Apr 12, 2011

Gender Bender Dress Up

Recently, I was invited to display Nepali dress to students of fashion at my university. Along with me in a sari was a student from Saudi Arabia. He brought along a men’s costume that can be best described as a loose ankle length shirt to be worn alone or with trousers. This dress was the topic of much discussion as students commented that men don’t wear such “skirts” in America. One student wanted to know if men lifted their “skirts” when it rained, and whether that gesture was seen as feminine.
That discussion was very weird to me as I am used to seeing a wide variety of dresses for men and didn’t think the Saudi Arabian dress was unusual. But it prompted me to look for other gender bender costumes. Sure enough, I found a lot of evidence that contradicted gender rules of dressing up. Skirts are for girls and pants are for boys. Pink is for girls and blue is for boys. Jewelry is for girls. High heels and pointy toes are for girls. Laces and frills are for girls. Right? 

Well, not quite. To start with, we can often see guys wearing ruffles, frills and even laces in period Hollywood movies. If you noticed in the animated section of the last Harry Potter movie, the three Peverell brothers are wearing lacy shirts. Familiar pictures of men like Shakespeare will shock you if you take a close look, because they are wearing lace collars. Lace collars of European kings were often as intricately decorated with jewels as any of their wives’ or mistresses’.
Shakespeare in lace collar

Colorful and frilly tops for men are common in India too. I am thinking of the song Dhol Baje where everyone except the shirtless Salman Khan are wearing bright frock like tops. Also, in India it is common for many women to wear their saris dhoti style - separating both legs so that it is easy to work. or maybe the dhotis are worn sari style - who knows what came first? Lungis, or non frilly wrap around skirts, are worn by both men and women in India and Nepal. They only differ in color and pattern.

Scottish kilts look like checked skirts, the kind that many schools and +2s have for uniform in Nepal. For reference, check the movie Braveheart where Mel Gibson wears one. I am sure everyone has seen the movie Troy, because no sane woman would pass up the chance to see Brad Pitt’s legs in a miniskirt, considered taboo for men today. This Roman attire was also notable for another supposedly female component: gladiator sandals. Yes, there’s a reasons why those strappy sandals are called gladiators: they were worn by gladiators, the most fierce and intense of the fighting males. But once girls took over the gladiators, there was no looking back.
Brad Pitt in miniskirt and gladiators
(Couldn't pass up the chance to have him grace the page :P)

The same is the case with high heels. For most of high heels’ existence on earth, they were worn by both men and women. The origins of high heels are shrouded in mystery, but it is speculated that they were used by horse riders to prevent their feet from sliding from stirrups. European royals turned it into a fashion statement. Louis XIV, a famous French king who singlehandedly established France as the fashion capital of the world, wore high heels because he was short. As a result, high heels soon became fashionable for both men and women. They went out of fashion after the French revolution because they were associated with luxury. When they turned up again a hundred years later, it was predominantly for women, and there was no looking back.
Louis XIV in heels
(and his bottoms look like pantyhose, maybe I should research that next )
(you can click the above picture to see Louis XIV in his full hideous glory. His ridiculous cape matches the chair and the box beside him. EE yuck, he is worse than Barbie. Plus its train is longer than princess Diana's wedding dress.)

The case of blue and pink is perhaps the most surprising of gender codes. Originally, blue was the predominant female color in the western world because it is the color of Mary, mother of Jesus. Red was a male color because of its traditional associations with aggression and strength. For that reason, many soldiers have historically worn red uniforms, long before communists took the color and turned it iconic. Pink, as a light form of red, was the preferred color for boys as late as the 1930s. Apparently the shift to “blue for boys and pink for girls" came in 1950s, but try as I might, I could not find a reason for this drastic shift. In Nepal though, “pink is for girls” was probably accepted quickly because of our traditional association of red with married women.

 Buckingham Palace Guards in red, Britain
(Don't even begin to wonder about their lurid hats....)

All these norms seem foreign, but are actually highly applicable to Nepal. Even in Nepal men are often teased for wearing pinks and peaches. Guys have worn dresses at various times in history, like the brocade frocks of Prithvi Narayan Shah and other royals, called Taas ko Jama.

PN Shah in Brocade Frock

But no guy dares to wear that anymore. Men in Nepal are often berated for wearing earrings, but actually male earrings are neither new nor foreign. Numerous references to men and their kundals (everybody knows Karna’s kavach and kundal) are found in myths as well as slightly older Nepali literature. We have all seen portraits of long haired men heavily decked up in jewelry and delicate fabrics. These men in painting also wore pointed shoes that are now exclusively worn by women. Same goes for men and makeup: basic makeup like gajal for men is nothing new in our culture, but men who use it are stigmatized today. Granted, historically men have not worn high heels in Nepal. But if anyone wants to try now, God help them!

These historical modes of dressing were not reserved for the royalty, because royalty denotes luxury, and people usually aspire to dress luxuriously. From such earlier eras of variety and range in dressing for men, today we have arrived at a very narrow selection indeed. Only pants and shirts or daura suruwal, with flat shoes, no makeup and little jewelry are accepted for men today. Girls on the other hand have not lost their options even as more women have started wearing western clothes. Girls wear pants and skirts on normal days, and saris on special occasions. They can wear any color, any style, any number of laces and frills and embroidery at any time, even in everyday life.
 Such variety for girls (kurta, dress, pants, kurta, sari), and nothing for the bland guys in the background
Poor guys, on the other hand, have to do with boring suits for every occasion. Even their shirts are so boring with no frills or laces allowed. To me this is subtle reverse discrimination because anything out of the line, like skirts or frills, are forbidden for boys. How is this any different from forbidding women to wear pants and other western dresses? For instance, the situation is dire in offices in summer as guys swelter in stiff suits and women breeze around in light fabrics. If only guys could get away with wearing less for work like women do. I personally am hoping that guys will fight the stigma on their dressing someday, and begin to dress in a wide variety of options. Guys in miniskirts anyone?


Govinda Raj Bhattarai said...

wonderful though common in history an ignored part og rading and interpretation both dresses were for both since time immemorial good search a research or observation sewa

Kabindra said...

Very interesting and funny article. It has addressed a wide issue about dress code from historic time to present modern world and challenged to wear miniskirt for boys. I liked the way you have written, and a unique way of presenting.

Hope to read some more articles.

sewa said...

thank you buwa and kabindra, glad you both like it :)

poo said...

nice article sewa...

Sulochan said...

Quite different ... Liked it ! :-)

mannu said...

wonderful research sewa. like the way u put ur words and ideas.

mannu said...

wonderful article. good research. i like the way u put words and ideas.nice

sewa said...

thanks poo, sulochan and mannu :)
Glad you guys like it

S said...

Really enjoyed reading an article so different and so interesting. Gender is really a matter of construct. Binaries are created in our mind and that are so safe that we tend make everything so gendered -- even colors!!

curly locks said...

sweta, i m very interested in binaries, thanks for bringing it up :) u r right of course, the binary phenomenon can be seen clearly at work here

The coder said...

article is nice but what the last line meant?

"Guys in miniskirts anyone?"

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