If a masculine man wears feminine clothes, does he change gender or does the outfit?

I’ve been thinking about the gender of clothes, and why they have one. Nothing makes an outfit feminine or masculine by itself. Arab women and men wear gowns, both British sexes wear trousers; the kings & queens of old draped themselves in yards of silk and lace. Despite dramatic variations across cultures and epochs, we always seem to know which styles are considered feminine or masculine.

How does the header image make you feel?

I confess that scouring the niche men’s lingerie catalogues for knicker pictures provoked some queasy reactions. On reflection, I was able to split the outfits into three categories: “dressing like a girl”, where men wore bras & basques despite having no bust to control; “tarty”, featuring the kind of scratchy net skimpies that exist only to signal sexual availability to the undiscerning; and “weird but tasteful”. Basically the third category contained undies I would wear myself – minus the front pouch!

After half an hour of looking at pictures, I lost most of the “weird” sensation. I’ve never seen a man in lace or satin pants; it challenged my expectations of how a sexy man should look in his underwear. With that out of the way, I was able to choose four models who look interestingly masculine to me – well, the guy in the green would’ve looked better in the next size up but let’s be kind here! I’m never going to like sex-wear or pointless garments but, having got used to the idea, I can safely say I don’t find lace knickers offputting on a man – as long as they fit him.

But why is it even a question? Who said lacy pants are feminine, not masculine? When did we decide that men don’t wear dresses?

I’ve always been okay about men wearing skirts. I’m a fan of designer Marc Jacobs (top left) – he wears makeup, too, and is very masculine in my opinion. But somehow it is still brave of a man to wear an undivided bottom half – unless he’s a Scot and it’s a kilt!

“It’s not a skirt! It’s a kilt!”

I didn’t make this post just to perve over men in unexpected clothing. My question is why it’s surprising, and what does this tell us?

One answer is gender. As a society we label certain clothing ‘feminine’ almost without thinking. But the rules of gender are complicated. A skirt isn’t feminine if it’s a knee-length plaid wrapover and the wearer is a Scot. It’s a tribal signal that says “I’m from the Scottish clan entitled to wear this tartan.” Fellow Scots would be able to instantly identify his family history.

Gender hasn’t altered this tradition – the tribal symbol’s still a skirt, and it’s masculine. In Scots culture, the kilt’s gender changes according to its wearer.

King Henry the 8th in his manly embroidered mini-dress
Upper-class masculine outfit, c 1600.
1778 – The young man’s elegant pose signals culture & breeding. He wears close-fitting velvet breeches and lace cravat, with a swishy frock coat.

It looks like clothes and accessories get their meaning from semiotics; what the wearer thinks the outfit says about them. Portraits of aristocrats show off their richly-worked garments so as to make it clear they had access to real gold thread & expensively imported silk, not to mention the services of skilled craftspeople. The Tudors even had laws about what people of each social class were allowed to wear.

Henry’s ornate ensemble symbolised wealth and status. It’s interesting to notice, too, that men’s clothes were more revealing than women’s until about 100 years ago. While women’s necklines went up and down, their bodies were covered from chest to floor in huge swags of fabric. Both sexes wore corsets, but it was the men who showed off their figures and flashed their legs in silk stockings.

During Henry’s reign, men’s skirts morphed into breeches: very puffy shorts, which could be padded out and stiffened to allow even more decoration. They also made the waist seem smaller – and, for about a century, a man might wear a really huge codpiece to (supposedly) protect his enormous manhood.

Silks, lace, flowing lines, appliqués and embroidery were obviously masculine to Elizabethans and beyond. Men carried on wearing breeches and hose (stockings) with full-skirted coats and plenty of lace. They had long hair and wore wigs under big hats featuring feathers and ribbons.

Men didn’t begin wearing long trousers until the 19th century. About 50 years later, the skirts of their frock coats became narrower and men started cutting their hair short.

This means the straight-up-and-down silhouette we now think of as masculine has been in fashion for less than 150 years, following two thousand years of men in flamboyant skirts, frocks and big hair with showy hats.

From an historical point of view it’s an incredibly recent change, yet it now feels as though ‘masculine’ equals plain, straight and boxy. It’s become such a rigid rule that anything else feels odd – almost deviant unless it has an obvious meaning outside of fashion, like a kilt or an Arab thobe.

My dad would’ve described the young man of the 1778 portrait as effete or effeminate: from his velvet breeches to his delicate stance, he’s soft and sensual. This is what the artist intended – perfect masculinity at that time was artistic, cultured, sensitive to the finer things; the man in touch with his emotions. Gender was kind to Georgian men, at least in the upper classes.

Today’s picture of masculinity leaves little room for the ‘gentle’ part of ‘gentleman’. Our male order is rough, tough, rigid and rectangular. It doesn’t sound like much fun.

My fairly comprehensive knowledge of fashion and gender doesn’t seem to have made me immune to these assumptions: maybe I wouldn’t be fazed by a hot man in lace undies, but I still feel “it looks a bit gay”. I’ve assumed lace is feminine – even though I know better. Just like my old dad, I’ve followed an unconscious hypothesis that:
unconventionally masculine -> gender non-conforming -> not ‘normal’ -> probably gay.

This is all kinds of wrong, but it’s in my feminist head! When social conventions are so powerful, it’s easy to see why most people just accept them, thinking something’s terribly amiss when anyone doesn’t quite fit in the expected gender box. And yet it’s all rubbish. Gender varies hugely by country, tradition and by era; this proves it isn’t some kind of natural law. It’s simply that we are taught our culture’s gender rules from the moment we’re born: Oh, a boy! He’s a strong lad, isn’t he? You’re having a girl? How sweet! Pink blanket or blue? Even hospitals colour-code the newborns now. This has happened over the past 30 years, so today’s parents were born into pink/blue rules. It feels natural to them – but it isn’t.

Boys and girls used to wear white dresses up to the age of around six. They were easier to wash. Families who could afford frequent laundry would put their kids – both sexes – in more ornate, tailored dresses. The “little man” outfit simply didn’t exist; there’s no need to differentiate between male and female toddlers, so they didn’t.

Future President Franklin Roosevelt in a dress, 1884.
1920 paper doll Baby Bobby had a pink dress in his wardrobe, as well as lace-trimmed collars and underclothes.









The new rules that have taken hold of our families say girls = pink & fluffy, boys = blue & boxy. Parenting forums are full of young mums genuinely worried that their little ones like the “wrong” clothes and games for their sex, so must be heading for gender transition. The very term, gender transition, implies that gender’s an inborn fact, like skin colour, and that a gender which is not in line with sex presents a serious medical issue. It’s being treated as a birth defect.

As we have seen, gender’s not at all physical or medical. It’s cultural conditioning; basically, it is fashion. At any given time or place, the qualities thought to be ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ suit some personalities more than others. A blokey sort of chap with a fondness for heavy embroidery would feel at home in Henry’s court. A gentle fellow who loves poetry and soft fabrics would make a stereotypical Georgian. The world needs artists, dancers, poets and designers as much as it needs farmers, builders and engineers.

It seems both cruel and stupid to crush the creative personality out of a man, purely for the sake of an artificial construct.

Let’s not do it. Let them wear lace.