Ad[dressing] the Obvious: How We Wear Our Genders

Heels: the perennial symbol of femininity. But why?
Heels: the perennial symbol of femininity. But why?

The body, and more specifically: clothing, is where we inscribe much of our gender identities. Perhaps more importantly, it is where we inscribe gender upon others. In other words, a woman being read as a woman is contingent upon, first: her body matching what we think a woman should look like anatomically, and secondly: by what she wears. As an example, one doesn’t need to go very far to find examples of men and women who have their gender identity or sexuality called into question because of the type of clothing s/he wears. While we may, as a culture, allow for more variation in what women wear, ultimately we are expecting it to be feminized in some way.

Here’s an example of how that works:

1. Boyshorts: these underwear are designed to mimic the look of “men’s” underwear- even being name “boyshorts” but are very specifically branded and designed for women. So gender is encoded in such a seemingly innocuous item as underwear becomes a site of powerful gender symbolism. That is to say, men can’t wear boyshorts.

Similarly, a skirt is designed as an almost exclusively “feminine” garment. Where skirts exist for men (notably as a culturally appropriate representation), they are altered, branded and recognized as masculine. A kilt, in other words, serves a different “function” and requires a different performance of gender (think rough, weathered Scotsman) than that of a skirt, which generally speaking is designed to enhance the sexual appeal of the female wearer. I should stop here and add that these aren’t ideas I necessarily agree with but that they are realities that we have created.

Even the very fact that in order to discuss the effects of gender performance and clothing adornment we must resort to female/male binaries suggests something is amiss. At the root of the gender misconception is the myth that gender and sex are the same thing, or exist as a mutually exclusive binary. We know of past and present examples where gendered clothing exists differently than in our culture but we can conveintly pass it off as an exception rather than recognize that the very simple fact is that we have arbitrarily elected to decide what clothing is “feminine” and what clothing is “masculine” and in doing so, placed so much importance on clothing in how it relates to our gender.

How does the way you dress inform, complicate or subvert your gender?


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