That there is so very little fuss about Jaden Smith wearing a skirt—he’s the new face of Louis Vuitton womenswear—says a lot about both contemporary society’s thoughts about gender fluidity and also the determinedly different Jaden Smith.
Smith’s latest fashion moment was launched by Nicolas Ghesquière, Vuitton’s creative director, via a set of images on Instagram, featuring looks from the Spring/Summer 2016 campaign.
This isn’t Smith’s first time rocking a dress. Last May, he attended a prom with Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg wearing a dress, and he has Instagrammed his love of going to Topshop “To Buy Some Girl Clothes, I Mean ‘Clothes.’”
Smith, it appears, doesn’t give a fig about fashion and gender’s strictures and conventions. It’s refreshing to watch his bold, devil-may-care experimentation, especially as such experiments can garner pretty nasty racist comments online.
Smith, undaunted, just carries on with the dress-up. At another prom he went in a full Batman suit. Every morning must be a funhouse of fashion possibilities, chez Smith.
Other male celebrities photographed in skirts have included—and I exclude men wearing kilts from this list, handsome as they are—Jared Leto, Vin Diesel, the rapper 2 Chainz, David Bowie, and Marc Jacobs.
In the way that Smith and say, Diesel and Jacobs, wear the skirt there is a confrontational attractiveness to the boundaries being broken.
Not only do they look great in the dresses, they are not in drag. They’re not looking to look like women. They’re not performing. They wear their dresses with the same ease as a pair of jeans. When you get to Leto, the genderfuck is even more fun and challenging: He wears a bright jacket with his dress, beard and long hair still in place.
The man-skirt has become a runway reality in recent years, with designers including Opening Ceremony and Jeremy Scott, and, most recently, the Spring 2016 show for Givenchy, producing some standout designs.
Jaden Smith is clearly a free-spirited person. In 2013, after reports surfaced his parents—Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith—were going to give him an “emancipation” from them for his 15th birthday, Smith joked on Ellen he would stay living with his parents until he made a film larger-grossing than his father’s.
There was also his and sister Willow’s mesmerizing, eye-bobbling quote-rich interview with the New York Times’ T magazine, about “Prana Energy, Time and Why School Is Over-Rated.”
Eccentric pearls from this interview included: “…your mind has a duality to it. So when one thought goes into your mind, it’s not just one thought, it has to bounce off both hemispheres of the brain. When you’re thinking about something happy, you’re thinking about something sad.
“When you think about an apple, you also think about the opposite of an apple. It’s a tool for understanding mathematics and things with two separate realities. But for creativity: That comes from a place of oneness. That’s not a duality consciousness. And you can’t listen to your mind in those times—it’ll tell you what you think and also what other people think.”
This and other quotes like it attracted inevitable mockery. Smith may be something of a proud fashion and cultural rebel, but the history of men wearing skirts is long, and sometimes extremely sexy, as when Jean-Paul Gaultier sent men down the runway in skirts in 1984, setting off our contemporary fascination with the style.
With designers like Vivienne Westwood and Dries Van Noten creating them—and the trend for men wearing drapey capes, hoodies, and sarongs (David Beckham, the most famous exemplar of this)—man-skirts have a rich history. No wonder the style merited an exhibition, Brave Hearts: Men In Skirts, at New York’s Met Museum’s Costume Institute in 2004.
That exhibition was curated by the Institute’s associate curator, Andrew Bolton, who this September became its curator in charge, succeeding Harold Koda.
Bolton’s show, and subsequent book, traced the evolution of men wearing skirts from olden times to today—from warrior dress to the kind of envelope-pushing, gender convention-challenging garb worn by Smith.
What links the warrior of yesteryear to the fashion warrior of today is the idea that a skirt can augment masculinity, rather than detract from it. When someone like Smith wears a skirt (not a man’s skirt, but a women’s one), what strikes you is not how weird it is for a man to wear a skirt, but why—supposedly in more open and culturally pluralistic times—do we find the idea of a man wearing a dress to be so weird?
The “weird” is how socially proscribed and verboten wearing a dress or skirt for men has become; how it has become freighted with assumptions about sexual and gender identity.
There is nothing strange in Jaden Smith wearing a dress for a womenswear campaign—the imagery guarantees great publicity. There is everything strange in the social panic surrounding men wearing dresses.
Jaden Smith says, undoubtedly, some pretty weird things about the workings of the universe. He is clearly precocious, and maybe pretentious—but in his gorgeously photographed, sartorial blurring of boundaries, he is doing all men a favor.
Whether fashion—which has historically traded on entrenched notions of femininity and masculinity—remains that committed to its gender-blurring path remains a mystery, as much tied up in socio-cultural trends as designers’ imaginations.
For a lasting shift in dressing to really register, the man-skirt needs to leave the anything-goes bubble of the runway and safe shores of celebrity peacock-ery and high fashion advertising, and hit the populist stores of the local mall.