Whenever you see the words fashion and feminism together, you’re also likely to find the prefix anti- between them. In spite of great books like Linda Scott’s Fresh Lipstick, or articles such as this one, the belief persists that it’s somehow degrading for a woman to care about clothes. What if it’s the other way round? What if it’s men who are deprived of something when, under the threat of being ridiculed, they’re banned from dressing up?
Let’s admit it: in many areas of life, men do have it better. But when it comes to fashion, I’m genuinely sorry for the guys who will never know the pleasures of silk, the joy of pink, the fun of jewelry, the feeling of freedom that comes from sporting a dress. By force of social expectations, they’re permanently forced into one uniform or another. In their leisure time, they’re supposed to wear jeans and a T-shirt – preferably not a very colourful one, although dumb slogans and adverts are for some reason allowed. In the summer, they can choose between denim shorts and sporty shorts. And on more formal occasions, ranging from an office meeting to their own (or someone else’s) wedding to red carpet events, where women are encouraged to unleash their creativity, the boldest sartorial decision a man can make is picking a blue suit instead of a black one. Everything else is seen as disrespectful, effeminate or clownish.
I get it: many guys enjoy the simplicity of always wearing similar, no-frills clothes, and I’m totally fine with that. I’d forever defend a girl’s right to go the jeans-and-tee route every day, if that’s what she wants, and the same applies to boys. However, many women derive great pleasure from expressing themselves with style – why shouldn’t men?
Those who claim that there’s something inherently feminine about dressing up, should know that fashion wasn’t always considered a “girly thing.” During most of human history, up until the end of the 18. Century, men were as free (and as not free, see: sumptuary laws) as women to show their status, lifestyle and taste with their clothing – and boy they did! Then it all changed, rather suddenly, with what psychoanalyst and dress historian John Flügel called The Great Male Renunciation. Opinions differ as to why it happened: Flügel himself suggested the causes to be the French Revolution, which promoted equality and uniformity, and the Industrial Revolution, which made men want to appear serious and concerned with work, not leisure. Elizabeth Wilson also points towards the emergence of the notion of homosexuality as a permanent identity rather than a behaviour – straight men, according to this theory, adopted extremely “masculine” styles to prevent accusations of “sodomitic” tendencies.
Anyway, it happened. Half of Western population gave up fashion. Or, as Flügel puts it, [m]an abandoned his claim to be considered beautiful. He henceforth aimed at being only useful. Or did he? Take the suit: there’s no denying that it’s far more practical than the corsets and crinolines worn by 19. Century ladies. Today, however, it is women who can dress comfortably in the workplace, opting for tuxedo trousers or warm tights under their skirts in winter, and sleeveless tops and light frocks in summer. Their poor male counterparts, however, have to sweat all year long in their only acceptable apparel. Neocolonialism also comes into play: the suit was invented in countries where wearing long pants and sleeves at least makes sense during most of the year, but has been imposed on the rest of the world, including places where you’d only ever want to wear a dress, or a bikini, if anything at all.
And nothing seems to be changing. You read it right: nothing, contrary to the popular opinion that attitudes are evolving in favour of the fashionable male – already Flügel (again!) suggested that this was happening. In 1930. Then we had teddy boys, mods, new romantics, et cetera, et cetera, some proud metrosexuals in the 90s, and currently a bunch of well-groomed hipsters in skinny jeans. Yet these are always exceptions, not the rule. If anything, the mainstream male style has gotten less imaginative. Look at the fine, pastel suits in The Great Gatsby, or even the colourful outfits of West Side Story gangsters. Any man who’d dare to dress like that today would be labeled, well, gay – which, unfortunately, is still seen as an insult.
Just as the word woman, when applied to someone of the male sex. Yes, the social stigma on men concerned with style should be seen as part of a wider problem: (many) men’s fear of all things feminine. It doesn’t work both ways: as decades pass, fewer and fewer people object to women driving cars, playing sports, engaging in politics or running companies. However, men who devote themselves to ballet, childcare, homemaking or fashion are still being scorned. That’s a huge issue, worthy of a separate post, or – better still – a thorough, well-written book.
Clothes alone won’t change the world, but they are a good place to start.