The History of Men in Feminine Clothing

The History of Men in Feminine Clothing
Erin Reilly | Esme AC

As society progresses, so do gender roles. 

Clothing, accessories, and social roles continue to be important tools for us to understand and express gender. People today have been working to fight against the idea that gender has a role, that specific genders are to look a certain way, and behave in a way that is ‘appropriate for that gender’.

Today, more than ever, we are seeing how problematic gender norms can be. A recent example of this is when celebrity Harry Styles had his appearance on the cover of Vogue Magazine (December 1st, 2020). In the picture, he was wearing a beautiful pale blue and black trimmed floor-length dress. While most people were supportive there were some people who were not happy. Throughout history, there has been an evolving discourse over how men and women should present themselves. The issue today is that most people don’t know the origins of what we now view as feminine clothing.

In the beginning, most clothing had no gender. An example of this would be ancient Greece and the robes worn. This was called a tunic and consisted of two pieces of cloth that were folded and wrapped to cover the body. The length and fit of a tunic would vary depending on someone’s job and responsibilities. The only difference between the two genders was the weight and length of their clothes. Women would have heavier cloth and it would cover their whole body. Men had lighter tunics that often had more space to move and do work in. In fact, gender did not mean much during this time period. Not only was homosexuality normalized, but polyamorous relationships were common. Instead of one’s sex, the role played in the relationship was more important. These clothes are very similar to modern-day dresses and skirts. The Aztecs also had a similar style of clothing. Men would wear loose cloth to have more mobility. In ancient Egypt, it was also common to wear makeup. The type depended on status but gender did not play a role in how it was applied.

As the 14th century hit clothing began to be assigned to specific genders but not rigidly so. Breeches were created and had a more masculine reputation, but men would still wear robes when it was convenient. This was common for people with powerful positions such as nobles or royalty. Tights would also be worn underneath shorter skirt-like clothing because walking around without them was socially unacceptable. These bottoms were actually similar to leggings and were called hoses. This new style of clothes allowed men to be covered but still have plenty of range to move around and function. People who had less money would not have gowns and such but often a long top accompanied with hose or breeches. This could mean a shirt or rags that are shaped like a dress. During the 16th-century, accessories became popular with people in high society, this included men who often wore earrings. Breeches were redesigned to be shaped like a skirt and would puff out. Men would wear heels and makeup to show their power. This was a common thing in both genders but the application was different.

During the 19th century, western men of high power could often be seen wearing a three-piece outfit. This consisted of a long tale that resembled a skirt, tight breeches that cut off above the knee, and a linen shirt with a collar and frills. Stockings were worn, leaving no skin visible. Shoes had a very small heel on them and a buckle would be worn on them. The buckles would change depending on the occasion, more expensive ones being for big events. During the 1820s corsets were also worn because thin waists were preferred. Men would also wear wigs that changed depending on the situation. There were multiple styles and colors but white was the most popular. Eventually, people started to tie their wigs back with a ribbon, most often black.  Wigs were worn for more formal occasions and not daily as time went on. Until the end of the 19th-century kids would wear dresses regardless of gender, it was more convenient for the parents at the time.

In the 70’s men’s fashion became more eccentric and was much tighter. The clothes were vibrant and often had fun patterns. Colorful clothes were still popular in the 80’s but had more of an athletic approach. Guys also grew out their hair more so it could be longer. Once the 90’s hit, more androgynous fashion trends appeared. There were many causes, such as the rise in alternative subcultures. There were also multiple celebrities who started to fight against the gender norms society laid out for them. Some of the most notable people are RuPaul, Prince, Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Manson, and Eddie Izzard. There were many more who left a mark on the fashion industry this way as well.

Over the past few years, fashion has become more expressive than it ever has been. Walking down the street you will be able to find multiple different styles as well as people trying to break the barriers built for them. A little over ten years ago a male in a skirt would be seen as taboo and it would be extremely dangerous for that person to leave the house. Unfortunately, there is still negative feedback and it can be seen as a little risky dressing this way. However, it is becoming normalized after a non-stop battle over free expression. As time goes on, people are becoming more open-minded and this creates a safer place for people to be themselves.