Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Clothing and gender identity

If you read my blog you're probably a pretty modern, liberated, tolerant, accepting person. You probably are certain that different gender and sexual identities and preferences should be no one's business, and most likely you find it hard to believe (when you stop to think about it) that we still even have to have the argument about whether it's a moral issue, let alone a legal one.

If you find that a male friend of yours has a skirt and likes to wear it (and for now let's set aside things like kilts), you certainly don't think any less of him. You know there are a lot of things it can mean, and any one of them is not a judgment against him. Maybe he just likes to dress up in private. Or just for some kind of play with his partner. Maybe he has a whole drag queen outfit. Maybe he's straight and maybe he's gay and maybe he's in between. Maybe he's a transsexual. You know that no one of those things implies any of the others, and that none of them is a bad thing.

If you find that a female friend of yours has a pair of pants and likes to wear them, though, you don't even go through any of that stuff. When your male friend likes to wear a skirt, it is nearly inescapable for most people to conclude that this is a statement of gender identity, even if we're not sure what statement it is, and even if we don't consider that statement a bad thing. But if a woman wears pants, it's not a statement about anything at all other than that she happens to be wearing pants that day. Even if she wears pants every day, that doesn't mean a thing other than that she likes pants.

A few hundred years ago, if you saw a woman who wore trousers (excluding special-purpose ones) you would probably have had the same reaction we have today to a man wearing a skirt. Maybe you wouldn't judge her for it, but you'd certainly assume she also wants to wear a waistcoat, or smoke cigars. You might expect she has other aspects of her personality that are more masculine than average. You might expect it's not unlikely that she disdains sewing, or enjoys sports, or takes an aggressive tone in her relationships, particularly romantic. You might know that no one of those things implies any of the others, and you might not think there's anything wrong with any of them. But you'd almost certainly see the fact that she wears trousers as a statement of gender identity more than a choice that trousers happened to be more comfortable that day.

Somewhere along the way, that got completely sanitized. There are very, very few items of clothes that a woman can't wear without some hint of gender identity. Maybe a tophat, perhaps a bowtie, or jockey shorts, and that's about it. Perhaps a tuxedo, though I think if you saw a woman in a tuxedo you'd think it was a costume more than a statement of gender identity.

But what a man can wear without it having any cultural implications about gender identity is essentially unchanged from what it was three hundred years ago. Sure, there are a lot more people who would think a drag queen is just something some people do that's amusing or irrelevant but not wrong; but why hasn't the other step even been started on? Why the asymmetry; why have women made so much more progress than men in this regard? Or am I wrong even to call this "progress", as if there's an inevitability?

1 comment:

Cubby said...

People within the academic world have tried to separate gender from sexuality but due to the social contract ('western')it is impossible to do so. Eccentric designers have tried to add some flair to menswear but sadly it never leaves the catwalk though the colour pink has slowly filtered into men's fashion where it is now acceptable to have pink shirts. A social contract ironically is a societal compilation of whats acceptable and whats not. Though in South Africa, I live in a multi-cultural society which blurs the lines of what a guy can wear, in fact we are use to people wearing arbitrary items since it makes a statement.

And have you ever noticed that art students/artists have this unseen passport that enables them to wear 'outrageous' clothes? I can recall countless times of guys wearing skirts (of all designs) with multi-coloured knee-socks! It was awesome! When I was an undergrad, I had a professor who at times wore wrap-around-skirts with a odd looking hat.

At the end of the day, it all depends on which social contract you are bound to.