“What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress,” the cover story in this week’s New York Times Magazine is a well written and very well reported piece on gender fluid children, but it failed to say one thing that should be obvious.
Most women dress with MUCH greater flair and sophistication than men, and children–everyone really–should be encouraged to emulate strength where ever they recognize it. Inspiration doesn’t come labeled by gender.
I’ll expand on this later, but this much (sic) needed to be said now.
Okay, I’m back.
I’m nowhere near as expert on fashion and the sociological implications that surround it as I am about jazz, sports, and cinema, but my thoughts on these matters stem from the wonderful writing of authors Anne Hollander and Lenore Skenazy. In particular, Hollander’s excellent book Sex and Suits, which argued that conventional men’s suits did a better job of articulating the physique than customary women’s clothing started me thinking about the goal of clothing beyond functional purposes like warmth and coverage. Skenazy’s witty 2007 NY Sun column “Saving the Planet by Warming Women,” especially its marvelous lede “Men it’s time for you to do your part in saving the planet. Put on a sun dress” made me consider the narrowness of men’s clothing options.
Botth writings have had me thinking for years. In reference to Hollander’s work, I began wondering if articulating the body by echoing the skeletal structure was the pinnacle achievement. Obviously a naked body is the most well articulated expression of the human form, but given the variations in color, fabric and detail, most women’s clothing seemed to me from amateur observation to come closer to that goal. And the goal seemed worthy because clothing in general should be an expression of the person, the sum of their mind, body and spirit. If the body is obscured, or at least poorly articulated, what does that imply about the mind and spirit? (And yes, I’ve lived in New York for 34 years, long enough to have met more than a few women who dressed immodestly to hide their lack of mind and spirit; but I’ve also met dozens more women who dressed provocatively as a celebration of their hours in the gym or at yoga or pilates and as a rebel yell of their willingness to live according to their own mores not those imposed upon them by others). Skenazy’s column alerted me to the idea that men weren’t seasonal in our dress codes, and that in that regard we should emulate, if not imitate women. After all eating seasonally was something I advocate, why not dressing seasonally. I suspect it’s a latent physical insecurity, not only about the “jewels” but about physique overall; most men aren’t built like Michael Phelps, but we haven’t come to grips with that fact as readily as most women have made peace with the idea that they aren’t Beyonce or Sanya Richards-Ross. Overall, it seemed as if women were adapting their dress to allow their bodies to interact with the world around them and men dressed in a manner to shield their physiques from the that world.
In the five years since reading Skenazy’s column, my observations have intensified. Why don’t men follow women’s fashion leads more? Bit by bit during my lifetime things like long hair, earrings and other jewelry have entered the masculine wardrobe. Polished nails. Leggings, and (gasp!) color are edging in but ever so slowly. The pace has intrigued me. Most men younger than 30 have grown up cheering their sisters on at sporting events and looking up to them in other ways. A fairly large overlap has developed between masculine and feminine spheres, yet far fewer men than women occupy the the shared space. With each passing year, I’m growing less tolerant and understanding the reluctance. Yes, the levels and degrees of male privilege have diminished considerably in the last 50 years, but that’s not a bad thing, power, however you choose to define it should be shared by the genders. In its place is the opportunity to express one’s self, the totality of the mind body and spirit. If a man has to follow the lead of a woman—or of women in general—so what, it won’t be either the first or last time.
Just as a huge generation gap exists on issues like gay marriage, I began to wonder if this movement among men to enter the shared space will be resolved by young people, even children. Hopefully the Times article accelerates discussion and acceptance.
Martin Johnson used to write about music and film for a living; now he writes about them because it makes him feel a little more alive. His work is still occasionally published in the Wall Street Journal.