To be understood correctly, the issue of fashion, like gendered behaviour generally, must be seen historically. Skirts were not at all uncommon for men for much of history. They were worn by males in many cultures, including ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and more recently in Anglo-Saxon times. Even in modern times, dhotis and sarongs were worn in the East, the foustanella in Greece and the djellaba in Africa.
A skirt in all but name: the Olympian Spiridon Louis wearing a foustanella.
It was only since the 15th century in the West that bifurcated clothing became exclusively associated with masculinity. Men’s tunics gradually became shorter and tighter, and required separate legwear which evolved into breeches and then into trousers. There was also a practical question. Trousers were more appropriate for a sex that rode horses, ploughed fields, fought wars, and worked in factories. The very impracticality of women’s clothes was an important element in traditional femininity.
We often forget that until very recently in the West male clothing was generally just as colourful and decorative as women’s. It was only in the 19th century with the rise of the responsible bourgeois that men’s clothing became relatively dark, dour, and functional.
Even in the industrial period, non-bifurcated clothing for men persisted in a few forms, such as the dressing gown. Nothing better illustrates how nonsensical all these conventions were than the kilt: this garment is obviously a skirt but it was considered an insult to say so.
The early 21st century saw a change of attitude. An early example of this was the ‘Men in Skirts’ show at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2002. The blurb for this event illustrates the way that women’s dizzying ascent was causing gender roles to be re-examined:
Menswear is dramatically re-invented for the 21st century in this catwalk show featuring men in designer skirts, dresses, kilts, sarongs, kaftans and frock coats. Internationally renowned designers reappropriate the skirt for men... The skirts showcased in this event represent an alternative to conventional menswear which can be as comfortable and elegant as it is radical.
This sort of reappraisal of traditional attitudes was a necessary first step to overturning the skirts taboo.
At the same time there was a growing lobby for men that recognised the illogicality of the taboo and was essentially a movement for equal clothing rights. “We’re fighting against prejudice and clichés,” said Dominique Moreau of Hommes en Jupes in 2008. “Women fought for trousers; we’re doing the same with the skirt.” This movement gave considerable impetus to the campaign to make ‘female’ clothing for men more acceptable.
Gradually it became acceptable for men to wear skirts, albeit seen as something of a novelty and mostly practiced by the younger generation. Change was slow but steady. By the late 2020s a minority of boys was experimenting with wearing skirts. These were generally non-decorative — floral patterns and filmy underskirts were not yet acceptable — but represented a kind of transitional step. Male makeup, lingerie and high heels were also creeping into the shops. Most importantly, the jeering and fear had been swept away. The taboo was dead.
In fact, it was popular by the late 2020s to argue that the skirt was better suited to male anatomy. Males, of course, have external sex organs, and the trouser seam pressing into them could be uncomfortable. Hence the familiar post-genderquake assertion that women naturally belonged in trousers, and men in skirts or dresses.
Needless to say that there was a lot of resistance from both men and women. Women were themselves undergoing considerable change, and some saw the ‘skirts for men’ lobby as a threat to their own identity. Trained for centuries to regard men as providers and protectors, many women were still uncomfortable with the idea of a dependent, ‘feminised’ man over whom she had authority.
In fact there were all sorts of forces tipping into the debate. There were crossdressers, keen to finally be allowed to wear the feminine clothes that enticed them. There was the ‘equal clothing rights for men’ brigade. There were female supremacists, who wanted men to be forced into dresses entirely while women ruled in trousers. There were men’s rights groups like Men Matter, who generally advocated sexual equality while trying to hold back the ‘feminisation’ of males. There were also very conservative groups, some of them religious in motivation, who wanted to reverse history entirely and send women back to the kitchen.
Through all this ferment, the great majority of society moved steadily towards finding male skirts acceptable. And once the taboo was overcome, there was no limit to where society might turn next.
[Part three follows]