Gender Politics: Why Men Are Claiming the Skirt

The heat wave that's hit much of the western hemisphere this week has highlighted a surprising societal quirk: Men have realized they're still subject to some of the sexist dress codes that have troubled women for decades. There are still places where men can't wear skirts.

On Monday, a call-center worker in Britain who was sent home for wearing shorts came back wearing a dress. On Tuesday, in France, a group of bus drivers successfully overturned a ban on shorts after showing up to work wearing skirts. Back in the U.K., a group of male teenagers wore skirts to school Thursday to protest gender-specific uniform rules barring boys from wearing shorts but allowing girls to wear skirts.

It wasn't always this way.

Historically, pants have been so associated with masculinity that women were often barred by law from wearing them. The city of Paris only officially overturned a 200-year-old ban on women wearing trousers in 2013.

While female clothing changed and adapted to women's increasingly emancipated roles in society—like the end of the corset in the early 20th century, when the women's suffrage movement demanded political equality, or the introduction of the miniskirt in the late 1960s during the second feminist wave—men's clothing has remained fairly conservative.

Russell Crowe in "Gladiator." Men in the West used to wear skirts in pre-Renaissance times. Dreamworks/Universal Pictures

Recent debates on identity and society's understanding of it have called gender stereotypes into question once again. The idea that men don't wear skirts is, however, a relatively recent trend in male fashion.

"The idea of men in skirts blurs the visual distinctions between the sexes. [But] in the West, men have not always worn trousers," explain curators from London's Victoria and Albert Museum on its website.

Until the 14th century, men and women would wear togas, tunics and draped or unshaped clothing. As tailoring evolved during the Renaissance, it gradually became more common for male clothing to fit the two legs separately.

Tunics got shorter, and stockings and outer leg wear became more commonplace, eventually evolving into breeches in the 16th century and trousers by the early 19th century. However, in the early 20th century, men could be seen in long gowns and full-skirted coats. Even now, Christian religious leaders wear robes as part of their vestments, and Scottish kilts have also survived the skirt purge.

A Reddit thread discussing "what is something you envy the opposite sex for?" that went viral in January highlighted dress code divisions. "I wish I could wear yoga pants anywhere," wrote one Reddit user. Another one answered, "All that needs to happen for men to be 'allowed' to wear dresses (for example) is men starting to wear dresses."

Some fashion houses have timidly tried to introduce skirts as part of their collection, as Louis Vuitton did most recently in 2016; actor Jaden Smith, who is known for his disregard of traditional gender boundaries, was the inspiration behind the collection. Explaining his fashion choices, Smith told Nylon in 2016: "In five years, when a kid goes to school wearing a skirt, he won't get beat up and kids won't get mad at him." Perhaps that time will be here sooner than he expects.