Should dresses be gender neutral?

Tyler Mitchell / Vogue

Fact Box

  • The dress has evolved “dramatically” over time from ancient Egyptian sheer linens to elaborate Victorian skirts and bodices and sequined belted halters of the late 70s. Harper's Bazaar catalogs the dress in all of its glory from 51 BC to 2020.
  • British singer Harry Styles was the first man to pose on the cover of US Vogue in December 2020, notably in a ball gown. He stated, “Clothes are there to have fun with an experiment with and play with. What’s really exciting is that all of these lines are just kind of crumbling away.” 
  • A September NPD and CivicScience survey revealed that 40% of US consumers said they bought clothing “outside of their gender identity.” Reasoning included size and fit, comfort, and price. 
  • A Wunderman Thompson study found that 81% of Generation Z said: “gender doesn’t define someone like it used to.”

Amani (Yes)

From Harry Styles to Billy Porter, male celebrities have defied gender norms by rocking dresses. While their choice may have caused gasps, they signal that it's about time that dresses become gender neutral again. 

For centuries, children of both sexes wore dainty white dresses. In fact, President Roosevelt, who 'crafted an image of American manliness,' has a picture of himself wearing one from when he was around three years old. 

Long before this, dresses and skirts were the norm for Egyptian, Greek, and Roman men. These civilizations deemed pants ridiculous and impractical. The Romans especially looked down on pants, considering them effeminate. 

One piece of clothing has managed to withstand the test of time—the kilt. According to an Erasmus MC University Medical Centre study, kilts are associated with attractiveness and confidence. Currently, the fashion industry is moving toward gender-neutral clothing. One reason for this is the growing research and acceptance of the idea of sex and gender not being perfectly binary. Therefore, normalizing wearing dresses will help individuals assigned as males at birth to wear whatever resonates most with them. 

Women have done this, too, in the past. They chose to wear pants for practical as well as political reasons. It was later in the 1930s that Coco Chanel incorporated them officially as women's fashion items. So, shouldn't dresses be treated the same if both sexes can wear trousers? Perhaps it's time to open up dress-wearing beyond women—and without the cross-dressing stigma. If for nothing else, for the sake of becoming a more inclusive and less regressive society. 

Joanna (No)

Since 2019, several male celebrities have brought dresses to the red carpet and magazine covers. Their decisions vary from wanting to explore their femininity to grabbing attention and staying in the limelight. However, treating dresses and skirts as normal for men to wear has been deemed problematic by some in the general public. 

Whereas both sexes have worn dress-like robes and items of the like historically, there are reasons why men transitioned to wearing pants. In addition to making horseback riding more practical and comfortable, pants and trousers offered freedom of movement. They were also safer for working-class men as they didn't get caught up in wheels or machinery. 

Society, on the whole, still doesn't consider pants and skirts equivalent and interchangeable for men. While women wearing men's clothing (the boyfriend jeans/shirt look or dawning tailored suits on a red carpet) is societally accepted, the author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, Jo Paoletti, explains why. She writes, '[these clothing items] don't have equivalent power, or potency, or symbolism.' Meaning that women who choose to 'borrow' from a man's wardrobe are seen as aspirational. And usually, they don't copy everything men wear; their outfits often feature a feminine touch that accentuates their female physique. However, when men wear women's clothing, it doesn't do the same for their physique.  

Finally, a 2021 study evaluating adherence to traditional gender roles found that 'gender stereotypes are widespread among children aged 8–11,' and that 'the adherence to traditional gender roles was around 60%, regardless of the age and sex of respondents.' The gender binary is still ingrained in youth and general society, and rightfully so. Dresses and gowns do not compliment a man’s unique masculine physique and can even project a weak image of a nation’s society when it's accepted as normal.

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