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should men wear dresses?


In November, Harry Styles became the first-ever solo male cover star for American Vogue. In this December issue, we can see the British singer and actor wearing a variety of dresses and skirts. The pictures caused a lot of turmoil and mixed responses internationally. On the one hand, a lot of people praised Harry for being bold enough to challenge gender norms and fashion stereotypes -- on the other, a lot of people voiced their outrage. Many American conservatives claimed that his sartorial choices are not masculine enough. In particular, American conservative author, political activist and Trump-supporter Candance Owens argued in a series of tweets that we should "bring back manly men", followed by a series of Instagram stories in which she claimed that men are not allowed to wear dresses. But what does it mean to dress like a man? How does a manly man dress?


Luckily, in the face of Owens' ridiculous tweets, several fashion historians on YouTube took it upon themselves to explain how there have always been changes throughout history in how men and women dress and think about clothes. For example, ancient Greeks regarded pants as too effeminate because they were worn by Persian and other Middle Eastern women who were also regarded as barbarians. So instead, Greek men wore dresses. The masculinisation of pants took place when the Roman Empire started expanding towards Northern territories (after defeating the Greeks); in fact, Roman soldiers adopted the garment to protect themselves from the cold climate. However, throughout the following centuries, men did not stop wearing skirts and dresses. As attested by several paintings, 16th century British and French men, including King Henry VIII, would wear skirts paired with stockings and heels; interestingly, heels were initially invented for men. These are just some examples of how in the past, men regularly wore garments which we would now regard as feminine. Another more modern example is the Scottish kilt, still worn by Scottish highlanders, which is famous all over the world (maybe precisely because it inverts gender norms?).


Although clothes have no gender, our understanding of masculine and feminine clothing depends on the social norms which happen to be mainstream during that specific time in a certain culture. This means that what may be considered feminine now may have been seen as masculine in the past. For example, we can find examples of men being expected to wear gowns and dresses in many cultures worldwide. We have changed our understanding of masculine and feminine so much that there really isn't any such thing as traditional female or male clothing. Instead of claiming that men should be allowed to wear women's clothes and vice versa, I think that we should just stop assigning gender to clothes. For example, instead of dividing clothes into men’s or women’s sections, clothing stores should just display them in categories such as skirts or dresses. Although this might seem like a trivial change, it would empower people to choose for themselves instead of adhering to gender norms.


Harry is not the first artist to challenge gender stereotypes through fashion. Prince, Mick Jagger and David Bowie are only some of the performers who have experimented with their outfits, both as part of their performance but also to advocate for a change in gender norms. However, the turmoil around Harry Styles' December cover shows that some people are not ready to give up their binary understanding of fashion. This is particularly worrisome considering that tweets such as those shared by Candance Owens inspire hate towards gender-nonconforming individuals and everyone who dares expressing themselves in non-conventional ways. Although I really respect and admire celebrities for stepping up, I also think that it must be noted that their choices bear fewer repercussions with respect to ordinary people. So even if celebrities help their fans feel more comfortable with challenging the norm, this is not enough. Unless society changes its norms, people won't be free to dress and express themselves as they want.


For example, I cannot imagine a man feeling free to wear dresses and skirts in my hometown in Italy. In some countries, individuals who cross-dress even risk prison time. I hope that just as women are now free to wear pants, men will one day be free to express themselves with clothes and accessories that we now regard as feminine. Although women were not allowed to wear pants until the last century, nobody would now claim that pants are a garment destined exclusively to men. I think that much change must be done before certain outfit choices are not seen as transgressions but only as personal choices. However, I am hopeful that because younger generations are more open to change, they will slowly start to fight oppressive gender norms. In fact, I’ve already seen many content creators making videos on social media reassuring others that it’s ok to wear a dress, no matter if you are a man, a woman or a gender-nonconforming person.


TikTok/Instagram example:


I think that these small acts and gestures can be a catalyst for a bigger change while creating safe spaces for everybody to express themselves.



VOGUE - "Playtime With Harry Styles"

Karolina Żebrowska - "y'all need to stop with the "manly men" stereotype [RANT]" (YouTube)

Mina Le - "Men Should Wear Dresses 👗" (YouTube)

Images by Tyler Mitchell / VOGUE and Elisa

Japanese Translated by Kiara, Hikari and Mia

Edited by Kiara

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