Sunday, February 24, 2013

$39.99 at Sears

Back in August, there was an article in print edition of The New York Times Magazine. The title was simple enough, "What's Wrong With a Boy Who Wears a Dress?" (There is an online version of the article, with a slightly different title, here.) But it struck me a strange question to ask, after all, I reasoned, what's wrong with a girl who wears... well, what, exactly?

It took me a moment to work my through the idea that in a lot of ways, feminism has stalled because, oddly enough, it doesn't often seem to concern itself with making men more equal. While it's torn down the barriers that prevent women from aspiring to "traditionally" masculine roles (and, perhaps more trivially, modes of dress), I don't think that it has made any progress towards to reverse. Girls and women can wear pretty much "anything," in Western culture. Consider the fashion concept of "boyfriend jeans." They are, simply enough, just jeans that are cut in such a way that they evoke the idea that the wearer has raided her boyfriend's closet for a pair of his pants. They're available in any number of mainstream clothing stores. In fact, there's an entire class of "boyfriend fashion" designed around clothes designed to look like menswear, but cut for women.

On the other hand, when Levi's marketed their 510 Skinny Fit jeans as "The Ex-Girlfriend Jean," it was described as "a swift blow to masculinity." (It's also to be noted that the current 510s don't appear to fit as closely as the former X-GFs appeared to.) Men and women alike were up in arms over this development. And Wikipedia, which can normally be counted on for all sorts of trivia, is reduced to linking to the now-defunct pants as the sole example of "girlfriend fashion." And, jeans, of course, are pretty unisex. The concept of a "girlfriend skirt," (ex- or not) that a man could wear, is seemingly nonexistent.

While the understanding of masculinity is permeable (much more so that it used to be), it's something of a one-way street. It's no longer acceptable to be hostile or dismissive of women to cross gender boundaries, yet men may not leave it without a chorus of voices demanding to know what's wrong with them. Given the biological differences between the sexes, gender equality will always be a matter of equability  rather than identicality. But as long as masculinity (or certain outwards trappings thereof) are considered less a birthright than a requirement, and setting it aside is considered heretical, pathological and a step down, that equability will never materialize. And maybe clothing isn't really a good measure of it. But when I walk into a department store, and see a rack of Girlfriend Skirts in the menswear section, I'll be pretty sure we're a big step closer.

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