Look closely at the gentleman in the foreground of this picture. He’s the head of this 1720s aristocratic household. He wears a wig, a dress, lacy underclothes, stockings and high heels – and there’s no doubt he’s a man.
Today it’s almost unthinkable that men in public wear anything but trousers. This entirely arbitrary and very recent limitation on acceptable dress for men, has implications that go deep into both the psyche of each individual as well as into the very structure of democratic society.
-- This is article #89 in our series of #100Voices4Men and boys
When we wear clothes, the fabric drapes about our limbs, touches our skin, and gives us constant feedback about the position and attitude of our body. The garments we wear also need to bear on our bodies at specific points so that they stay in place and don’t fall off: the shoulders and collar of a shirt, the waistband of trousers, the cuffs of a jacket, the snug fit of shoes. With these familiar areas of pressure and weight we develop an internal map of our body which is part of feeling ‘at home’ in our own body.
Clothes tell us how to feel about our bodies
Finally, the structure of the garments themselves – the way the panels of fabric are cut and sewn into shapes – provide subtle pressures which suggest certain movements and restrict other movements.
So the experience of wearing clothing is like providing ourselves with a portable feedback loop which gives us a specific relationship with our body and offers a specific range of movements.
When we wear only trousers on our lower body, we experience our body in only one way and we tend to practice a limited range of movements. In effect when we wear the same garments all the time we affirm a cultural story that our male body has only a very limited capacity to feel and to express, and that our relationship with our body is simple and unvaried.
Of course wearing trousers doesn’t actually prohibit us doing things like expressing affection or receiving touch. Rather, the body-level experience of being in trousers supports certain familiar and culturally acceptable ways to express ourselves – so that other forms of expression don’t feel right and don’t look right.
Beyond this personal experience, trousers are a symbol of social legitimacy and appropriate democratic participation. Trousers and democratic citizenship emerged at the same time. The Great Reform Act of 1832 was hailed at the time as a turning point in democratic participation, massively increasing the number of people able to vote. At the same time trousers and a simple military-style jacket, became de rigueur for men in public life. Trousers symbolised equality: the divide between the peasant in his smock and our 1720s aristocrat in his wig and silk stockings, was swept away by a garment available to all, elegant for all and practical for all.
Back then, trousers were an epochal step towards freedom and social participation. But now, nearly 200 years later, the cultural rejection of anything but trousers is an appalling straight-jacket. The 19th Century realisation that peasant and aristocrat are all the same under the skin has become an oppressive trap for men as we intensely and minutely police each other in to ensure we all appear the same and act the same. Variations from the norm are fiercely put down, emotionally through ridicule and humiliation or physically through violence.
Wearing unfamiliar garments, like this Bloodwood skirtsuit from 2013, raise terrors at the intimate level of our relationship with our bodies. We are suddenly confronted with new possibilities of pleasures beyond our habitual patterns of proper ‘masculine’ body movements and flows of touch. It is common to experience ‘gender vertigo’ at this point: a dizzying questioning along the lines of “if I enjoy this so much, does that mean I am gay/a woman/transvestite?”
Just do it!
Alongside the personal level we are also confronted with the potential to be excluded from social participation at work, in our family, among friends and on the street. The fears arising at the level of our own bodies can be engaged through both growth work and play. But the fears around social exclusion have a very real basis; as recently as 10 years ago men were still being killed for transgressing gender norms.
Thankfully the risk of physical violence in Western countries has almost entirely receded, but inevitably people will be puzzled, and significant people like bosses or clients may make decisions which disadvantage you. So it’s helpful to have a simple package to explain verbally what you are doing and why it’s important.
Moving beyond trousers moves us beyond trousers masculinity – the template of maleness of the last 200 years. Other garments are our license to explore our relationship with ourselves and our own body, and to explore other ways of engaging in social life beyond the restrictions on men’s self-expression and interaction with others.
At the moment it’s challenging for men to wear skirts and dresses on the street. But that’s only because it’s still very unusual. The best way to make it common is to claim it’s perfectly legitimate and acceptable by simply doing it!
-- Picture credit: Joseph Van Aken, An English Family at Tea (circa 1720)
Dr Arian Bloodwood brings a unique perspective on masculinity through wearing “gender non-conforming” clothing since the 70s. Initially joining men’s groups in Australia in the early 80s, he has been part of a wide range of approaches to men’s issues, including experiential workshops, ritual work, political activism, and a PhD in men and progressive change. His driving theme is the massive opportunities for men to step beyond gender to enrich our lives and create new selves. He currently lives in London where he offers a spiritually-oriented accounting service. Visit his website here
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