30 December 2011

Boy Meets Girl

Spring/Summer 2012

Skirts, skorts, skweatpants*

"There are the same differences between a man's and a woman's skirt as there are between a man and a woman."
Dries Van Noten

"Clothing, as an aspect of culture, is a crucial feature in the production of masculinity and femininity: it turns nature into culture, layering cultural meanings on the body."
Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body

Sex is biological, gender is cultural.  A simple observation, yet in our society today it is one that proves to be just as controversial as ever.  Every society has its own gender roles, behaviours, codes, and styles.  Nowhere is the issue of gender more potent in Western dress than with the skirt.  It has become embedded with such cultural meaning that it can signify gender even in absence of the body.  Think of the signs at a public restroom, the man is pictured in bifurcated garments, that is to say trousers (or he could be naked), whereas the woman is pictured in a skirt.  The two look otherwise identical.  The majority of people going into that second room may not even be wearing skirts, but the symbol is laden with a powerful meaning.

Whilst women have over the decades adopted menswear, modifying and encoding it to the extent that it becomes feminine, the same cannot be said for men wearing traditionally 'feminine' garments.  A woman can wear a suit, or a tie, or even just a pair of trousers, and be nothing more than a woman.  Indeed it is even often deemed as attractive.  A hundred years ago she would have been publicly ostracised if not harassed.  Yet a man wears a skirt and there is uproar.  In doing so gender is dislocated from the body, he flouts the cultural norms of gender, and thus the very idea of masculinity is threatened.  It is not viewed as attractive, it is viewed as weird.  It does not reinforce his supposedly inherent masculinity in the way a woman wearing a man's shirt reinforces her supposedly inherent femininity.

The phenomenon is almost exclusively a contemporary Western one.  Go back in time and men wore make up, tights, heels, dresses, etc.  That is not to say gender was not just as strictly demarcated in those days, but rather that the garments are in and of themselves utterly meaningless.  Clothing has no inherent gender, it all depends on the cultural circumstances surrounding them.  Look East and you see men today wearing skirts (lungi, sarongs, etc.) and dresses (thawbs, robes, etc.), whilst remaining safely within the realm of masculinity according to their culture.  Men in the West even wear skirts without noticing - we wrap a towel around our waist when we come out of the shower to form a skirt rather than fashioning a more masculine loincloth.  We see various traditions of masculinity, all essentially surmounting to the same core of social ideals, merely expressed via different channels. Those channels can however change, it simply (or perhaps not so simply) depends on a certain number of individuals appropriating a material and using it in a new way.   

I am not saying that fashion should become sexless or genderless, in fact I would hate that.  Fashion will always be tied to sexuality for me because it is about revealing and concealing the body (there is for example something I find incredibly attractive when a woman wears a long skirt and flat shoes - it is that reveal of ankle and lower leg e.g.).  I am merely trying to highlight the fluidity of gender in fashion.  I am particularly interested in how masculine and feminine elements can be played with and combined, to either reinforce or destabilize, rather than negate, gender stereotypes.  It would require a number of posts to do this topic justice, however I simply wanted to introduce the topic in light of Rick Owens' Spring/Summer 2012 collections for both his eponymous label and his DRKSHDW line.

The appearance of men in skirts in a decidedly masculine fashion was to my eyes a rather welcome sight.  Whilst there is much to be said for designers who use skirts in a fetishistic or gender bending manner, there was something more casual, for want of a better word, of Rick's use of skirts.  I do not personally indulge in drag or cross-dressing, however I am interested in the mixing of masculine and feminine elements to play upon the idea of masculinity.  Many commented that they wished Rick had been more aggressive in his use of skirts, to stamp out the territory, but I think the balance was achieved quite nicely within the collection (as well as in upcoming the DRKSDHW releases).

The full length and narrow front profile of the column skirts provided an almost statuesque platform for the male body.  In this past season Damir Doma sought to elevate his men, using platform boots to quite literally provide that effect, whereas Rick is at once more subtle and more blunt in his approach.  Using such a heavily symbolic-laden garment, it at once provokes in terms of cultural significance, whilst simultaneously obscuring and hiding the lower body, and thus promoting the torso.  In a way the male torso is almost thrust upon the viewer, and what (...phallus projection aside, but then an argument could be made for the narrow and long skirt standing in place for a certain part of the male anatomy) could be more masculine than that?

This is of course balanced by the reveal, with the slit back, that allows the calves to emerge in movement.  The reveal is made all the more powerful in light of the long front, and yet that display of the calves is perhaps what makes it all the more masculine in its appearance to my eyes.  It is not the intimate flesh of the thigh, or the full lower leg with arched feet in heels, it is the calf framed by the top of the skirt and the monumentality of the chunky sneakers or boots.  What it seen is the calf muscle, not the unprotected shin or dainty ankle.  It is powerful and masculine within a garment that is most often viewed as feminine.  (Click here for Schwyzer's view on men's fear of being soft and women's fear of being fat).

It could of course be styled either way, but were I to wear it I probably would counterbalance the strong feminine associations with more masculine elements, so as to naturalize rather than highlight its perceived otherness.

* I may have made the last word up, but they are the piece I have my eye on (unfortunately not pictured above - I may actually get the thicker F/W version on account of my knees not being on speaking terms with the cold...in fact they refuse to be in the same room together).



  1. That is very true. Sometimes woman can look so sexy with menswear! and vise versaa! I like! :)

  2. Cool article. Loved that first paragraph. I dunno why..but David Bowie comes to mind.

    All the best to the new year with your wonderful creativity!

  3. That is very true. Sometimes woman can look so sexy with menswear! and vise versaa! I like! :)