Why Can A Woman Wear A Suit But A Man Can’t Wear A Dress?


An Essay In Gender Neutral Clothing.

Source: Vogue, Oct 2018 

In December 2020 Harry Styles was the first solo male to grace the cover of Vogue and he did so in a periwinkle saloon dress from Gucci’s AW20 collection. Through the responses to this cover shoot we’re going to be discussing gender roles, social constructs and how to define, or even redefine, masculinity. But also we’ll be asking, what is the purpose of gender neutral clothing and where does it need to go in 2021?  
One of the most noted responses to this cover shoot was from US conservative commentator Candice Owens when she tweeted, “there is no society that can survive without strong men. The East knows this. In the west, the steady feminisation of our men at the same time that Marxism is being taught to our children is not a coincidence. It is an outright attack.” However, her response is summarised with this one phrase “bring back manly men”.

We can explore this response by asking, why can a woman wear a suit but a man can’t wear a dress? That is, women can wear suits now, in 1966 Le Smoking was born, a tuxedo for women by Yves Saint Laurent, it was classed as evening wear however, Nan Kempner was turned away from the restaurant Le Côte Basque in New York for wearing Le Smoking as the trousers were deemed inappropriate for a woman. So, could we be looking at the very same thing with dresses for men? Something that seems scandalous but actually one day will become normal?

Nowadays a suit is part of nearly every women’s wardrobe, or at least even a pair of trousers, December 2020 saw Harry Styles on the cover of vogue in a dress and February 2021 saw Kamala Harris, the first women Vice President of the United States, on the cover in a suit. However, only one garment and gender combination caused a stir. Jo Paoletti, author of “Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America” explains that when it comes to these garments “they don’t have equivalent power, or potency, or symbolism.” If we look at the symbolism behind these garments, for example, the suit representing male traits like power, confidence and intelligence, however, a dress representing feminine traits might be, sensitivity, gentleness or kindness. Marjorie Jolles, the women’s and gender studies director at Roosevelt University, goes further by saying “feminine clothing has absolutely no social capital for a man to put on because he’s gesturing towards a set of traits that our society doesn’t really value.” 

There is another important point to consider when discussing gender roles and gender traits; we shouldn’t demand that an entire gender represents what we would want in a personal relationship. If you are attracted to women or men with certain traits that doesn’t mean that those traits define what a man or woman is, that’s just personal preference in terms of relationships. Jolles says that “women have a role to play, which is to be the counterpart. Women only work as the counterpart if they are distinct to what they’re the counterpart to.” 

However, should we be defining ourselves by our gender and by the stereotypes of that gender? Do we always have to be a counterpart or can we just be ourselves? The traits of men and women have been made as opposing parts which when placed together create balance, however, those roles are changing. With women stepping more into the traditional ‘male role’ in society of power and business, this means those counterparts are being redefined and we should discuss how a male’s role is also allowed to change - we’re not forcing men to try dresses, we’re just removing the notion that they ‘can’t’ or ‘shouldn’t’.

Source: Vogue, Mar 2019

What we’ve been seeing in most gender neutral everyday clothing brands is just as we’ve been describing, a male orientated style. It’s clothing which men would find very normal to wear, with no change to their wardrobe whatsoever, however, whilst a woman might also be comfortable wearing these clothes, they don’t have any identity which could be associated specifically with being feminine. Gender neutral clothing has mainly been men’s clothing which a woman can wear; the cross over in style has only been one way. Zara’s first ‘Ungendered’ collection in 2016 included t-shirts, hoodies, shorts, jogging trousers and jeans, all in a tonal range of grey, white and navy. The backlash was immediate with Twitter users calling out the collection for being “literally just male coded lounge wear”, “boring” and “something that masculine folks usually wear”. Their main call was for Zara to “get folks into skirts” and to “show ‘manly' men in dresses, black ‘feminine' women in suits”. H&M’s 2018 gender neutral collection with Eytys and Asos’ collaboration with GLAAD in 2017 were met with the same criticism; it’s clothing planned around the traditional male gender roles.

So, what is the purpose of gender neutral clothing? It’s not about making collections which both a man or woman can wear, it’s about making whatever the designer wants and then saying, ‘it doesn’t matter what the garments are, both a man or a woman can wear them’. It’s not about designing something to be genderless, it’s about saying that clothing has no gender or sexual orientation. As Harry Styles said,“I want things to look a certain way. Not because it makes me look gay, or it makes me look straight, or it makes me look bisexual, but because I think it looks cool.”

However, when discussing the purpose of gender neutral clothing there is something we need to consider, is it meant for the heterosexual man? Gender neutral clothing isn’t just about clothing without a gender, it’s for people who don’t identify with a gender, it allows them a styling option in which their garments don’t define them. The new question is becoming, why when a white heterosexual man wears a dress is he celebrated for being ‘revolutionary’ but if a trans person does it they are ostracised, beaten and even killed? We have been discussing how encouraging heterosexual men to engage with feminine styles will lessen the negative stereotypes of female traits, this has it’s merits. However, instead of making it normal for heterosexual men to wear dresses, shouldn’t we first be supporting the LGBTQIA community and their right to wear a dress? By normalising men in dresses to heterosexual men, by increasing this imagery, hopefully there will be less violence and threat towards that community.

But if we really want to know how to make gender neutral clothing work we need to be asking people who identify as gender neutral what they want. We should be accommodating them. Jamie Wylie wrote an essay for Dazed Digital in 2018 about how it felt to be gender neutral when it came to shopping, one problem was when shopping with a friend who identified as female they had to split up because of the store’s layout. Also, the 2018 H&M gender neutral collection was displayed both in the mens and women section instead of it’s own section, this meant a gender still had to be chosen before accessing the clothes. Those points show that it’s not just about the clothing, it’s about fashion retail as a whole; yes you can wear whatever clothes you like but you always have to chose a gender section to shop in when entering the store. We could start with integrating all clothing in stores, this way nobody is shopping based on gender but just based on what they like, then, the possibility of discovery new styles is created.

Another point Wylie made is when it comes to clothing “I face choices that may fit my gender presentation, but won't fit my body”. We could, instead of changing styles, just work on changing the sizing on all garments so they are all available to men and women. This would mean leg length, waist size or bigger chest space, for women’s garments it could mean designing dresses so they can stay without straps on a male figure. Notably all the gender neutral clothing collections we have mentioned from the high street all have baggy clothes, ‘baggy’ was a big feature. Most clothing is made to the figure of a specific gender so, maybe when designing a garment the final outcome could have two versions, a male figure version and a female figure one and then different sizes within both of them. We need to start the plans for what a man’s dress would fit like, how it would be designed, and the same for skirts. This was done for women and suits throughout the 20th century from 1920s Chanel suits with skirts to 1975 with Armani’s shoulder pads.

 Wylie made the same observation as we’ve been making, in that “for the most part, my rejection of the male-female fashion dichotomy means heading straight to the menswear section.” For people who identify as gender neutral there isn’t much choice. When designing gender neutral collections there needs to be choice in colour, patterns, embellishments and with the actual garments, hoodies paired with sweatpants or jeans does not mean real choice. We have been seeing more boys in pussy-bows at Gucci, and Ludovic de Saint Sernin’s barely-there breastplates. Perhaps we need sheer panelling, deeper necklines, patterns, pink being introduced, frills even; it’s about style. The main point is, we need to stop designing gender neutral clothes with the traditional heterosexual male forever in mind.

On his cover shoot Harry Styles responded that “to not wear (something) because it’s females’ clothing, you shut out a whole world of great clothes... And I think what’s exciting about right now is you can wear what you like. It doesn’t have to be X or Y. Those lines are becoming more and more blurred.” He continued that “when you take away ‘There’s clothes for men and there’s clothes for women,’ once you remove any barriers, obviously you open up the arena in which you can play. It’s like anything—anytime you’re putting barriers up in your own life, you’re just limiting yourself.” There are many who praised Harry Styles, for example; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, representative for New York's 14th congressional district since 2019, commented on Instagram that "it looks wonderful… The masculine and feminine elements are balanced beautifully.” The manly tuxedo paired with the dress, the lower neckline revealing his tattoos, hair style and stance following the traditions of menswear is really is a masterful comment on what masculinity really means and how softer, more sensitive traits can feature. There are many benefits to showing heterosexual men in dresses and exposing society to more images of men in dresses. It’s good for every society to be aware and to understand other cultures and other lifestyles. The phrase “bring back manly men” is encouraging men to be aggressive, dominate and emotionally unavailable, all of these things can and have led to violence towards women and the LGBTQIA community; heterosexual men are not generally violent beings but, that’s why it’s damaging to promote masculinity as something which is so confined and fragile. Also, it doesn’t always mean violence, in many heterosexual men it means depression, loneliness and feeling inadequate. In September 2020 it was recorded that suicide in men had reached a two-decade high in England and Wales, with men accounting for three quarters of all suicides in 2019. This is why we must constantly be redefining what ‘masculine’ really means and create a society where men can express all aspects of being male; even the sensitive, more emotional aspects.

From 2017 when Vogue claimed their cover shoot of Gigi and Zayn was breaking gender rules as they were both styled in suits to 2020 with Harry Styles wearing a dress, society is definitely going in the right direction.

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