Why Can’t Men Wear Dresses (Redux)?

dressBack in September, I did a blog post called “Why Can’t Men Wear Dresses?” It was inspired by how painful it was for my father to put on pants as he was recuperating from hip surgery. He needed a nice loose dress, but there was no way he’d accept one or, for that matter, that the aides in his nursing home would put one on him.

It’s one of the great ironies of the power of gender norms that an elderly man in failing health can wear adult diapers but not dresses.

But the pressure on men to conform to gender norms goes way beyond the cultural. According to a recent article in The New York Times, men and transgender folks who wear clothes and jewelry associated with women are subject to police harassment and even arrest.

The article says the cops are engaging in this behavior on the assumption that the people in question are prostitutes.

The Times reporter, Gina Bellafonte, observes:

What we have now, in some sense, is an actual fashion police — an attitude among some law enforcers that attaches criminality to sartorial choice. If you are a 35-year-old biological woman wearing the $715 metallic platform peep-toe pumps you just bought at Barneys to lunch at Café Boulud, you are well-dressed; if you were born Joaquin, have changed your name to Marisol and put yourself together with a similar verve, you are a prostitute.

I suspect the reason behind this is more than an assumption that people dressing out of the gender norm must be doing something illegal. Police work is a profession that encourages macho behavior. People who don’t conform to the average cop’s idea of what is appropriate attire for men are challenging something that most police officers consider a given.

It is ironic to note that women who go into police work generally adopt a lot of behaviors considered male. Some of those behaviors, of course, are simply acting with authority in a tense situation, even though our culture defines them as male. (An interesting aside: several women I know have discovered that using “teacher voice” conveys plenty of authority and gets adults to behave immediately. Perhaps the police should study with elementary or — even better — middle school teachers to learn to develop effective, non-macho authority.)

But the changes wrought by feminism have given women a lot more latitude to dress and act in ways that are not considered feminine. Women still come in for some harassment when they defy gender norms, but men who step outside the gender box in appearance are much more subject to abuse.

The Times article and most writing on this subject focuses on the harassment of transgender women and gay men for not conforming to gender rules, but I think the issue has importance beyond the right of people to live as they wish and express themselves through their appearance.  Straight men are being boxed in by the pressure to follow traditional ideas of gender behavior.

It affects their health. It affects their ability to get to get a job: If your pride won’t let you take a “girlie” job, what do you do when no “manly” jobs are available, or when you throw out your back and can’t do heavy lifting any more?

And it affects the rest of us, as evidenced by the Republican Party’s attack on women’s reproductive rights.

Me, I wear pants most of the time, but in August when the temperatures hit the 100s, I go for light cotton and linen dresses. I don’t know how men can wear jeans in that kind of weather.



Why Can’t Men Wear Dresses (Redux)? — 15 Comments

  1. The single biggest thing that any feminist with a non-trivial platform can do to help transgendered and gender non-conforming people is to publicly oppose other feminists who actively campaign against extending legal protections for the transgendered or even argue that the transgendered are subhuman predators.

    When the next smarmy radical feminist stands up and demands that extending legal protections to the transgendered would lead to “men” (transgendered) intruding into women’s spaces to rape cis women, take the opportunity to stand up, speak up, and make sure your voice is counted. Don’t be the silence that lets these creeps claim to speak for all feminists or for all women–help shove them to the margins where they belong.

    • As someone who feels strongly that the most important principle of feminism is that biology isn’t destiny, I consider it very important to speak up for the rights of the transgendered. So-called feminists who seem to think women’s rights are furthered by opposing rights for others are part of the problem.

  2. You got some good points I have never thought about, as a man I can’t imagine myself in a dress even for medical rezones, and also when seeing a man in dress first thing I think about is a drag queen or such, maybe you should start a manly dress line? Lol

  3. When the temperature pushes into the high 90s or 100s I wear shorts and loose ones at that. And sunscreen when outdoors. It ain’t pretty but I’m comfortable. After my hip replacement I wore very loose runner’s warm-ups. Those were easy to slip on.

    I agree, however, that for virtually every male I know it’s unthinkable to consider a dress. Kilt? I know a surprising number who wear them. But a dress? Ha! Not a chance. It’s that deeply gender-linked.

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a believable fiction where a man is suddenly put into a woman’s body and has to function in a “modern” society. I suspect the reality would be very complex and difficult.

  4. The African robes known as boubous and others are excellent for hot weather. They are certainly dress-like in the sense they are not the separate leg trousers. Caftans!

    Hot weather cultures have always dressed men this way. It’s our European-American cultures that find them outrageous for men.

    Love, C.

  5. And it is all in the marketing, folks. If you call the purse a man-bag or a briefcase or an I-pad case, then it’s fine. Create dresses and skirts for these poor men. But think of a really good name for them, preferably one with a Mid-Western sound and a reference to cars or trucks, if you want to make a fortune.

  6. Not all that long ago, even in Western Europe, men had the option to wear dresses, although they were called by different names. And got to indulge the human delight in color and beautiful texture in their clothing and adornment. Beau Brummell has a lot to answer for in creating a style for men that is so impoverished in creativity.

    “Only Real Men Can Wear Lace.”

    I dress appropriately for what I’m doing, how I feel, and let’s not forget the weather. Comfortably loose, flowing cotton is a wonderful for hot months, and more body-hugging, soft, insulating clothing when it’s cold. I wish all people had the same freedom to use their clothing as a vehicle of comfort (psychological as well as physical) and personal expression.

    • Beau Brummel wasn’t the one who declared black was the only color, it was Bulwer-Lytton in Pelham–Brummel loved pretty waistcoats, and the blue superfine coat with huge gold buttons. He conditioned for clean linens as well as perfect fit. The glorious satins of the eighteenth century were already out.

      • It wasn’t exactly helped by the discovery of coal-tar dyes, meaning that bright colors could be cheap — in both senses.

  7. It’s not that there aren’t dress-like options for men — robes and kilts and whatnot — but that there are rules in pretty much all cultures that dictate what is appropriate wear based on gender. The rules for women — particularly, but not exclusively, in the West — are getting much looser, but the ones for men don’t show nearly as much sign of going away. That may partly be because the people most likely to break the rules of male dress are either transgender or men who set out to look like women, while the history of women breaking the rules of female dress has involved women from all kinds of backgrounds and orientations, including a number who would be offended if you called them “feminist” because they were wearing pants.

  8. It depends on where you live too.

    Here in NYC you do far more men wearing what are skirts. They are below the knee, and not all of them are even vaguely kilt-like. And you do see this when it’s warm or hot, of course.

    As well, all of these fellows have every signifier of being deeply sartorially conscious and that every item they wear and carry is deliberately chosen. Of course I live only a few doors up from one of the hotels that is popular with the international fashion and film industries.

    But I wouldn’t give any odds that you would see a single fellow in the Red River Valley wearing one of these.

    Mostly these days outside such circles of fashion conscious men guys wear the most unimaginative, comfy and unattractive clothes they can: baggy saggy shorts and t-shirts. Period.

    Love, C.

    • There’s a clothing store that capitalizes on the guys who wear the baggy shorts and t-shirts with an ad campaign saying that in Austin, “Women dress for a night on the town; men dress for a day cutting grass.”

  9. And although there are women like this, there is a far huger cohort of men who simply do not care what they wear. My husband is one; as long as the cops aren’t going to arrest him for indecency he does not care. He makes random selections from his closet every morning. I take full charge of all his wardrobe purchases, because I have to look at him; by limiting the purchases to certain color groups and fabrics I can ensure that even a random selection looks fairly good.