Fashion Freedom?

Or, why is men's fashion so afraid of change?


[2021-08-15] It's been over 20 years since I started wearing skirts in public and wrote a rant called Men's Liberation Front. I've seen fashion evolve, and not always for the better. Men continue to take pride in their so-called fashion that remains ugly, uncomfortable and extremely limited in choice. They pay huge sums of money for the latest models that never stray too far away from the manly ideas written in stone around World War II.

One small update I've witnessed in these two decades is the proliferation of slim-fitting trousers for men. I guess it's a step towards men showing some leg, but in most cases I still consider it ugly and uncomfortable. I've even seen some avant-garde guys sport brightly coloured leggings, but it all just seems like a distraction around the elephant in the room: men still don't wear skirts.

In the past couple of weeks I've gotten much more active with skirts in public, and I've written some practical notes on my fashion page. The topic remains quite controversial and continues to raise strong opinions, so I wanted to keep that more professional and speak more freely here.

Unisex = ugly

The slim trouser fashion is a good example of a kind of unisexification, which seems to reflect increased gender equality, as well as increased acceptance of feminine traits in men. But in all cases, this just means womanly adjustments to men's existing clothes — there are no attempts to introduce new options such as skirts. I guess one reason could be that skirts are seen as explicitly feminine, whereas trousers and shirts are already gender-neutral. But this wasn't always the case. Women fought tooth and nail to make trousers that way.

To put things more bluntly, youth fashion has strived for the least common denominator, and thus made itself extremely ugly and boring. In fact, proper unisex clothes that are wearable by both sexes are necessarily ugly and unfitting, as they need to accommodate widely different body proportions. So while they could be regarded as a way to promote equality, they are hardly fashion.

As a 1980s kid I might also ask: where's the danger and rebellion that youth culture should be all about? Today's teens are a lot more conservative than their parents, and not just in clothing. This is partly explained as a reaction to world events such as economic depressions: they want to play it safer than their yuppie parents that ruined it all. But there are several other global phenomena that are likely related to this and general fashion trends.

Social conservatism and hipsters

As the 2000s failed in bringing space-age prosperity to everyone, a lot of people turned back to a mid-1900s nostalgia where men were men and women stayed at home. This is obviously not great for fashion freedom. One might think these are just older people from the countryside and we could ignore them when it comes to new fashion, but a significant number of young people are in on it too, though sometimes with a very different angle.

Youth fashion has always adopted retro elements, and with those comes a lot of baggage about old-fashioned gender roles. Hipsters are but one manifestation of this, but to me they make it painfully obvious that even the cool and woke kids have a secret longing for the old man's world. The success of TV series such as Mad Men is one example of this problem; Game of Thrones is another, with its celebration of violence and rape culture.

Historical perspectives

It's a pity that these conservatives rarely go further back in time than around WWII. Before the industrial revolution, it was often men that dressed more gaily than women and showed more leg, often with tight white stockings. It was a man's world, and men showed they were in charge by dressing up, in contrast to the gray office drones that men today look like.

Women's styles were not too subdued either, and they certainly involved skirts. But in contrast to men, women had to cover their legs with ankle-length garments. This was still an issue in the mid-1900s Finland, according to this documentary series on women and trousers. There were two common reasons why these women wanted the right to wear trousers: staying warm in the winter, and safety in factory work. The common opposition was that trousers would reveal too much of the body contours.

So the first female skiers who got to wear trousers, also had to wear ankle-length skirts over them. This solved the Northern exposure problem quite neatly, and while it might not be very practical for competitive skiing, it is a solution that hikers (male and female alike) continue to use in cold conditions. The skirts are usually about knee length for better mobility, though.

Fast forward a few decades, and it's hard to imagine that women's clothing was supposed to cover more of the body than men's. In some general sense it remains true that a skirt covers more than trousers of similar length, though. So if a man swaps his shorts for a kilt, is someone going to be offended because he's now more covered than before?

As for the general toning down of styles and colours, the French revolution and related movements across Europe provide a good explanation. We wanted to distance ourselves from the upper classes and make the world more egalitarian by dressing down. It's a worthy goal, but as in many other walks of life, there are better approaches to equality than beating everyone down to the lowest common denominator.

Also, it's been a couple of hundred years since that revolution, and the ruling class now looks quite different from the French monarchs. If you want to fight The Man today, do notice that he is now wearing a dark suit with trousers. End trouser tyranny today!


Back in MLF I did talk about cultural appropriation, although without using that exact term. It's still worth asking if it's OK for a non-Scot to wear traditional kilts. But I haven't seen much opposition to it. Kilts are a good starting point for getting men to wear skirts again, and men who wear them generally have very different reasons than oppressing Scottish minorities.

I'd still avoid wearing another clan's tartan, though. If you don't have one in your family, there are several "universal tartans" that everyone can wear, such as Royal Stewart and Black Watch. These days you can also find a lot of non-traditional, non-tartan kilts, which might be better suited for casual wear anyway.

The fact that cultural appropriation has become a household phrase is an example of a larger phenomenon. People are increasingly aware and understanding of different cultural/racial/sexual minorities, which in itself is a good thing. But as a result, many people find themselves limiting their expression in order to avoid offending any potential minority. It certainly doesn't make fashion any easier, and it might be one reason behind the bland, soulless unisex style we see today.

Sexual and gender minorities

Of the hypersensitivity issues above, one group of sexual/gender minorities deserves a special mention: trans women. These are people who were assigned male at birth but consider themselves female. They will probably have stages where they want to dress as women to express their female identity, while the world outside still considers them to be men. Of course, as men of equality and reason, we should give them all the support we can.

While the increased awareness of transsexuality is a good thing, it may also provide a false sense of certainty for people who need to categorize everything. E.g. "-Look at that guy, I wonder why he's wearing a skirt? -He's probably one of those trans people. -Oh, of course, that explains it."

I don't think this is a huge problem, given that people who already understand minority issues are likely to be more open to new explanations. But for the general public who is only aware of these issues through mass media, things might be different. I also believe that a lot of the new conservative movements can be explained by the need of some people to distance themselves from new minority issues that they fail to understand.

Drag and burlesque

Compared to 20 years ago, it's now much easier to see men in dresses and skirts — as long as it's done for show. Much like the awareness on sexual minorities, this is basically a good thing, but it has a similar categorization trap.

In fact, it is hard to avoid the feeling of putting on a show when you're trying to expand fashion norms in public. Even if you're trying to stretch the definitions of casual wear, a little showmanship might not hurt. You need to attract some attention, but once you have it, you need to step down again: Oh, I'm not a drag queen, I'm just an ordinary guy in a skirt.

The increasing presence of shows such as RuPaul's Drag Race might not directly help in the mission of getting skirts back into casual menswear, but they might have some indirect effects. It's always good for (especially young) people to see what a wide spectrum the word "man" can mean, rather than just testosterone-laden action figures or serious men in dark suits.

It's also nice that people get used to seeing men in skirts and dresses on a simple visual level. Then the next time they see a guy in a skirt on the street, they need not look twice.

Men in skirts vs. crossdressing

There's a huge problem with the now famous drag shows, though: they are all about cross-dressing. This is certainly not the goal of the men's skirts movement. We don't try to pass as women, and it should be painfully obvious to everyone who sees our beards and hairy legs.

As women started to wear trousers, they wouldn't just accept men's trousers as-is. They adapted trousers to their different body shapes and styles. In many cases, modern women's trousers are anatomically impossible to put on a man. It's the same thing with men's skirts, we are different and we need our skirts/kilts different (although a lot of "women's" skirts can be easily adapted to male use).

I don't have a problem with cross-dressing per se, and I can imagine myself doing it for a show/party some day. But I don't see it as a good solution to gender identity issues. Personally, I have a problem with the narrow box-like definition of "man" in which people want to stuff me. But the "woman" box looks equally stuffy and problematic, so I don't want to jump into that either. I'll rather work on expanding the "man" box for my comfort.

Back to the classics

There's a common argument why women in trousers are now accepted without question, while men in skirts continue to raise eyebrows, if not fists: assumed male superiority. Trousers make the man, so by dressing like a man you're showing you're aiming higher, and that's a good thing. Conversely, why would a man want to "step down" by wearing a skirt?

There are really two issues here. First, if you personally believe in that argument, then you're saying that men are inherently superior to women. That's a pretty serious problem in modern Western societies that are built on equality, and you should really work on that before worrying about what to wear.

The second issue is the assumption that aiming higher in a hierarchical organization is a worthy goal for everyone. This is a well-known problem in management (see Peter Principle and Dilbert Principle) but it seems to affect social dynamics everywhere.

If a man believes in equality, then he should have no problem wearing a skirt. In fact, it might be a good way to promote that belief to people around him, while also raising a middle finger to the corporate ladder climbing contest.

Men = work, women = fun?

Formal menswear now looks like it descended from military and state uniforms. We need not go too far back in time, and it was men who held all the important positions in society, and they had to look their part even in their spare time. Somehow, men today continue to dress like they're always at work at some very hierarchical organization. Casual menswear is but a rounded, slouchy version of business shirts and trousers, and jeans are just the thing to make you look like farmer from the 1800s. Oh, there's the option of sportswear too, because you need to keep fit to maintain your work performance. If you're going out to a fancier place, just wear another business suit, because you're just going there to network with other business guys.

They say it's a man's world, but it looks like women have all the fun and freedom.

We shouldn't ignore the fact that a lot of hands-on work cannot be done in frilly dresses. The many women that work in blue-collar jobs are well aware of this, but they also seem to understand they're not at work all the time. They are not wearing their overalls 24/7, waiting for pipes to burst or cell towers to fall.

Furthermore, guys in business suits are not exactly doing manual labour. Suits have become a real practical and environmental problem, as we need to cool down offices just so that men can wear three-piece suits all summer. On the other hand, in formal festivities you find women in skimpy dresses and men in heavy woollen suits, so you obviously cannot set a comfortable temperature for both. Why can't men's fashion lighten up?

This Finnish article summarizes a few reasons for the decline of men's skirt fashions, and the utility of work/battle garments is a recurring theme. If you need to wear fully body armour and ride on horseback, then obviously skirts are not great, but how many of us really do that all day long? Also, worker kilts are a thing.

I must admit I also have the "always at work" problem. For example, I've been involved in the amateur threatre scene for years, and it has provided plenty of opportunities to dress up on and off stage. Unfortunately, as a DJ / light/sound guy I'm always at work when there's a party. As a carry my own gear, rig some lights and sit in a tiny tech booth, I worry about damaging my nicer clothes and I need to dress in more utilitarian ways.

This kind of thinking is not only about external styles. It's basically saying that men feel they are always at someone's service. Perhaps by switching away from work clothes for a while, we could also switch our mental states closer to that of a free individual.

The measures of a man

[2021-08-26] A lot of men's fashion looks like it was designed to make men as unattractive as possible. One feature is the length of suit jackets. They are just long enough to cover the buttocks and hips, but not any longer than that, lest they would look like dresses or skirts. They break all the bodily form, make the torso look longer and legs shorter, thus turning men into Lego characters. The same problem affects casual clothing.

I have a long, rather form-fitting coat in The Matrix style. I sometimes think of it as a kind of dress. I also remember looking at denim dresses at a thrift store, and struggling to find an essential structural difference between those and denim jackets or shirts. It all seems to come down to how one wears it. This also reminds me of discussions where it seems OK for a man to wear a skirt as long as it is called a kilt.

The bit about torso and leg lengths is related to a desire to exaggerate sexual dimorphisms. This is probably important to the "real man" who needs to remind everyone constantly that he is not gay, and he is only attracted to things that look as different from him as possible. On the contrary, I think there are a lot of universally attractive features. As far as I've heard, women like it when a man shows his legs and the form of his posterior. But who cares about the women's opinions, we need to protect the "real man" from seeing such things and cover it all up.

Also regarding sexual dimorphism, it seems that some men have absolutely no sense of proportion or detail (often due to heavy inebriation). They see a person wearing a skirt-like garment and immediately infer them to be female, i.e. someone to be fornicated with. If the person turns out to be male, the man will feel cheated and not be very happy.

What's a real man?

When I think of the phrase "real man", it brings to mind a kind of conservative thug who defines manliness by the exclusion of everything that is female. He won't wear pink, go to university or eat salad, because those are things that women do. Some people seem to take this logic to its extremes and they won't have much left except sitting on a couch scratching their balls. They might have a job where they have to wear ugly and uncomfortable business suits because their employer/spouse/mom told them to. They sit in their extremely tight box of manly definitions; they might not feel great about it, but they won't complain or ask for anything more, because it's a manly thing to suffer, especially when it's done to mimimize any feminine elements.

Looking back in history, it was mostly men who discovered new continents and made scientific breakthroughs. These guys had real bravery to step outside of the box and change the world. Which one do you want to be, the ball-scratcher or the world-changer?

Risto A. Paju