Gender, dress, and fashion

Clothing for both men and women is culturally defined. Cultural norms and expectations are related to the meaning of being a man or woman and are closely linked to appearance. In Indonesia, parts of West Africa, and in traditional Scottish dress, men wear an article of clothing that closely resembles a Western definition of a skirt. In Indonesia, both men and women wear the sarong, a length of cloth wrapped to form a tube. The wrapper, a rectangular cloth tied at the waist, is worn by both sexes in parts of West Africa. The Scottish kilt, still worn at many social gatherings to establish a social and cultural identity, represents the height of masculinity (Kidwell and Steele 1989). In North American culture, the sarong, wrapper, or kilt would rarely be seen on men except within the theater, film, or in the context of couture or avant-garde fashion. For example, the grunge style of the early 1990s had fashions for men designed to be worn with skirts. However, there was nothing particularly feminine about these styles; rather, they were purely a fashion statement.

Sex, Gender, and Socialization

What is meant by the terms “sex” and “gender”? Although many people use the terms interchangeably, the two words do not have the same meaning. While gender is a social, psychological, and cultural construct, our reason to polarize gender is influenced by sex, that is, the biological dichotomy of male and female. The biological continuum of genes, chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive physiology helps produce a script for appearing and behaving male and female. Viewing gender as a fluid concept allows scholars studying clothing and appearance to understand gender relations as more than men and women “dressing their parts” (Michelman and Kaiser 2000). Gendered dressing is more than complementary role-playing; power relations are inextricably involved. Otherwise, women’s adoption of trousers represents an important readjustment of the definition of femininity, but not necessarily a change in the existing balance of power (Paoletti and Kregloh 1989).

A person’s sex is determined on the basis of primary sex characteristics, the anatomical traits essential to reproduction. One may assume that determining biological sex is a clear-cut process, but a significant number of babies are born intersexed. This is a generic term used by the medical profession to classify people with some mixture of male and female biological characteristics (Newman 2002). For example, a true hermaphrodite is a person born with ovaries and testes. Parents, with the help of professionals in the medical field, make the decision to assign their child to be recognized as either male or female. One of the critical cues that these parents would use is dressing the baby in clothing appropriate to its assigned gender.

Secondary sex characteristics distinguish one sex from another. These are physical traits not essential to reproduction (for example, breast development, quality of voice, distribution of facial and body hair, and skeletal form). Gendered appearance and how we construct our identity are closely tied to these sex characteristics. A body ideal is a size, age, and a combination of physical attributes that society deems to be the most desirable for each gender. For example the early-twenty-first century popular ideal for Western women emphasizes a youthful, slim, athletic, and well-toned physique. Fashion requires women to slavishly conform to this image despite the fact that recent studies have found that the average American woman is 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighs 142 pounds, and wears a size 14.

Actress Marlene Dietrich in suit. Women are often less limited than men in their clothing options, as it is generally acceptable for women to wear suits and pants, but not for men to wear dresses.

Actress Marlene Dietrich in suit. Women are often less limited than men in their clothing options, as it is generally acceptable for women to wear suits and pants, but not for men to wear dresses.

Color is a cue that effects how people interact with a child. The response of others to gender-specific colors of attire encourage what is socially designated as gender-appropriate behavior by that child (Stone 1962). Stone observed that dressing a newborn in either blue or pink in America begins a series of interactions. Norms governing gender-appropriate attire are powerful. Gender-specific attire enhances the internalization of expectations for gender-specific behavior. Through the subtle and frequently nonverbal interactions with children regarding both their appearance and behavior, parents either encourage or discourage certain behaviors often related to dress that lead to a child’s development of their gender identity. When a boy decides he wants to play dress-up in skirts or makeup or a daughter chooses to play aggressive sports only with the boys, it would not be surprising to find the parents redirecting the child’s behavior into a more socially “acceptable” and gender-specific activity. Even the most liberal and open-minded parents can be threatened by their child not conforming to appropriate gender behaviors. Research has shown that children as young as two years of age classify people into gender categories based on their appearance (Weinraub et al. 1984).

A person or behavior that deviates from these scripts of gender can be defined as unnatural or pathological (Bern 1993, p. 81). For example, in the movie Mrs. Doubt-fire, Robin Williams is discovered cross-dressing as a woman. It is at this point in the movie that he is regarded as being suspiciously deviant for such a behavior. What starts as a comedy quickly turns to more serious issues regarding his psychological stability. He is punished for his success at transcending proper gender appearance and behavior.

Gender as a Social Construction

Gender is a socially constructed phenomenon, and not all cultures aspire to the same physical ideal for men and women as those in Western societies. Likewise, dress can symbolically convey meanings about gender specific to a culture. For example, research on the Kalahari people of Nigeria (Michelman and Erekosima 1992) found that indigenous Kalahari men’s attire demonstrates social and political achievement and does not emphasize the pro-creative aspect of social development, as does women’s dress. Men’s dress emphasizes social power and responsibility, and women’s dress draws attention to moral and physical development. An example of dress emphasizing power is shown by the vertical lines and emphasis on the head in men’s dress. Kalahari females progress to full womanhood wearing distinctive styles of dress with ascending values of complexity that mark physical and social maturity. Also of note, is that the ideal adult Kalahari female body is substantial, thick, and plump (Daly 1999) in contrast to an American thin ideal. Researchers have used several critical frameworks to analyze body ideals and dress.

Cultural Ideals of Body and Dress

One approach to critically analyzing gender and dress is to examine cultural ideals of beauty. In Western culture, a slim waist for women and men is emphasized, along with large breasts and hips for women and broad shoulders and slender hips for men. Greek ideals of beauty are still present in Western culture. The Greek ideal of perfect body proportions has stood the test of time in Western culture (Etcoff 1999). Minoan artifacts, which date from 2900 to 1150 B.C.E., illustrate men and women with extremely tiny waists. Some scholars speculate that this was the result of artistic convention while other authorities suggest that young men around the age of twelve or fourteen wore belts that constricted the waist (Tortora and Eubank 1998, p. 48). There have been periods in history when men adopted the corset to achieve the fashionable silhouette of the time (Kidwell and Steele 1989). As a result, neither Western men nor women have escaped Greek beauty ideals.

Given this long-standing Western ideal of body proportions, the continuation of America’s obsession with the body comes as no surprise. Common phrases regarding the body include: One can never be too rich or too thin; no pain, no gain; thin-but-toned; and tall, dark, and handsome. Bodies depicted in magazines are often modified by using computers or airbrushing, allowing models to appear unrealistically beautiful and thin. Body doubles in popular movies mean that viewers might see two or more people standing in for an actor in a leading role. In magazines, the hand putting on the mascara of a beautiful model in an ad might be that of a hand model and not the model herself. The models themselves cannot attain the ideal, as can almost no one else. Some models have admitted to eating-disordered behaviors in the early 2000s. This is largely because clothing, in order to sell, must have “hanger appeal,” and fashion models must be walking hangers. Many individuals try to approximate ideals through diet, exercise, and sometimes plastic surgery. Although these ideals are prevalent in American culture, at least one study has indicated that white and African American adolescent girls respond differently to these social pressures (Parker et al. 1995). African American girls get community feedback for developing a style of their own, while the white group gets support for their success in copying the unattainable ideal.

Codes of Dress and Gender

Through an examination of historical changes in Western men’s and women’s dress during the twentieth century, it is possible to gain a greater understanding of the changes in the social meanings of clothing and its relationship to gender. Through the 1950s, men followed a restricted code for appearance, limited to angular design lines, neutral and subdued color palettes, bifurcated garments (for example, pants) for the lower body, natural but not tight silhouettes, sturdy fabrics and shoes, and simple hair and face grooming (McCracken 1988). This simple and restricted dress “code” related well to a focus on work and on social, economic, and political accomplishments rather than attention to changes in fashion (Davis 1992). Dress (except for the necktie) did not impede physical activity. The negative impact of this uniformity and conformity is that men may dress to conceal aspects of their identity, which Spindler feels is not always true of women (1994). Men’s business attire has been linked to a display of power facilitated by the uniform nature of dress. Joseph (1986) pointed out that uniforms exert a degree of control over those who must carry out the organization’s work, encouraging members to express the ideas and interests of the group rather than their own, thus promoting the group’s ability to perform its tasks. The opportunity for men to relax at work on “casual Fridays” has not released them from burdens of conformity, as they frequently adopt a Gap or Levi’s uniform of polo shirt and khaki pants. This symbolic allegiance to work and career also signals a privileged access to economic and political power in postindustrial society, namely, occupational success. Women’s conservative dress-for-success appearance of the 1980s can be analyzed as an appearance cue that announced women’s intention to ascend the corporate ladder.

Women, in contrast, have had a more elaborated fashion code, which meant that they could wear some of what men wore, and a lot more. For example, although men always wear pants, women wear both pants and skirts. They have an unlimited choice of fabrics, colors, design lines, and silhouettes. Women also have worn corsets, tight or flowing skirts, high heels, and nylons that have restricted their freedom of movement. Historically, women have been more engrossed than most men in an emphasis on beauty rituals, including fashion, hair, weight control, and makeup, although recent studies indicate that men are catching up with women in their overall concern with their appearance (Garner 1997).

As early as the turn of the twentieth century, both Simmel (1904) and Veblen (1899) noted that with the rise of the urban bourgeois, women without title or other claims to social status were denied access to business, politics, and government. They demonstrated their rising status through clothing, interior decorating, and other consumer activities (Davis 1992). In other cultures, layering of body supplements frequently can indicate an elaborated code related to gender, but it can also serve to demonstrate social rank (Eicher, Evenson, and Lutz 2000). For example, in India, most married women wear bangle bracelets on each wrist. The type of bracelet (plastic, glass, conch shell, silver, ivory, or gold) is appropriate gendered dress as well as an indication of that woman’s place in the social hierarchy.

More recently this “code” for men and women was examined in an intra-societal and cross-cultural context (Lynch, Michelman, and Hegland 1998). This research explored the potential of using a system of visual analysis of dress (DeLong 1998) to explore social construction of gender. In three research projects, the investigators found relationships between aesthetic choices and culturally determined gender roles. Lynch found that form and meaning worked together to express either commitment to tradition or openness to change in dress worn by Hmong American women to the New Year’s celebration. Michelman concluded that dress worn in the context of traditional women’s societies of the Kalabari of Nigeria was linked to cultural ideals of beauty. In contrast, dress worn by women in Nigerian national and international organizations provided a visual challenge to women’s constructed gender through the incorporation of visual effects typically found in Kalabari men’s dress. Hegland was able to discern degrees of difference in dress among transvestites, transsexuals, and drag queens who are typically placed in one broad category.

Historic Perspective

Historically, dress and gender have not always been fixed and have enjoyed some latitude. Researching dress and gender from a historical viewpoint stimulates awareness of the shifts regarding appropriate dress for males and females. For example, the expectation of blue is for boy babies and pink for girl babies has not always been the case. Paoletti and Kregloh (1989) discussed how the color “rule” in 1918 was pink for the boy and blue for the girl. Pink was interpreted then as a stronger and more assertive color and blue as more dainty and delicate.

After World War II, the color preferences for boys and girls reversed. Parents often put elastic pink satin headbands on their hairless girl babies, so that no one is confused about their gender. Babies are also often “color coded” prior to their arrival. Once parents know the sex of their baby, nursery rooms are painted in blue colors for boys and pink for girls. If wallpaper is selected, the themes are often coded by gender, for example, frog, snake, and turtle designs for boys and flower, unicorns, and fairy princess designs for girls. Parents describe their newborns in terms of gender (Cahill 1989). In a study of girl and boy babies of the same weight and length, twenty-four hours after birth, parents were asked to describe the newest addition to their family (Rubin, Proven-zano, and Luria 1974). Boys were described as strong, having large hands or feet, and demanding. Girl babies were described as sweet, cuddly, and cute.

In American culture of the twenty-first century, adolescents are often allowed leeway in experimentation with gender and dress, as some adolescent girls may shave their heads and some adolescent boys may have shoulder-length or longer hair. Adults are generally expected to adhere to their societies’ rules regarding appropriate gender dress. But gender dress has not always been polarized. For example, during the seventeenth century, adult men’s and women’s dress shared many of the same elements. A painting of Henri, Duc de Guise by Van Dyck (c. 1634) gives us a glimpse of how aristocratic masculine dress was defined during the first half of the seventeenth century. De Guise’s hair is past shoulder length and styled with a “lovelock.” He is wearing a profusion of lace at the collar and cuff areas of his doublet and below the knee of his breeches, his doublet opening is held together with a bow, and he carries a wide-brimmed hat decorated with a large plume. His knee-high boots are also elaborately decorated. De Guise’s portrait appears especially feminine when compared with contemporary American male dress.

Queen Henrietta Maria in a portrait by Van Dyck (Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson, 1633) has similar details to her costume as de Guise’s in that she is wearing her hair in a “lovelock” style, a large brimmed, plumed hat, and her collar and three-quarter-length sleeves are decorated with a profusion of lace. However, Queen Maria’s portrait in some respects is more streamlined and less fussy than de Guise’s in that the line of her skirt is not broken up and her legs and feet are hidden while de Guise’s lacy knee breeches and decorated boots break up the line of his lower body.

According to Davis (1992), the dress of the European aristocracy changed in the 1800s when men’s dress became a means of communicating economic success and women’s dress continued to follow an elaborate dress code. As a result, men assumed a highly restricted dress code as the European aristocracy began to decline and the advent of industrial capitalism began. Therefore, we see fewer similarities between men’s and women’s dress in modern culture at the start of the twenty-first century compared with the seventeenth-century dress of European aristocrats.

Gender, Dress, and the Self

Eicher (1981) proposed a model for viewing dress and the different aspects of the self. She stated that the public self is the part of the self we let everyone see, the private self is the part of the self we let only family and friends see, and the secret self we let no one or only intimates see. One hypothesized disparity between men and women in American culture is that dress for the secret self (what Eicher calls fantasy dress) is more restricted for men than women. In other words, women are allowed to purchase fantasy dress for the secret self more so than men. In order to test Eicher’s hypothesis, Miller (1997, 1998) surveyed historic reenactors regarding their use of costume during living history events and reenactments.

In 1997, Miller found that women reenactors have more sexual fantasies about dress than men, supporting Eicher’s (1981) hypothesis that American women feel more freedom to dress out fantasies than men. Female reenactors also reported more childhood memories about dress than men, indicating that boys and girls are socialized differently about dress (Vener and Hoffer 1965).

In 1998, Miller reported that among costumed reenactors surveyed, females dress in costume primarily to assume another persona, whereas males dress in costume primarily because of their love of history. In written responses to open-ended questions, male reenactors distanced themselves from such descriptions of their hobby as “fantasy,” “costume,” and “dress-up.” Women on the other hand embraced these terms and indicated that people don’t dress in costume only on the weekends (for reenactments), but for every day. As a result of these two studies by Miller (1997, 1998) and in collaboration with Eicher, a new grid model was developed for dressing the public, private, and secret self (Eicher and Miller 1994).

Gender Markers

Some aspects of dress mark the gender of an individual more than others, for example, a corset, footbinding, interest in fashion, a codpiece, and maternity apparel. Corsets have been associated with female morality, with the tight-laced woman as moral and the unlaced woman as “loose” and immoral. In addition, corsets have been blamed for displacement of internal organs and disfigurement of the female body during the 1800s; however, these accounts are generally considered few in occurrence and possibly overstated (Steele 1999). One cannot deny the erotic appeal of corsets, and Steele (1999) has used representations of the corset in art, illustrations, and advertising to discover that the corset shares a close association with female erotic beauty.

Corsets have also been worn by men, although less frequently than by women. For example, during the nineteenth century, the ideal for a fashionably dressed male included a rounded silhouette. These illustrations show the areas of the body that were to be rounded by padding (shoulder, chest, hip, and calf). Tight corseting created a small waist and emphasized the padded areas of the body by contrast.

Footbinding, once performed in China, was a disfiguring and socially acceptable practice performed exclusively on females and was closely linked with eroticism (Jackson 1997). Women in China followed a centuries-old tradition of breaking and binding their feet to achieve a lotus bud shape. This shape was purportedly sexually attractive to males and created high social status while increasing the likelihood of marriage among Chinese women.

Women are often accused of being excessively interested in fashion. But throughout history one can find examples of men who were also extremely interested in fashion. During the late 1700s, the king of France, Louis XVI, was very interested in fashion; he wore hose and high heels to call attention to his calves, and he wore a high wig to increase his height. Attention to fashion among men reached its zenith between 1796 and 1816 when Beau Brummell became the undisputed arbiter of men’s fashions in England: “Brummell was famous for his impeccable dress. . . . [H]e personified the Regency ‘dandy,’ a fashionable man who dressed well, circulated in the ‘best’ society, and who was always ready with a witty comment” (Tortora and Eubank 1998, p. 265).

The codpiece is one gender marker exclusively for men. In the sixteenth century, a small pouch of fabric was needed to join separate legs of hose to create trousers. This small piece of fabric was used to place emphasis on the male genitalia. From 1500 to 1560 the codpiece would grow in size, be padded, slashed, decorated, and used by men to carry coins, keys, and tobacco.

Maternity apparel, like the codpiece, is gender specific, and illustrations of pregnant women over time show that the public perception of pregnancy has greatly influenced the style of maternity apparel available. For instance, maternity career apparel became available during the last half of the twentieth century largely because popular opinion found it acceptable for women to work while pregnant (Belleau, Miller, Elliott, and Church 1990). This approach is in contrast to the Victorian era when pregnant women were said to be “in a family way” and were expected to remain at home and out of public view. Juxtapose the Victorian image of a pregnant woman with a more recent image of Demi Moore, nude and pregnant, on the cover of Vanity Fair in the early 1990s and you begin to see how society’s perception of pregnancy has changed over time (Damhorst, Miller, and Michelman 1999).

Social Resistance

Dress can be a powerful, nonverbal indicator of political beliefs. Examples demonstrating this relationship include uniforms, religious garb, and fashion. Political dress can convey a clear and positive message regarding the wearer’s beliefs and affiliation. Sometimes this dress can also be closely associated with the “politics of gender.” Feminism has challenged what is taken for granted about gender with a political goal of changing the world and transforming gender relations so that women and men alike can fulfill their human potential (Ramazanoglu 1989, p. 8). Feminists examine gender as a fluid concept that shifts in its meaning and expression according to time, place, social class, race/ethnicity, sexuality, age, and other variables. Issues of gender and power are part of the feminist analysis of dress and fashion. The fashion and image industries build their sales by playing with the boundaries of gender and power. For example, the semi-masculinized fashions designed for women by Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, and Calvin Klein can be interpreted as sexy, assertive, urbane, and most decidedly upper class but never something that would be worn by a man.

Athletic dress. Dress can be an important way to express political resistance and frequently is associated with the power relations of gender. Examples can be found in many cultures around the world. The history of women’s athletic dress from gym suit to the current athletic fashions provides a study in the power of the gendered resistance of dress. The early gym uniform was more than just attire for physical education; rather, it symbolized the long, slow process of adoption of the trouser form for women. Warner believes that the clothing for women’s athletics has had a wider influence on women’s clothing in the twentieth century than any other, except dance (1993, p. 191). In 1972, Title IX legislation demanded equal funding of athletic programs for females and males in schools across the United States. Since then, increasing numbers of girls and women participate in sports that have traditionally been seen as out of bounds for them, including lacrosse, wrestling, soccer, rugby, and ice hockey. As women’s opportunities in athletics have multiplied, so has their chance to expand the “boundaries” of their dress. Serena Williams, the American tennis star, exemplifies resistance to the boundaries of gender and femininity. She is comfortable in designer dresses that display her muscular arms and legs as well as tennis clothing and a physical appearance that was once reserved for only the most accomplished male athletes. She is highly feminine and simultaneously supremely athletic, an appearance resistant to a frail, feminine ideal of beauty.

Religion and resistance. Recent events in other cultures provide examples of dress as resistance. From a Western perspective, Muslim women’s veiling appears a form of great social repression. Indeed, in some cases, this may be true, such as the 1990s rules of public appearance for women under the Taliban rule of Afghanistan. The burqa, a total body covering, clearly represents a type of oppression to many Afghani women, although its longstanding place in Afghan culture is complicated. What may have been more distressing were the Taliban rules that prevented women from working or attending school. In the Muslim countries of Algeria, Egypt, and Iran, the return to veiling practices indicates a return to more traditional values of modesty, religious values, family virtue, and an aversion to Western consumerism—that is, fashion. For many women, veiling is resistant to certain prevailing social norms and an assertion of their personal and social identity (El Guindi 2000).

Conservative Holdeman Mennonite women also use dress to combat patriarchal control. Young women are allowed some leeway when it comes to the strict dress code of the Mennonites, and the older women who police the behavior of the younger women often overlook deviations in young women’s dress. Arthur (1993) found that young Mennonite women used lightly applied makeup, worldly clothing hidden in school lockers, and dyed high-heel shoes in black or brown to bend rules established by the male ministers. Even though Mennonite communities maintain strict dress codes, most men defer to their wives when raising daughters. Women help keep each other in line while overlooking some deviations. Both behaviors were considered “a double nature to the agency of Mennonite women” (p. 83).


Clearly, gender as a social and cultural construction needs—demands—the appropriate props to successfully convince the audience that one’s gender presentation is authentic. The dress we wear is layered with many meanings, such as culturally appropriate gender behavior, gender socialization via dress, codes of dress and gender, historical perspectives of dress and gender, dressing parts of the self, social resistance, and gender markers.


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