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Davis, California

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

(Re)Fashioning Gender: The history of fashion

I’ve noticed that there is a lot of stigma around people who choose to wear clothes that aren’t made particularly for their assigned genders. Male bodies wearing dresses, or female bodies rocking suits and ties, for example. Despite this stigma, there are individuals who attempt to express themselves in a way that defies the limiting gender binaries that have been set in place.


There is an argument I’ve heard more than once that attempts to justify who gets to wear what, and it’s a big part of why I wanted to write this column in the first place. The argument, which is that “it’s only natural” that boys don’t want to wear dresses and girls do, is ridiculous and, according to history, absolutely not true. Furthermore, if you take a look at the types of clothing that people wear around the world even today, it’s clear that this divide is a learned behavior, not some kind of inherited trait. Nevertheless, this argument gets used often and creates a huge stigma around individuals who don’t conform to the gender binary that our fashion industry has helped set in place.


There is a pretty clear divide between the types of clothes that men and women typically wear here in the United States. Nowadays, a majority of the clothes you’ll find made for female bodies generally consist of tighter, smaller garments, with dresses and skirts being a staple. Clothes made for men’s bodies, on the other hand, pretty much always include looser fitting garments. Skirts, dresses and anything deemed overly-feminine are nowhere to be found for men.


Go back in time, however, and you’ll find that this was not always the case. There are tons of instances in history where men in dresses and skirts were the norm. The ancient Greeks, for example, wore chitons, which were basically large pieces of fabric draped across their bodies. Viking men used to wear long tunics over tight-fitted pants (so tight that it was a huge struggle to get them on and off everyday — I feel you, Viking dudes). And don’t forget kilts, the traditional garments that are similar to knee-length skirts, which are actually still somewhat prevalent in Scotland.


Many of these clothing choices had to do with a person’s social or economic status. For example, Chinese peasants could be punished for wearing silk kimonos, so they dressed in pants instead. But now, the clothes we choose to wear have much less to do with our social status and more to do with asserting our masculinity or femininity. We may wear skirts to assert our femininity or a pair of baggy pants to assert our masculinity. Rather than choosing our clothing based on our class, we choose it based on our gender, which is fine for those folks who identify with their assigned genders, but not so much for those who do not.


Fashion has changed in recent years, and it’s definitely not because we’ve become more open-minded about gender identities. In fact, it seems as though it’s kind of the opposite. In a previous column, I talked about how men and women’s clothes are separated in clothing stores, and how not everyone necessarily identifies with the gender that they are placed in. Furthermore, if you don’t identify as a man or a woman, it’s like you don’t even exist to the fashion industry. It’s also nearly impossible to cross boundaries if you attempt to shop in the section of the opposite gender. I say this because there are virtually no dresses and skirts designed to fit male bodies and only a handful of suits and the like designed to fit female bodies (although more and more have been popping up in the last few years).


I use the history of fashion as a relevant example of how, despite a much more complex gender spectrum, the gender binary gets perpetuated through everyday things we may not usually take note of. But this binary reduces masculinity to men in male bodies and femininity to women in female bodies, which is not the case for all individuals. So limiting certain kinds of clothes to only one type of body by claiming that it’s in our nature is not only impractical, but also historically inaccurate.

Defy the limitations of time and gender with CHELSEA SPILLER by contacting her at ctspiller@ucdavis.edu.


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