“A woman shall not wear man’s clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.” Deuteronomy 22:5
This single Bible verse, buried in the Old Testament’s Deuteronomic Code amidst Moses, the Israelites, and the sage advice to refrain from having sex with animals, was a source of intractable indignation for Natalie, a girl from my high school days. Natalie’s righteous anger was not directed at the biblical directive, however, but at her fellow classmates (myself included) for having the audacity to wear pants. She believed—or rather, her fundamentalist Baptist church instructed her to believe—that it is a sin for women to wear clothing that does not follow traditional gender distinctions. With complete dumbfounded sincerity (masked by a veneer of defensive hostility), Natalie would ask my trouser-clad friends and me why we wore pants, to which we responded with typical answers, “because they are comfortable,” “because they look good,” “because its too cold to wear a skirt,” etc. She would lash out against pants, against the entire concept of dressing like a man, while we sat there, befuddled as to how pants, so fundamental to the daily wardrobes of the vast majority of women, were even being equated to an exclusively male garment.
While her views were extremist, Natalie’s fashion regulations are not as outdated as someone who grew up in a post-feminism world would expect. In fact, the female pantsuit was on tenuous terms with the business community until Hillary Clinton publicly wore one while fulfilling her duties as First Lady (in 1992). Yet a glimpse of my current outfit demonstrates how male style has infiltrated women’s wear: a military-inspired jacket (derived from a traditionally masculine uniform) worn over a light blue Lacoste polo shirt (associated with the predominantly male sport of golf) with stone washed jeans (originally constructed for sailors and other workmen) and Puma speedcats (sold as unisex—the same pair is featured for men and women); the ensemble could easily be worn by a man. This quick appraisal of my own clothing made me evaluate my own significantly liberal views against Natalie’s rigid perception of the implications of gender difference in fashion. What if, instead of empowering ourselves through the integration of masculine style into our wardrobes, women are actually reinforcing the idealized concept of maleness that has dominated society for centuries? Have heeled loafers, tweed fitted slacks and houndstooth print pencil skirts only put masculinity on a pedestal with a wider berth?
There is nothing inherent to traditional costumes to signify the anatomical differences in our genders. If anything, the logical presuppositions are reversed: men are better suited for skirts and dresses, as their hanging appendages would seem to welcome the wiggle room, while women are better suited to the crotch-hugging form of pants. Yet society has insisted on gender difference in fashion, and in only the last century or so has there been any significant pushback. And now masculine influence is so pervasive in women’s wear that it is nearly impossible to label a runway collection or design as singularly “androgynous,” as masculinity has become so intricately entwined with other facets of female fashion: tailoring, sportswear, military/nautical style, business attire, etc. It is easier to identify designers with an uber-feminine aesthetic—Nanette Lepore, Cynthia Rowley and Alice Temperly immediately spring to mind. Who ever thought femininity would be a defining characteristic for some fashion designers, rather than their foregone conclusion?
While the lace-ensconced frocks of these feminine designers connote a rosy-cheeked girlishness, androgynous style often parallels a mature, staid persona, or even reaches to a stark futurism, which seems to reinforce the underlying message: girlishness is frivolous and immature, while manliness (or at least gender neutrality) is an evolutionary accomplishment.
While androgynous fashion is touted as the neutralization of gender difference in clothing, there is no denying that in practical application, androgynous styles are more heavily influenced by the male design aesthetic. Without reciprocation of the incorporation of female aesthetics into male clothing, how can androgynous style be considered a reinterpretation of gender—could it actually be reinforcing the gender divide?
It would seem that the pervasive, if not exhaustive, masculine encroachment into women’s fashion is ultimately a defeat for women’s self expression if it weren’t for the next iteration of the evolving gender convergence in fashion: the feminization of male style. In this battle of the sexes, subtle victories have already been won: slim-fit dress shirts, feminine accoutrements (e.g., Salvatore Ferragamo’s Embroidered Henley) and the entire phenomenon of metrosexuality are all promising signs that the next forefront of gender convergence in fashion will be, for perhaps the first time in western history, the exultation and application of a feminine aesthetic in sartorial style. If the feminine and masculine aesthetics do converge in fashion, it will provide the opportunity for gender to become an expression of self, rather than a societal construct.
Men in skirts may sound ridiculous, but at a time not so long ago, so did women wearing pants.