Whether Guys Can Wear Dresses is a Litmus Test for Feminism


I am a fashion student. We are, as a whole, an interesting bunch. We live in this micro-environment where style-wise, anything goes. We often end up feeling peoples clothes at parties and having a great time guessing what they’re made of. And we love, love, love androgyny.

Androgyny is defined as “showing characteristics of both sexes”. That can apply to lots of different things, but let’s stick with clothes for now. Androgynous fashion is hugely popular within the collections and designs I see take shape around me, and within the fashion world as a whole.

But does it actually show both masculine and feminine traits? And what does this say about the differences in how men and women are seen in society?

The stuff that is labelled androgynous is more often the masculinisation of female clothing, and far less often the feminization of male clothing. Hit up Google with a quick search on androgynous fashion, and a lot of what you’ll get is mostly a bunch of girls wearing variations on the suit. It’s mainly black. It’s mainly tailored. And it’s mainly women changing the way they dress.

This is definitely changing. Mens clothing is becoming more fluid.

We had Kanye West in a women’s shirt in 2011 and in a skirt in 2013. This is the guy whose recent wedding gift to his beloved wife was a painting called Perfect Bitch, which showed her wearing nothing but a thong and heels. He’s not exactly out to challenge gender stereotypes in many instances, but the guy’s okay with wearing a skirt. Things are changing.

But the fact remains that as a woman, you can put something together from most men’s closets that is okay to walk down the street in. You can walk into a man’s clothing store and buy something for yourself. I work in a menswear store, and it happens all the time. No-one blinks an eye, we just find the last size small for the good lady, compliment her choice of colour and send her on her way.

As a woman, wearing something that is made for a guy is considered cool, edgy, interesting.

If a man walked into a womans store and asked for some help finding a womans dress for himself, the reaction would probably be very different. If he put together an outfit from a womans closet, he’d be unlikely to make it down the street without some backlash.

Men wearing something intended for women is most often seen as being ridiculous and demeaning.

And even when it’s not – even when it’s one of the biggest rappers in the world wearing a skirt – it’s still seen as being shocking and daring.

I hardly need to underline the fact that gender is socially constructed. The way we dress is one of the big ways we make this happen. Wearing skirts and stilettos is not written in the terms and conditions of having a second X chromosome, just like the fact that you landed on an XY combo is not biology’s way of saying it wants to see you in nothing but jeans and button down shirts in respectable shades of blue (Not turquoise! Never turquoise!) for life.

Men’s clothing is seen as being empowering for both genders. Women’s clothing is fine for women, but demeaning for men. And when women want to be seen as powerful, respectable, serious, what do we do? We add traditionally masculine elements to our dressing. We break out the blazers, the tailoring and sometimes even the shoulder pads. (Eighties power dressing, anyone?)

This photo series by Hana Pesut where couples swap their entire outfits illustrates this perfectly. Imagine swapping your outfit with the next person of the opposite sex you see. Who would come out on top? Chances are the man would look ridiculous, while the woman would look pretty okay.

If you’re a woman, you might be thinking, yay! I get all the things!

I love a good chambray shirt and I happen to have a shoe size that’s covered by both men and women’s styles. I’ve got mens boots and womens heels, mens sweaters and womens dresses. And I wear them all together.

So I’m not exactly opposed to being able to pick and choose.

But the fact that womens’ default fashion setting compromises mens power, while mens’ default fashion setting takes women’s power up a few notches is not as great as it seems.

Because it says that being powerful and respectable is a masculine thing. A thing for men to do and be and women to copy and aspire to.

Being vulnerable, frivolous, flighty, emotional and sexualised, on the other hand, is a feminine thing. A thing that women innately are and can only avoid by becoming more like men.

Fashion can be a litmus test for gender roles. And what it’s saying right now is this: we’ve come so far, but we’ve got so far to go (Shit, did I just reference a musical??).

Until the way society assigns power is not so heavily based on gender, truly androgynous fashion will be a rarity.

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24 thoughts on “Whether Guys Can Wear Dresses is a Litmus Test for Feminism

  1. This, so much this!

    This is why I consider one of the lowest forms of humor to be men dressing as women. Sure, the guys do look silly in women’s clothing. But why is that, is it because things associated with women are inherently ridiculous? Are less worthwhile? Does this mean that being a woman is inherently ridiculous?

    • Thanks Alexa. I’ve never thought about it in terms of humor but that’s so true! Along the same lines – I recently read that violence towards transgender women is a lot more common than transgender men and although I don’t know a ton about it, I’d venture that this could be one reason why.

    • Thanks for pointing that out. I had read that Kanye West wanted those photos banned, and I think it actually reinforces how radical men wearing traditionally female clothing is. The guy obviously felt embarrassed or demeaned by his choice in hindsight.
      That second link is awesome!

  2. Interesting. I never wear dresses or skirts as in never, I always wears pants, jeans, shorts etc and I never give that a second thought nor does anyone else I guess. But if Tony wore dresses all the time the reaction would be different.

    • I don’t have a single skirt either ( I do have dresses though) , but I’m not even sure why! It kinda just happened that way :P
      Yes it’s very true that men would get quite a strong reaction, which seems to favor women on the surface seeing as we get all the options… but I don’t believe that it really does work out better for us when you look a little deeper.

  3. I actually saw an image about this on facebook on this very subject and it made me think a lot. It was a picture of a guy dressed as a woman with a text that goes like (of course I can’t find this image now so it’s a recollection of the global idea) “A woman dressed like a man is all good and accepted, but a man dressed as a woman is demeaning, because it is considered demeaning to be a woman.”

    It goes back to this idea that doing things “like a girl” is an insult for boys. I saw a video (which I can’t find either) where people asked girls (like, over 10 year old girls and teenagers) to “run like a girl”, “fight like a girl” etc, and they ran or fought in a ridiculous way. Then they asked smaller girls, like 5 year old, to “run like a girl” and she ran with all her energy and passion. The bottom line being that this kind of daily “insults” was actually very bad for girl’s self esteems, they don’t understand why, as girls, “running like a girl” can’t be running properly and as well as boys.

    Anyway, not very helpful without the links, I’ll add them if I can find the video again, but I understand this mens and womens clothing effect as one of the manifestations of this fact, that being “like a girl” is demeaning, which in turn shows that our society still considers girls to be below boys. And yes, it’s a bit disturbing.

    • I always cringe when I hear people saying “like a girl” as an insult. Especially when it’s women saying it.
      The two age groups and their different reactions to the idea of being like a girl is interesting. It underlines how being immersed in that kind of attitude really takes its toll on your perception of femininity.

      • A very useful comment, even without the links. It’s true that sexism is so much ingrained in our culture and society, as reflected in fashion as discussed but also very much in language. You cringe at the words ‘… like a girl’, I cringe when people admire a woman who is strong, succesfull and whatnot with the phrase ‘she has balls / guts / …’ (it’s used a lot in my native language (Dutch) as well). The hard thing is that that last uttering is meant to be a compliment but I find it horrible that people don’t see the implications. A strong, successful woman must somehow posses male genitalia?? People don’t easily (want to) see the harm in figures of speech but they are so very meaningful.

    • Don’t forget how girls who do yoga are okay, but at least in machoville USA, if a guy does yoga, he’s a sissy. I practice martial arts and no way are these macho wannabe Bruce Lees going to be caught on a yoga mat.

      Then I hear terms like “that is so gay” to describe some seemingly feminine move. “Gay” and “woman” are used interchangeably and pejoratively.

      The funniest comment I heard was in a Wing Chun class – “don’t fight like a girl.” The founder of Wing Chun (Yim Wing Chun) was a woman. It’s named after her. And yes, Wing Chun was the martial art Bruce Lee first learnt. But no, we shouldn’t fight like women.

      • That’s so crazy about the Wing Chun classes! Just goes to show how ignorant people can be.
        It’s always disturbing when the names of groups that are discriminated against become an insult. I’ve often heard people using that calling something gay in a negative way and then saying they’re not homophobic. It doesn’t matter (or make sense) – “Language shapes how we view things before we even know we are viewing them.” so using gay or feminine as an insult automatically degrades that. Should be obvious, really.

  4. There are still cultures in which “normal” male attire is a long, loose robe, but not many. Sadly, men in those cultures are often portrayed by Western culture as not merely “foreign” but “strange,” and “alien” in a sense of “dangerous enemy.” Sigh. It is part of being human that our brains automatically sort into categories. It is part of being human that much of learned culture teaches us that “different” is a synonym for “wrong.”

    • That’s very true, I’ve also read that many of these cultures are now adopting western dress for business. Which is again a way of saying western masculine styles are the only way of being taken seriously.

  5. I’m gonna add my two cents here as well.
    I think another problem here is that menswear has more of a general reputation of bein well tailored, nicely made quality stuff, whereas a lot of womens’ clothes come in cheap fabrics, poor sewing, shitty cuts. So considering that aspect, then yes, menswear is definetely more empowering, simply because of the materials and the no-nonsense, conservative cuts.
    The sillyness of poorly constructed, cheap and fast stuff makes fashion so much, well, faster. And just like we tend to laugh about some cuts and silhouettes of past decades (maybe even just past seasons!!), and how ridiculous we might have looked, trying to be hip, I guess the same goes for men’s- vs. women’s fashion. It’s definetely not the whole picture, and I agree that there likely is a good deal of misogyny in the whole androgynous fashion-deal as well, but I think a lot of it is also reflected in the clothes themselves!

    Ps. sorry for any misspellings or weirdly placed punctuation – English is not my native language. :)

    • Hi Louise,
      Thanks for your comment! I agree that given that menswear changes a lot less, there is more of an emphasis on quality and durability.
      “The sillyness of poorly constructed, cheap and fast stuff makes fashion so much, well, faster” I would say that’s a cycle! Menswear is ‘slower’ aesthetically, therefore made better, therefor lasts longer & is slower.

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  7. Thank you for putting into words something I’ve wondered about for a long time. This is one of those points I like to bring up when I encounter people (guys and girls, sadly) who deny the existence of sexism and male privilege. Because if men dressing in women’s clothing is seen as foolish, humorous, and demeaning…what the hell are we saying about the worth of women? Usually, this makes people think, even if I can’t quite get through to them.

    • It is a very obvious example of women having less worth and therefor hopefully something most people can understand.

      It’s strange that we take the sartorial divide between the genders and the fact that menswear is empowering for both sexes and womenswear is not for granted a lot of time. Just shows how engrained sexism really is.

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  9. I love this article, it says exactly what I’ve been thinking and been frustrated over for many years. I’ve recently started thinking more about my gender identity and expression and I find that I align somewhere in between masculine and feminine, and I would love to be able to express myself through fashion as androgynous. But as a male this is very difficult to do.

    It’s also frustrating that even the “androgynous” clothing lines that having been popping up recently seem to only support women aiming to look more masculine, or to achieve the “tomboy” look. I wholly support this goal of women, but when it says in the very mission statement of these companies that their goal is to help women “raid men’s closets” and “liberate menswear”, I feel very excluded. It’s also strange that an “androgynous” clothing line would say something like that and effectively alienate one half of their target audience (seeing as androgyny can be approached from both sides of the gender fence).

    Basically what I’m saying is thank you for this article, and keep questioning gender and pushing to change it. We need more people like you. In the meantime, I’m going to go continue to find a middle-ground that I can be happy expressing myself through.

  10. Hi, I am biologically male and for the last several years have worn ONLY dresses and skirts (and makeup, nylons, heels, etc.)–I do not even own a pair of trousers! My spouse is biologically female and is the complete opposite–she wears only men’s clothes and does not own a single dress or skirt. When we married, she was in a suit and tie and I was in a wedding dress. I changed my last name to hers. She works and is the breadwinner, and I am a fulltime homemaker. She is bigger than I am. When we go out, people usually assume that she is a man and I am a woman. When people figure out the truth, or are told the truth, it makes them very uncomfortable, even though
    many people try to appear supportive. We can tell we are freaking them out. In my experience, no matter how much of a feminist a typical woman says she is, she doesn’t want to marry a man who wears dresses while she wears men’s clothes.

  11. Guys who want to wear a skirt without being publicly humiliated go to the Tartanista website and buy a couple of reasonably priced women’s kilts, they are shorter and less cumbersome than the men’s equivalent and they do them in denim too. They are great for going commando especially on hot summer days, when people hear my Scottish accent they usually ask what I’m wearing underneath and are usually delighted when I let them know, imagine if you asked a female the same question. I am a 58 year old male and love the androgyny style.

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