As Paris Lees once wisely observed: “Sexism didn’t disappear when women started wearing trousers.” This is sad but true. Trousers, while a practical item of clothing, have not yet brought an end to sexual violence, reproductive coercion or the male appropriation of female labour and resources.
Depressing though this is, there is one glimmer of hope. What if, argues Lees, men were allowed to “adopt feminine styles”? Perhaps that’s what’s been missing all along. It’s not that men benefit from male supremacy; they just haven’t discovered the joys of a nice tea dress or a fetching pair of kitten heels.
I am all for clothing equality. Being 5’1” with an ample chest, I never shop in menswear sections myself, but have always felt the strict divisions in terms of styles – in particular, the prohibition on men wearing skirts or dresses – to be arbitrary and wrong. It is a means of reinforcing the belief that the social and psychological differences between men and women are far greater than those between women and other women and men and other men.
While women, having fought for their trouser-wearing rights, are now permitted (in most countries, at least) to emulate the dress sense of the dominant class, for most men, “women’s clothing” remains off-limits. Even the comedian Eddie Izzard, who once said of his wardrobe “they’re not women’s clothes, they’re my clothes, I bought them”, has since backtracked, now describing himself as “somewhat boyish and somewhat girlish” (despite being 54).
When it comes to children’s clothing, the differences are even more stark and ridiculous. Apart from the obvious, the bodies of pre-pubescent boys and girls are not significantly different, so it is not as though shape and size can even be said to be a factor. But enter any children’s clothing department, and you will find the flowery pink-for-girls, rough-and-tumble blue-for-boys stereotyping impossible to avoid.
As Cordelia Fine, drawing on the work of sociologist Jo Paoletti, has noted, this is a relatively recent development:
“Until the end of the nineteenth century, even five-year-old children were being dressed in more-or-less unisex white dresses […] The introduction of coloured fabrics for young children’s clothing marked the beginning of the move towards our current pink-blue labelling of gender, but it took nearly half a century for the rules to settle into place.”
Fine points out that the change appears to have been, “in response to concerns that masculinity and femininity might not, after all, inevitably unfurl from deep biological roots”. It was not that children needed clothing that reflected a gendered inner self; on the contrary, clothing distinctions existed to create and enforce gender distinctions considered socially useful (for instance, by limiting the freedom of movement of girls).
“Today,” writes Fine, “the original intention behind the objective has been forgotten.” Indeed, if anything, the narrative has been turned on its head. In a convenient turn for any patriarch looking to promote theories of complementarianism, we are now told that the gendered self – dress-wearing and feminine, or trouser-wearing and boyish – was in the child all along. The only trouble is, occasionally we get distracted by genitalia and put a girl in trousers when really she should be in a dress.
The stereotypes themselves might support a gross, worldwide power imbalance (violent/caring, strong/weak, active/passive), yet we’re only meant to be concerned about whether each individual is dressed to match their “true” location within a hierarchy that cannot itself be questioned.
Take, for instance, the news that 80 state schools in the UK have introduced gender-neutral uniform policies allowing girls to wear trousers and boys to wear skirts. At first glance, this makes me want to cheer. As a mother of sons, the closest I’ve ever come to allowing my sons to queer their school clothes is putting one of them in dresses for discos.
The thought that my youngest, still four years away from reception, could decide whether he wanted skirts or trousers for school – or even opt for a mix – is exciting. Children’s ideas of what girls or boys are “allowed” to like become more rigid the more they are exposed to dominant social norms. To give them a true sense of fluidity, you need to catch ‘em young (yes, I am preaching the indoctrination of non-indoctrination – but it sort of makes sense to me).
But then you read the small print and find that actually, the new policies do not appear to be as revolutionary as they at first appear. “It is,” reports The Times, “part of a little-publicised government-funded drive for schools to be more sensitive to trans children who are questioning their gender identity.”
Alas, it seems adults are incapable of letting a boy wear a skirt for the sole reason that it’s just a sodding skirt. In the back of our minds we must be telling ourselves, “this is only in case he’s not a boy after all”. Otherwise all hell would break loose.
Boys might start to realise that – gasp! – they’re not in fact another, superior species. Girls might start to question leniency extended to male people who do not in fact look or act any differently to them. We’d have to stop spouting bollocks such as “boys will be boys” in order to justify all manner of dickish behaviour. Sod that. Far easier to stick with the perfectly logical, straightforward idea that boys don’t wear skirts, but some non-skirt-wearers might in fact be hidden skirt-wearers so they must be granted the space to experiment with skirt-wearing and thereafter apply formally for re-classification if and when appropriate.
According to Elly Barnes of Educate and Celebrate, currently offering diversity training to the designated schools, “you don’t get boys coming in to schools suddenly wearing skirts. But it just gives that space for it not to be an issue if there are trans kids.” In other words, don’t worry about it becoming acceptable for boys to wear skirts just because they feel like it. We’re simply making it easier to allow them to become designated non-boys should they wish to ditch the trousers.
It is astonishing that, given our knowledge of the severity of sexism and sexual harassment in schools, gender-neutral clothing is not being considered in the context of challenging misogyny. As one head teacher tells the Guardian, it is about children having “the right to express their own identity in a way that is most comfortable for them”.
In response to which one might ask whether the increasing number of girls who wear shorts under their skirts in an effort to avoid sexual assault are “expressing their own identity in a way that is most comfortable to them”. Is “not wanting to be treated as an object available for abuse” an identity? If we call such a style “non-binary gender presentation”, is that the problem solved? I can’t help feeling there’s more to it than that.
In a recent interview, Judith Butler argued that, “if gender is eradicated, so too is an important domain of pleasure for many people”. This is probably true. It is also something that is often said of religion. In neither case is this a validation of any fundamental truth, nor an adequate defence of the manifold abuses of power that both institutions facilitate.
Neither children nor adults should be subject to clothing segregation. School uniform regulations can be rewritten to disrupt the idea that it’s always “different for boys”. Unfortunately, however, this is already feeling like an opportunity lost.