Dress and Gender

Fashion Silhouettes

Fashion Silhouettes

According to Wilson, “fashion is obsessed with gender, defines and redefines the gender boundary” (1985:117). So whilst it would seem that today’s fashions are increasingly more androgynous, arguably even unisex clothes display an overriding obsession with gender. This obsession is translated into the dress men and women wear in everyday life which also highlights a concern to mark gender difference. Clothes draw attention to the sex of the wearer so that one can tell, usually at first glance, whether they are a man or a woman. As Woodhouse notes, “we expect men to dress to “look like” men and women to “look like” women” (1989). The ability to categorize someone by sex is crucial and necessary to make sense of the world. People aren’t comfortable with ambiguity and need to define an individual in order to identify them as male or female, masculine or feminine to sufficiently get by, as Freud in Femininity points out: “When you meet a human being, the first distinction you make is “male or female?” and you are accustomed to make the distinction with unhesitating certainty”. And clothing has long been crucial in assuring this sense of certainty.

In fact, so deeply does the gendered divide run through our understanding and interpretation of forms of life that it comes even before the questions about fingers and toes, father’s eyes and so on. As soon as the question: “Is it a boy or is it a girl?” is answered gendering the baby begins. Fashion and dress have long been vital in distinguishing the sex of a child. Yet one of the most cherished assumptions about clothing is in fact without ground. Baby clothes, which since the 1940’s have been routinely divided along gender and colour lines, pink for girls and blue for boys were initially the other way around. In the early years of the twentieth century, before World War I, boys wore pink and girls wore blue. Pink at the time, according to promotional literature, was described as a “stronger, more decided colour” whilst blue was seen as “delicate” and “dainty”. Only after World War II, the Times reported, did the present alignment of the two genders with pink and blue come into being.

For hundreds of years infants have been dressed alike, in frilly girlish frocks, so family portraits from the previous centuries have made it difficult to tell the young boys from the young girls. Royal portraits in particular have long blurred the binary nature of gender. Princes throughout the centuries have been captured wearing dresses and sporting long locks: attributes usually associated to little ‘princesses’. And such traditions continue in modern society.

Prince George in that controversial gown

Prince George in that controversial gown

More recently Prince George was captured at his christening in St James’ Palace wearing a lace and satin replica of a gown created in 1841 for the christening of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, the Princess Royal, Victoria. It has been used for generation after generation of royal infants including the Queen’s father King George VI, the Queen, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry, with Lady Louise Windsor being the last royal baby to wear the delicate ensemble in 2004. The original Honiton lace and white satin robe, which is now 172 years old, is now too fragile to use so the Queen commissioned a handmade copy in 2008 so the historic outfit could be carefully preserved.

The sight of the gorgeous Prince George in a traditional gown sparked much intrigue when it was televised worldwide. Many took to popular social media outlets like Twitter, questioning the gender identity of a very much male baby. According to Latin Times, user @DancerFroggy expressed her genuine concern for Prince George and his parents choice of attire, remarking “Why is this baby boy wearing a dress? Poor kid.” Another user, @NeilDownToMe, took the line of questioning into the realm of the baby’s gender identity, wondering if the royal baby is “a boy or a girl” because this user “thought it was a boy but had just seen a photo of it wearing a dress…maybe a tranny?” Even CNN’s Chris Cuomo mocked the Royal Baby for wearing “what looks like a dress”. This shows how far the gender divide is concreted within our culture through clothing and dress.

But it wasn’t just Internet land that went hey wire headlines like: “Royal Baby Wears a Dress is 2 Blessed 2 be Stressed” also appeared. This headline shows not only a writers desperate attempt to make the story hip and current-who uses 2 as a replacement of too nowadays? So 2002-but how these images of Prince George are so unlike other modern day images we see of little boys. It shows how dresses are still very much considered feminine and female when in reality they have for a long time been worn by boys.


This example shows clearly how the sight of little boys in frilly dresses in the twentieth century has become unusual and somewhat risible. The childhood photograph of macho author Ernest Hemingway aged almost two, also became the focus of amused critical commentary when re-produced in a best-selling biography-similarly to the reactions of the images of Prince George. The photograph sees Hemingway wearing a white dress and large hat festooned with wild flowers with the label “summer girl” a title created by Hemingway’s mother. The image was surprising, how could such a macho and powerful man have once looked so girly and female?! But why are these images so unusual? What has shaped our belief that dresses are feminine and trousers are masculine? Why can’t boyos been seen in frilly dresses and flowers?!

Throughout history men and women’s fashions have changed, defined and re-defined gender. As stated before, children’s portraits used to be muted, making it difficult to distinguish the sex of the infants captured whilst in modern day the distinction is reinforced through certain colours and styles. When these colours and styles are blurred such as Prince George in his christening gown, it’s clear as a society we’re not comfortable with ambiguity. However, what is considered feminine and masculine has changed relentlessly throughout human existence. News flash: Dresses, make-up and tights have not always been considered feminine. In fact men have from the earliest civilisations powdered their nose, rouged their lips and shown off their legs! Shocking I know!

Habits de Diverses Nations

Habits de Diverses Nations

When I began to compare images and clothing today with those from early modern civilisations I quickly concluded that gender seems more important today and more clearly differentiated. “Until the seventeenth or even the eighteenth century, sexual difference in dress was not strongly marked” (Wilson 1985). Laver (1995) suggests that the more significant division in terms of clothing has not been between genders but between “draped” and “fitted” clothes. In a steel engraving by Michael Colyn entitled, “Habits de Diverses Nations” (1581) it shows how gender was not clearly marked in the 16th century: both men and women wore ornate and regal garments, their bodies “draped” which obscure rather than draw attention to a sexed body very different compared to today. Both men and women are “draped” in heavy fabrics, disguising any distinguishable male or female body shapes. They look extraordinarily similar, reinforcing the fact that men and women can easily bend or blur their gender identity.

In medieval Europe, sexual difference was marked out more clearly but fashions for both men and women were still very much a blur. At the time, seeing the female leg was to be prohibited at all costs so women’s costume took the form of long skirt or robe. Meanwhile, male dress took the form of tights or breeches to emphasize the male leg. Soon this established two separate patterns of dress for men and women: male dress included tights, breeches and trousers and female dress gowns, robes, dresses and mantles. But the differences ended here. In all other respects fashions for aristocratic men and women were highly similar. Both sexes wore ornate garments in rich colours and textures, as well as heavy make-up, wigs, high heels, tall hats and perfume. Wilson states that “by the close of the fifteenth century, fashionable dress had become so fantastical and absurd that it was difficult to tell men and women at a distance” (1985).

And the gender blur continued. For much of the sixteenth and even seventeenth century male and female fashionable dress was often converged with elaborate ruffs and large puffed sleeves for both men and women. Jewels, ribbons, lace, sparkle, bons, buttons and rich embroidery also decorated the clothing of both men and women in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. In today’s society ruffles, lace, ribbon and most definitely sparkle and make-up are considered more feminine and female attributes. But in earlier centuries, as outlined above this was the epitome of high fashion and beauty for both men and women. So when did clothes begin to become gendered? How did men lose their make-up and heels? Why did women begin wearing trousers more freely?

Over the course of the eighteenth century a more “natural” appearance was favoured over excessive ornamentation and elaborates styles of dress. This has been thought to be the result partly for the growing power of the bourgeoisie. After the French Revolution male and female dress took on new, more relaxed contours. Wigs went out of vogue for both men and women at the turn of the century-this was in part due to the reaction to taxes on hair powder-and the hair of men became untidy, snatched back in a ponytail or left loose and wild. Whilst for some aristocrats a perfumed, elaborate style still prevailed, a relaxed country costume was adopted by most-breeches, riding jacket, suitable for outdoor activities like fishing or hunting, a style which had a relaxed air and would influence the dandy style. Excessiveness and fakery was out and ‘natural’ was in.

As stated previously the undecorated style for men of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries appear to coincide with the rise of the bourgeoisie. Before the excessive elaboration of men’s fashions separated rich from poor, pleasure seeker from worker. It was deemed beautiful and fashionable to see a man in jewels, make-up and elaborate clothing: it meant he was wealthy, it meant he didn’t have to work and only pursed leisurely activities. However, the bourgeoisie were very different. The bourgeoisie had to work for a living; their wealth was not the product of inheritance but of their own labour. Thus, whereas the aristocracy shunned all associations with economic activity, considering it degrading to the masculinity of man, the bourgeoisie transformed work into an honourable thing itself. As an outcome, men’s fashions became more relaxed and simple.

According to Flugel (1930) at the end of the eighteenth century “man abandoned his claim to be considered beautiful. He henceforth aimed at being useful” (1930:111). A rejection of decadence now signalled a male’s commitment to a life of industry, work, strength and dominance as opposed to a life of aristocratic idleness. Being strong and a worker were now deemed highly attractive but what’s more fashionable. I could argue that the inequality between the sexes could have stemmed from this change in fashions history. Men are dominant, provide, work and protect. Women are submissive, weak and stay at home. This has been the normative rules and expectancies for the sexes within society for an extensive amount of time. What if men continued to wear wigs and make-up? Would these roles ever have come to be? It makes me realise how far fashion not only reinforces a gender divide but also gender roles. Thank God fashion has begun to gender blur once more! We’ve now reached the point in history which marks a poignant change in men’s fashion: men started to dress down and not much more really happened. As a result, women’s fashion began to feel the full wrath of fashion ever changing Gemini-esque grasp!

Similarly, women’s fashions became less excessive in the eighteenth century but not for long. Nonetheless a more “natural” style was favoured similarly to the changes seen in men’s fashion. The dresses for women were now long and straight without a corset allowing for greater mobility. The long lines evoke a sense of androgyny as it disguises any clue of a sexed body. This could be argued to be fashions first attempts of androgynous style. However, this simple and more “natural” style of dress was quickly replaced when corsets began to make a return in long and short stays throughout the early nineteenth century. The corsets were used to keep a slim, flat stomach which was deemed attractive. This focus on slenderness, which has become what can only be described as anorexic in recent times (please refer to previous posts to learn more on the skinny epidemic in female fashion here: Diet and the Ideal 1 & 2) proves the general consensus that thin equals beautiful and fashionable has been around a hell of a long time. The presence of the corset prevailing as feminine throughout the course of fashions history could also indicate why corsets, lingerie and being thin are seen to indicate “female”. Anyhow, corsets and larger dresses came back into fashion and the gender divide was in full swing!

The striking image of the Victorian period (1837-1901) is one of marked gender division. As described by Roberts (1977):

“Men were serious (they wore dark clothes and little ornamentation), women were frivolous (they wore light pastel colours, ribbons, lace and bows); men were active (their clothing allowed them movement), women were inactive (their clothes inhibited movement); men were strong (their clothes emphasised their broad chest and shoulders), women were delicate (their clothing accentuated tiny waists, sloping shoulders, and a softly rounded silhouette); men were aggressive (their clothing had sharp definite lines and a clearly defined silhouette), women were submissive (their silhouette was indefinite, their clothing constricting).”

All of these styles; acts and demeanours are still associated to men and women even today. Although, fashions have evolved drastically and gender bending is now more than ever fashionable and attractive, these more traditional ideologies for the sexes still are very much the foundation of our understanding of gender/sex differentiation. Such notions are also reinforced through visual media where men are continually portrayed as dominant and women as submissive. To read more on men and women’s roles in recent times and the influence visual media has impacted on these please go to some of my previous posts from 350MC about advertising: masculinity, masculinity 2 and Tom Ford.

These changes in men and women’s fashion in the Victorian era as described by Roberts reinforce women as submissive and men as dominant but what’s more that fashion and excessiveness became an exclusively feminine and female thing: something which still permeates modern culture. During the Victorian period men’s clothes became increasingly simple and plain which contrasted with the increasing fussiness of women’s dress. In fact lace, ribbon and flamboyancy seemed to have reached a new zenith during the Victorian era! Different colours had also become gendered. Women’s dress was seen be more colourful, even garish, whilst men’s clothing were darker, predominantly black. The fashions described during the Victoria era seemed to have survived many centuries and I feel have deeply influenced our ideas of masculinity and femininity. We believe that men are in suits and women are in colourful dresses, this is acceptable, this is the “norm”. Whilst fashions are changing for both men and women in modern culture, becoming less and less gendered each and every day, we still take this “norm” as “natural” for the sexes. But as I’ve already outlined, in earlier century’s men and womens fashions were strikingly similar. Why then do we see men in suits and women in make-up and dresses as “natural”? It’s quite clear to me that these fashions and gendered styles are not natural at all. Society and fashion have shaped this idea and produced a strong gender divide which has managed to survive an excruciating long time.

Gaines (1990:1) argues that dress delivers “gender as self-evident or natural” when in fact gender is a cultural construction that dress helps to reproduce, which I completely agree with. Dress codes in particular reproduce gender: the association of women with long hair, evening dresses, skirts and long lashes and men with short hair and trousers is an arbitrary one but nonetheless comes to be regarded as “natural” so that femininity is connoted in the dress and masculinity in the black tie. As explored previously this hasn’t always been the case but in modern days climate this is the general perception of acceptable masculinity and femininity as it has been for the majority of passed centuries. Thus, the repetition of men in suits and women in dresses reinforces it as “natural” gender norms when in reality it is without any essential origin. This links to Judith Butler’s theory of gender being “performative” (1990, 1993). For Butler, gender is a series of stylized acts, styles and gestures repeated over time to give the impression of being a natural sort of thing. In reality these acts and styles are without any essential truth, thus gender becomes a parody: an imitation of an imitation and fashion helps reinforce such cycles.

Butler’s work on performativity, which is influenced by the works of Foucault, shows that gender is the product of styles and techniques such as dress rather than any essential qualities of the body. In other words, regardless of biological sex and gender, we can all take on the look, acts and gestures which are usually associated to our opposite. Butler argues that the arbitrary nature of gender is most obviously revealed by the act of drag when the techniques of one gender are exaggerated and made unnatural. By expressing more aggressively the acts, styles and gestures of one gender, the drag artist makes a laugh at hegemonic norms and highlights the fluidity of gender. (To read more on Butler’s theories, which have proved key to my research and image making please refer to the previous posts from 350MC starting with Gender Trouble). Similarly Haug (1987) denaturalizes the common techniques and strategies employed to make one “feminine”: the “feminine” body is an effect of styles, posture, demeanour and dress.

Overall, this analysis proves that fashion constantly defines and re-defines gender. Once upon a time, all those items deemed feminine, beautiful and sparkly in modern times were once masculine attributes. Portraits of baby boys captured in frilly dresses were normal. Men in high heels, wigs and make-up were deemed the epitome of high fashion and desirable masculinity. Men and women used to dress as elaborately as one another. But this all changed. Suddenly, men dressed down and women dressed up and down and the gender divide took over. This analysis into the history of men and women’s fashion was to prove that gender bending is not a new phenomenon and that fashion is closely tied to gender. Fashion evokes change: especially in relation to shaping what society expects for the sexes.

By photographing a man in heels with full make-up but still considers himself very much a man and doesn’t want to change his sex is not new. This research proves that. He reflects the very image of an eighteenth century aristocrat and I find comfort in that. Gender is a touchy subject, ambiguity unsettling for many. By understanding that gender blurring and that what is considered masculine and feminine has and is forever changing, I feel my gender bending portraits for my final project can serve to remind us that gender has and always will be fluid. No one can judge and we need to open our minds and embrace the current changes in fashion once more. I want to see more men in heels!


Wilson, E (1985) Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. Rutgers University Press.

Roach-Higgins, M and Eicher, J and Johnson, K (1995) Dress and Identity. New York: Fairchild Publications.

Parkins, W (2002) Fashioning the body politic : dress, gender, citizenship. Oxford : Berg

Entwistle, J (2000) The Fashioned Body. USA Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Weaver, C (2013) Royal Baby Wears A Dress, Is 2 Blessed 2 Be Stressed in New Portraits [online] available from<

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/prince-george-christening-royal-baby-2015340&gt; (26th March 2014)

Latin Times (25th October 2013) Royal Baby Dress: Why Was Prince George Wearing One? Twitter Wants To Know About Traditional Ropon [online] available from<http://www.latintimes.com/royal-baby-dress-why-was-prince-george-wearing-one-twitter-wants-know-about-traditional-ropon-132289&gt; (26th March 2014)


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