in what used to be all-male worlds — the courtroom, the operating theater, the lab, the field of combat, even football. But while there’s been some movement in the other direction — there are more male nurses and elementary school teachers, not to mention house husbands — it’s still more acceptable for a woman to operate in a male sphere than vice versa.

Coaches still insult their players by calling them “girls” if they play badly. (In fact, even coaches of women’s teams sometimes do this, which I find very odd.)

And when I wrote the story “Walking Contradiction” (available in the anthology Imaginings, edited by Keith R.A. DeCandido), I had to push myself to have my ambigendered characters — people who were both male and female — do things that seemed traditionally female, like wearing dresses.

We’ve all grown up in a culture that types everyone for gender and sets certain boundaries based on that gender. And no matter how much we may think about it, some of that conditioning still operates on a deep level. As Anna Fels points out in her superb book Necessary Dreams, the changes that have allowed women much greater opportunity and freedom are relatively new, and it’s going to take us time to adjust to them. (See my review of the book here if you want to know why I think everyone should read this book.)

A lot of people are threatened by those changes, including a number of supposed scientists who keep trying to convince us that there are huge differences in the male and female brain. A lot of that work has been debunked as junk science — see my essay in the Cascadia Subduction Zone (PDF alert) — but that doesn’t keep people from latching onto it.

Two recent articles in the NY Times Magazine provided some thoughtful perspective on this subject. The first, “What’s So Bad ABout a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?”, addressed the proper gender attire issue head on. It points out that only with this generation of children are boys being allowed to play and dress in ways previously restricted to girls, instead of being forced into boy roles by corrective therapy.

The article is not just about boys who think they were born in the wrong body, but also about boys who just enjoy some things that are supposed to be girls only. It offers this observation:

“It might make your world more tidy to have two neat and separate gender possibilities,” one North Carolina mother wrote last year on her blog, “but when you squish out the space between, you do not accurately represent lived reality. More than that, you’re trying to ‘squish out’ my kid.”

The second piece I almost skipped because of the headline: “Who Wears the Pants in this Economy?” I immediately assumed from the headline that it was a story about the poor men being left behind by the so-called feminization of the workforce.

It turned out to be a much more complex and thoughtful piece than the headline implied. Yes, it was about women who are finding career success even as their husbands are losing their jobs, but it didn’t engage in a bunch of cheap rhetoric.

Interestingly, the women discussed in the article did not consider themselves feminists, and a lot of the people interviewed belong to fundamentalist Christian churches that teach that women should be submissive to men. But while most cited economic necessity as the reason the women were working, I came away with the impression that the women liked their new positions. A subtle shift was going on.

The author, Hanna Rosin (the piece is adapted from her forthcoming book, The End of Men and the Rise of Women — an equally scary title, especially if you’re afraid women are taking over the world), argues that men have been less resiliant than women in this economy. Women are more willing to go back to school and get trained for new jobs than men. She quotes from one of the men she interviewed:

“A man needs a strong, macho job. He’s not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen. He’s got to be a man.”

Which brings us back to dresses. A man who still thinks jobs are gender-defined is definitely not going to wear a dress.

Posted in Rants permalink

About Nancy Jane Moore

Nancy Jane Moore's science fiction novel, The Weave, is now available in print and ebook versions from Aqueduct Press. Some of her short stories are now appearing as reprints on Curious Fictions. She is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her BVC ebooks can be found here. She also has short stories and essays in most of the BVC anthologies. In addition to writing fiction, Nancy Jane, who has a fourth degree black belt in Aikido, teaches empowerment self defense. She is at work on a self defense book that emphasizes non-fighting skills.


Why Can’t Men Wear Dresses? — 20 Comments

  1. How about an old-fashioned dressing gown or nightshirt? A Middle-Eastern style caftan? I actually think you can get them some places and also think there are patterns for them.

    Now, of course, you have the problem of getting the old man into those furrin folderols!

  2. The male difficulty with furrin or female dress is ancient; the Greeks razzed barbarians for wearing dresses and one of the complaints about Alexander the Great was that he actually wore a Persian robe once, while ruling Persia.
    Your second NY Times article shows that women are far more flexible about all this. They know how to do the mind game — to just adjust the behavior, while continuing to maintain the doctrine. (Of course the man is the head of the household as mandated by Scripture — why, don’t I let him dictate the family’s MidEast policy and our position on the Law of the Sea Treaty? As the wife I only do the minor stuff, like where we live, what we drive, and where the kids go to college.)
    It is difficult to imagine your father doing this, but rules can be bent for health reasons. If the doctor or nurse suggested no pants, this would give him an ironclad medical out. (He could even complain about it, those overbearing sawbones.) Bathrobes are perfectly acceptable male wear, especially in a macho buffalo plaid or adorned with the logo of a sports team.

  3. Men have worn kaftans and robes for ages. You seem to be focusing on Western European/American fashions, which, yep, were gender divided. It was scandalous for women to wear breeches, for those were the clothing of the superior sex. Men did not wear the clothing of the “gentler” (read inferior) sex. There is a creepily stunning caricature by Gillray taking down the dandies of the Regency period in which is drew two men getting ready for their day, their dandy fashions making them decidedly effeminate.

    I think the last lingering traces of that attitude are with us still. Some men will wear loose kaftans around the home, but they put on a pair of pants to go out.

    The other holdout of those old attitudes is in visible skin. Look at a bridal couple in full regalia. The woman might have any amount of revealed skin, but the men are invariably encased in several layers.

  4. OK, I plead guilty to focusing on US clothing patterns. But I suspect that even in those cultures where men wear kaftans and the like, there are clothes worn by women that men do not wear. The larger point is that men are more constrained by gender rules when it comes to what they wear than women are.

  5. Did you say Kilt?

    My husband played bagpipes for years. He wore the kilt, but only to gigs and highland games, and our wedding. He has been known to hike in a kilt with others of his kind after the games. Now that the utilikilt has become available, made of canvas and denim with pockets–sporrans allowed but not required–I see more and more men wearing them. Even at a steam tractor pull–the most manly of pursuits–I saw denim kilts with western shirts and bandanas and no one looked twice–except me and the ladies, the wearer had really nice legs.

      • Exactly. I have a friend who frequently wears a kilt for formal wear. He’s Scottish and there is no question that his kilt is manly wear. Anyway, he usually carries a knife when he wears it, even to formal occasions.

  6. Gender difference are not just Western European/American fashions. Even when the differences are subtle to our eyes they can be crucial. Both men and women wore breeches in medieval Iceland, but offering a garment of the wrong sex was a serious insult, and actually wearing it was grounds for divorce. Middle Eastern garments look very similar, but it was in the Jewish law that you could not wear clothing of the opposite sex’s.

    • Yes, that’s what I was getting at. There are plenty of exceptions, but most men are not crossing the gender divide when it comes to clothes. Women have more options (though not everywhere).

  7. I am a straight male in my late 50?s and I have discovered the comfort of wearing a skirt. I would wear one whenever I could but am limited to within the house because my wife isn’t comfortable with me wearing one outside. I think that she is more concerned about what the neighbours would think, something that doesn’t worry me. I have lots of skirts and my wife says that I have good legs and do suit a skirt. I don’t want to look like a woman and I think wearing a dress isn’t for me as they tend to be low in front on the neckline and that combined with a hairy chest just doesn’t go somehow. But strangely I do have one dress that is quite high at the front neckline that I might consider wearing. Funnily enough my wife gave me this. The skirt just doesn’t have this disadvantage. I’ve always said that I wasn’t normal and I suppose this proves it!

  8. There’s hardly any subject people are so mixed up about, and so lacking in factual information on, as the topic of sex typing of clothing. Yes, I am the #1 world expert on the subject and no one is in 2nd place. See the embedded pdf file at my site. It’s around 37,000 words however; you may not need to read it though it’s all free access. Just read the start page, it has basic facts that discredit psychiatry, psychology, the mental “health” movement and religious fanaticism. Pants are for horseback riding; how many men use this form of transportation today? Skirts are sex neutral.

  9. Pingback: Why Can’t Men Wear Dresses (Redux)? | Book View Cafe Blog

  10. Physically, clothing serves many purposes: it can serve as protection from the elements, and can enhance safety during hazardous activities such as hiking and cooking. It protects the wearer from rough surfaces, rash-causing plants, insect bites, splinters, thorns and prickles by providing a barrier between the skin and the environment. Clothes can insulate against cold or hot conditions. Further, they can provide a hygienic barrier, keeping infectious and toxic materials away from the body. Clothing also provides protection from harmful UV radiation.;

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  11. unforthunotly, when we go on web sites like this one, we read a lot of stuff which seem to be OK, as woman are allowed to weir man stuff and it is ” normal ” but for man, they can not do the reversed. But i think, that as for the woman, in 50 years from now, it will probably be considered normal that man wears woman stuff, if at the present time, more man, do dress as woman, and have the courage to go public, as the woman did in the begining of the 19th century. Changing mentality is a long run process. So we keep doing it, and one day we will be equal every where.

  12. I am a feminine male and hate wearing pants. Dresses and skirts are my choice of attire when I can!

  13. I believe that it will happen in the near future, but you right that is long run process. i`m from Russia and situation here with man who trying wear skirts and dresses is bad. People is too rude. Actually I suppose easier change sex than wear skirt in public places for man. The community prefer to see the man as mtf ts that allow him to dress up skirts, but with male gender.