Subversive Fashion

Skirts Should Be a Normal Choice…for Both Women and Men

Schoolboys in France stirred up gender norms when they eschewed pants last week. But men in skirts shouldn’t be a provocative sight…it should be a choice as normal as women in pants.

Jean-Sebastien Evrard/AFP/Getty

Last Friday, male students and teachers in Nantes, France launched a campaign to fight the sexism that is plaguing societies across the world through their clothing. The “Ce que soulève la jupe” (or “Lift the Skirt”) movement encouraged boys across 27 of the northwest city’s schools to sport skirts to class instead of trousers.

“We noticed that in a lot of high schools in our region, there are lots of cases of sexism and discrimination, so we thought we should do something to change that, and so we came up with the idea,” the campaign’s organizer, Arthur Moinet, told EuroNews.

Conservative citizens, however, called the skirt-wearing boys “scandalous.” Olivier Vial, president of the conservative UNI party, spoke out, saying, “We’ll do any old nonsense in the name of equality…This move is inspired by the Day of the Skirt, whose original aim was to allow women to express their femininity in environments where it was often difficult. But this is just denying feminine and masculine identity.”

While Moinet—and the boys who participated—should be applauded for their efforts to show solidarity and raise awareness for the discrimination faced by women, the response uncovered another form of social discrimination—the intolerance of men wearing skirts—and short shorts, for that matter. Over a century ago, women pushed gender boundaries by wearing their male peers’ pants (gasp!). But today, no one bats an eye as we freely strut around in androgynous clothing—something that is now a staple of the female wardrobe. So why is it so unusual—and readily criticized--for the reverse to occur; for men to embrace womenswear?

Opting to wear skirts has been a punch line in jokes about masculinity seemingly forever, from boys dressing up as girls for Halloween to fraternities hazing their pledges into cross-dressing for class. It’s the preconceived notion that skirts are reserved for those who are “Samoan, Scottish, or in drag,” as Alisa Gould-Simon highlighted in The Daily Beast in March 2009. In a largely progressive day and age, it’s hard to understand why certain articles of clothing are only deemed acceptable for certain genders.

In July 2013, 17 schoolboys in Cardiff, Wales showed up to school in skirts after temperatures in the U.K. became obscenely high. Shorts were not an option—they were banned from the dress code. “Over the last few days I’ve had a few headaches and skin irritations because I’ve been too hot,” one of the boys, Tyrone Evelyn, told The Daily Mail. “Girls can wear skirts, so I don’t see why we can’t wear shorts.”

While Evelyn and his friends simply wanted to wear shorts in warmer temperatures, the school’s headmistress disagreed with their protest, inflicting punishment and forcing them to change back into their long trousers. The boys’ act of defiance may have started on the basis of comfort, but it highlights the intolerance toward men adopting feminine articles of clothing. Skirts are only one example. The same can be said for men wearing short shorts.

On May 9, The Wall Street Journal’s David Colman wrote a piece, “A New Length for Men’s Shorts,” in which he promoted the recent trend in menswear designers producing pieces with less fabric. While Colman was writing a serious piece on the rise of hemlines and their availability at the likes of Club Monaco and J. Crew, his mantra that “summer is too short to spend it in long pants,” raised the question: Why is he having to convince us to accept the fact that men can also rock shorter inseams? In fact, why are we even discussing the trend as a phenomenon at all?

“Short shorts on men also confer social benefits to everyone,” Slate’s Amanda Hess wrote in response to Colman’s piece. “In a world where women’s bodies are often dismissed as ‘dangerous’ and ‘wrong’ when exposed, girls are made to pass fingertip hemline tests to gain access to middle-school classrooms, and authority figures claim that these rules and regulations are put in place to protect girls from boys, pulling the short-short onto the other leg implicitly dismantles these sexist structures.”

Short shorts—and skirts—for men have become more prevalent on the international fashion runways, and can increasingly be found in stores like Barney’s New York. We are even getting used to seeing them on celebrities. Kanye West has pranced around on stage in an array of women’s clothes, trying to make leather skirts for men the next big thing. Sure, the Internet may have exploded, but West’s female-associated attire only led us to realize that some of the most famous (and manly) men in history—Kurt Cobain, Mick Jagger, and Samuel L. Jackson—have all rocked the bottom in their heyday.

But it is still difficult for society to accept these gender-bending articles of clothing on the everyday streets when worn by non-celebrities. Maybe the boys in France and Wales will pave the way for this change. Maybe in the next century, Kanye will be proven right and men in leather skirts will be the next big thing, and not just something that leads to a discussion on gender. Do clothes need to be gender-specific? Will the time ever come when fashion is simply fashion?