Whenever I can, I try to wear dresses and skirts. People often ask me why, or just assume that I’m ultra-religious. There are a couple of reasons why, but they can all(more or less) be wrapped up in this blanket statement: I dress the way that I do as a conscious rejection of the androcentric society that I’ve been born into. (I know that pants are not inherently masculine, that they can be practical for different situations, and that there’s feminine pants out there. Just hear me out!)
Masculine by Default
Masculinity is not default by nature and I don’t see why I should have to make it my default. Besides, why would I want to put on pants every day when I have the option to, uuhhhh, not wear any pants at all??
Since I’ve been wearing dresses and skirts daily, I’ve gotten more than a couple of questions and comments about it.
Why do I get questioned? Why is it normal for everyone to wear pants/trousers/slacks every day but weird for someone to wear skirts/dresses every day? I can’t be sure, but I’m willing to bet it’s because Western society is androcentric. And what does that mean, exactly? Dictionary.com says it better than I ever could:
androcentric: focused or centered on men
“I would like to consider the dominant role of men in an androcentric, patriarchal society”Dictionary.com
People could have just as easily abandoned pants in favor of skirts, right? They’re comfier, easier to make, and they can be just as practical in any situation as pants if the right style is worn.
Lots of folks seem to have it in their heads that skirts are impractical and restrictive, and while that might have been the case back when women wore huge hoop skirts and corsets and whatnot, it certainly isn’t true of more modern styles.
We Fought For a Choice
Now, I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t wear pants, or that pants are un-feminine. We should be allowed to choose how we dress for ourselves. After all, we did fight for the right to wear pants for quite some time!
Pants and skirts are arbitrarily gendered; pants represented (and still sometimes represent) freedom, adventure, strength, and respect. They provide more freedom of movement compared to the heavy vintage skirts and tight corsets of the past.
Why did we even have to fight for the right to wear trousers, if not(at least in part) because our society values masculinity more than it values femininity? Why else would freedom of movement be given only to men, and denied to women? There wasn’t such pushback against women in pants for no reason, after all. I mean gosh, who knows what sort of trouble us women would get into if we had the same physical freedom that men have, right?
Pants, Education, and Freedom
Check out this article from 2020 in the Irish Times about mandatory skirts in many school uniforms in Ireland. It raises issues such as how skirts are too cold and uncomfortable in the winter, how they expose students to the possibility of being exposed in windy weather, how they prevent students from riding bikes to school and participating in sports during breaks, and how they leave the girls overly-conscious of how they present themselves in order to avoid accidental exposure.
This paragraph from the aforementioned Irish Times article sums up the problem with mandatory skirts in schools perfectly:
In Ritualized Girling: School Uniforms and the Compulsory Performance of Gender, Alison Happel writes that skirts and dresses “restrict movement in real ways; wearers must negotiate how they sit, how they play, how quickly they move. Skirt-wearing, consciously and unconsciously, imposes considerations of modesty and immodesty, in ways that trousers do not.”Allison Happel
Or check out this article by The Conversation that talks about mandatory skirts in schools, as well as the murky language used in school dress codes. It goes on to talk about how uncomfortable uniforms can detract from a student’s learning experience and even negatively impacts their physical health.
The focus on girls is important, as regular physical activity and exercise are associated with improved school performance, a greater sense of personal responsibility and group co-operation, and reduced drug and alcohol consumption.Amanda Mergler, The Conversation – Why do we still make girls wear skirts and dresses as school uniform?
Requiring girls to wear skirts without giving the option to wear leggings or pants underneath is denying girls the same educational opportunities as boys. Instead of focusing on our studies, or having fun outside of class, girls are thinking about how cold they are, trying not to get caught in the wind, or spending extra time changing into something more comfortable before and after class.
To be denied an education is to be denied power, and by extension, access to society. And, surprise surprise, aside from being denied access to trousers, women have also historically been denied access to education in Western society! Heck, women have been denied access to personhood, and are even today being denied access to bodily autonomy!
It isn’t that politics, business, adventure, or athletics are naturally masculine; this isn’t just a “man’s world.” Those things, and society in general, have become associated with masculinity simply because of the exclusion, silencing and erasure of so many women’s voices.
The female population is about the same size as the male population, yet we birth 100% of the entire population. Don’t our bodies create theirs, don’t our bodies nurture theirs; so why then are we so often given a secondary position in society?
History is written by the victors, and by academics, who have erased women’s voices for so long. Women are a part of history, too(as well as nonbinary/agender/genderqueer people), and I find it incredibly hard to imagine that we had nothing to say.
Though we’ve been given a voice in society, that voice has been taught the language of those who hold power; its not always our own. And even if it were, we’re often taught to diminish ourselves in both size and volume.
And that’s why I’ve been choosing to wear skirts and dresses more! In today’s day and age, there’s no reason for me not to wear them. Look at tennis, look at ballet; skirts no longer impede mobility at all, so long as it’s the right style worn with the right under garments, such as shorts or leggings.
Modern styles offer just as much freedom of mobility as pants do, and quite frankly, I feel more comfortable being a bit more covered by a flowy skirt vs fitted pants. But that’s just a personal preference.
It’s odd to me, girls in private schools are required to wear skirts (especially in religious schools), meanwhile my work uniform requires me to wear pants. The only way I could wear a skirt is if I had a religious reason.
What’s with that? Why aren’t we just given the option to wear either or? I think it has to do with the androcentrism I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Pants are seen as more egalitarian, and more utalitarian. Making people wear impractical or otherwise uncomfortable clothing is an exercise in power for the people in control, such as traditional patriarchal institutions.
As such, I’m not surprised that pants, at one point in time, came to represent women’s liberation, and freedom.
Of the jobs that I’ve had, 5 of them required pants as a part of the work uniform, only making exceptions on the basis of religion. This, I think, stems from attempts at equality, but I think it really falls short by making clothes that are traditionally feminine off-limits. Doesn’t that sort of, in a way, subconsciously reinforce the idea that femininity is second-class, and that masculinity is the default? Surely people still, to some extent, associate skirts with femininity and pants with masculinity.
Instead of elevating the power of things associated with femininity, it’s easier to adopt the symbols of power that are already in place, and those symbols are often associated with masculinity.
The Power of Rejection
Consider the backlash that men often get for wearing skirts and dresses. Women fought to wear clothes traditionally worn by men, but the reverse isn’t quite so true. These days, it’s normal to see a woman in pants, but men are usually only seen in skirts and dresses in fashion magazines, or by rock stars on stage and on album covers. This ties back in to how pants, and especially suits, are seen as representations of patriarchal power.
It’s not uncommon for men to wear skirts/dresses as a rejection of patriarchal power.
Skirts weren’t always seen as feminine, and they weren’t always as restricting to mobility as the vintage hoop skirts might lead us to believe. Just think of the Spartans! Skirts, dresses, and tunics were the default mode of dress for all genders for a very, very long time.
So, for me, I have a really hard time accepting the idea that to be taken seriously as a professional, I need to wear pants, or a suit, and conform to modern ideations of power via association with masculinity.
Does that mean that I believe that women who wear pants are masculine, or giving up their femininity? Not at all! Are they deliberately choosing pants to look more powerful? Probably not! I think, for the most part, pants are just a common garment for anyone and everyone to wear in American culture. I think that everyone should be able to wear what they want to wear, and to be comfortable in the way they present themselves in public.
For me, that means wearing skirts and dresses, putting ribbons in my hair, and lots of pink accessories. I can be powerful and professional and athletic and anything I want to be and I can do it all while wearing a comfy, flouncy skirt!
I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the great privilege I have in writing this article. Not everyone has a choice about what they can wear (from hijab bans to forced covering), women are still being denied access to education across the world (and fighting back!), child marriage is still a global issue (learn more about this issue and how to help prevent it here), and other forms of violence against women are prevalent on a global scale (learn more about these problems and their health consequences & socio-political consequences here).
Choosing to wear skirts is a small act, and might even be considered regressive by some people due to how many people are forced to wear skirts/dresses without having the option of wearing pants. This post is in no way intended to diminish the experiences of those girls and women. Instead, my intention is to highlight one of the perspectives possible when we’re given the freedom of choice.
Forced dress code is often used as a form of oppression, which is never okay. We all deserve the basic respect, dignity, and freedom that comes with choosing how we present ourselves.
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