Me & my dress

It’s actually amazing how seldom men wear airy women’s clothes. And what if they do

(This text is an automated translation)

Original German Text:

Bartholomäus von Laffert

I have a new favorite piece of clothing. It is brightly colored, cut wide, lies close to the hips and reaches just below my knee. My friend Mina bought it a few years ago at a flea market in Riga and gave it to me. My dress.

It started a year ago: wearing clothes. Escape to aesthetics after years of jumble of style in pragmatic hipster camouflage, consisting of: white sneakers, black jeans, white T-shirt, red cap. Cocktail, chiffon, case – what had I envied my friends for their dresses and yet never dared myself. There was no reason for the new outfit, no statement and certainly no plan to smash the patriarchy behind it. I just wanted one thing: to be beautiful.

Of course, it was no coincidence that my first dress fell at the time when I began to critically question masculinity for the first time in a quarter of a century in this world: When was a man a real man? And soon afterwards: was I one at all?

Not in family photos, not on the street, not at Zalando: where are they, the men with dresses?

A man, as I had learned to do, was a person who slapped his buddies on the back three times when greeting them to avoid the appearance of tenderness. When asked “How are you?” The one who spread his legs on the S-Bahn as if he owned the whole wagon. A man didn’t cry (and if he did, then only in front of girlfriends), and he certainly wasn’t wearing a dress.

Our author prefers to combine his dress with dirty sneakers

There was a time when clothing was not primarily determined by gender. Up until the 18th century it was first and foremost an expression of class. And while practicality and sobriety shaped the style of the rising bourgeoisie, the nobility displayed luxury: they wore wigs, skirts and high heels. No matter if man or woman. But the dress code changed continuously over the centuries. However, it always served to maintain the existing balance of power.

And these changed in the course of the 18th century, when the bourgeoisie rebelled against the nobility and finally prevailed. “Along with the aristocracy, their clothing was pejoratively feminized, while the bourgeoisie as well as their way of life and morals were defined and idealized as male,” writes Swiss gender researcher Michela Seggiani. The bourgeoisie thus created an immovable two-gender model in which man was, supposedly by nature, superior to woman. From then on, masculinity was defined by work and mind. Femininity about “the inferior”. And to distinguish the two, men wore trousers and women wore dresses. Conceived gender roles, congealed in the fashion of the time.

A good 200 years later. A collage of photos of my younger sister and me has recently been hanging on the living room wall of my mother’s home: two chubby, grinning redheads who strangers might well mistake for twins. They are visually almost indistinguishable – except for their style: she wears a dirndl and a cotton dress and now and then a pair of trousers. I wear corduroy trousers, leather trousers, shorts, yellow trousers, and a snowsuit. I’m not wearing a dress in any of the pictures.

Women had fought for the right to vote in the past century, flocked to universities and into politics. They had fought to be allowed to wear trousers, and at the latest with Coco Chanel it became en vogue. And men? Men stayed. As if they had tried nothing else since 1800 than to prevent the emancipation of women – instead of caring about their own. Where were they, the men in dress? I looked for her – I did not find her. Not on the street, not in the film and also not in the search mask at Zalando .

“Feminine clothing has absolutely no social capital for a man because it embodies a number of qualities that our society disregards,” says Marjorie Jolles, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “A man who imitates the codes of an oppressed class is one thing above all else: ridiculous.”

“When women wear trousers, it’s powerful, it’s strong, socially accepted. But when a man puts on a dress … “

The actor and musician Billy Porter was not immune to mockery when he strutted the red carpet at the 2019 Academy Awards in a fancy black velvet tuxedo dress. The moderator Piers Morgan promptly wrote on Twitter: “May I say that it looks absolutely ridiculous?”

Billy Porter replied later on in Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show”: “When women wear pants, it’s powerful, it’s strong, socially accepted, and it’s associated with patriarchy and masculinity. But when a man puts on a dress, it’s disgusting. What are you telling me: Men are strong – women are disgusting? “

Man or non-man, follower or deserter: a dress gives a man a choice

How we see trousers and how we see clothes says a hell of a lot about the importance of “femininity” and “masculinity” in our society. And whoever breaks the gender-standardized dress code is breaking the hierarchy as a whole. This is a reason for many people to ridicule those whose looks and clothing seem inappropriate: trans people or queer people, for example.

I soon noticed in myself that my clothes were more than a fashion statement: With a dress I felt free and vulnerable; I moved more gracefully and the people on the sidewalk no longer avoided me. The looks of the others: surprised and amused. Not infrequently, however, also confused and contemptuous. Subconsciously, I soon divided the world into places where I was comfortable wearing clothes – and where not: like in Berlin-Neukölln, the Danube floodplains, at house parties – not so much in Upper Bavaria, in subways, in corner bars. Somewhere in between, Vienna’s inner city.

At the beginning of June. The night was warm. I was invited to a party and put on my new favorite dress. Cut out wide, narrow and with colorful dots that run into one another like watercolors. The friend I was out with that evening had complimented me. We went down Gumpendorfer Strasse in Vienna, where street bar after street bar lined up in the summer.

The bomb went off when we passed a bar in front of which ten smokers had gathered: at the sight of the dress, the men began to hoot, whistle, scream and threaten (I couldn’t understand the exact words). First fear rose in me, then anger, and finally the euphoria slowly returned. And when I stood in front of my clothes rail the next morning, I had the choice: pants or dress, man or non-man, follower or deserter. Most do not have that choice.


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