Dress to Oppress – Strip the Walls Bare


Today, we unravel the threads of time and tradition, and weave a new norm.

The dilemma of deciding what to wear is universal. But in an age where gender and sex are spectrums rather than definite lines, we must re-examine the stereotypes (‘tom-boy’, ‘slutty’, ‘sanskari’) we have woven with respect to the clothing choices of those around us. Furthermore, questions like “Who wears the pants in your relationship?” only deepen the scars of prejudice, and misguided notions of masculinity and/or power. Such erroneous judgments continue in assigning gender and/or sex to colours. While in the early 20th century, the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department, mentioned that “pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”, by the 1940s, the tide had turned altogether. However, regardless of this timeline, an earnest plea to the reader would be to leave the rainbow alone.

Then, there are those who advocate ideals of equality and freedom of choice, and admonish men wearing dresses (read Jaden Smith at prom), all in the same breath. Say, if a woman wore a tuxedo to her wedding, one would witness all dainty facades of acceptance and support flying off the shelves. Admittedly, open-mindedness is easier in theory than in practice, and hypocrisy a smoother path to traverse than honesty. The question is- are you willing to take the road less travelled?

Further, dear reader, recall the stunning, overexposed shots of testosterone-fuelled, muscled men, armed with spears and shields, skin slick with sweat, clad in plumed helmets and fustanellas (a traditional Greek skirt) in Zack Snyder’s dramatic fictionalised retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae within the Persian Wars. Fixated as you may be on the seeming juxtaposition in the above description, of brave men wearing skirts, I shall clarify, that I speak of the box office success, ‘300’.

Moreover, consider the Scottish, who, in donning the kilt, were concerned with convenience and comfort for their male warriors and employed several practical uses of the garment- apart from shielding one’s body from nature and clothing one’s frame. The kilt could serve as a camping blanket, and was worn over a full-sleeved garment stopping below the waist (léine); loose-fitting, it enabled the wearer to make distant, long marches with agility and to wade through rivers. The upper half could be worn as a cloak over the shoulder, or brought up over the head for protection against the weather. Now, as queer (in more ways than one) as it may seem for some, to witness warriors donning an article of clothing reserved for the ‘weaker’ sex, when you come to think of it, it may be wiser and more comfortable for males to don skirts and females to wear pants, for obvious anatomical reasons.

Having said that, one should be free to clothe themselves as they see fit, regardless of the anatomy of their body. This free will is embodied in Megan Fox’s parenting style, whereby she abstains from enforcing stereotypical dress-codes for her children; in conversation with Jimmy Kimmel, she mentioned how her son, Noah, likes to wear dresses sometimes. Parents all over the world should take notes from the Transformers star, who said, “…there are no rules- you can be whatever you want to be in my house!” Moreover, skirts have made their way into men’s fashion through celebrities; Jared Leto, David Beckham, David Bowie, Jaden Smith, Kanye West and Vin Diesel have all worn skirts proudly.

Why, though, must we view these developments as achievements to be proud of, rather than commonplace occurrences that are treated with normalcy? I suppose we have, indeed, come full circle- where once, Luisa Capetillo and Katherine Hepburn went against the tide and donned trousers, the garment of revolt (the former went to jail for the supposed ‘crime’, though charges were dropped later), the dawn of the twenty first century brings with it the campaign for men to freely wear ‘feminine’ clothes. This is baffling, juxtaposed with the fact that cultures across the world started out with simple, flowy, dress-like garments meant for both the sexes – from the Roman toga, to the Indian lungi, and the Japanese kimono (to name but a few) – which were differentiated and altered into gender-specific clothes. Having said that, the response to the present hue and cry for gender-neutral clothing has not been met satisfactorily; despite the promise of equality, the unisex garment has essentially been of a ‘masculine’ style. Needless to say, we have miles to go in this area.

But clothes aren’t where it all ends; cosmetics form an integral component of fashion trends and the way one wears them (or doesn’t, depending on one’s preferences) reflects a person’s projection of themselves as much as their clothes do. Men have found their footing in the cosmetics industry, debunking the myth that makeup can’t be ‘macho’. This comes amid a larger investigation into traditional gender boundaries in fashion and beauty, alongside the growth of internet-famous beauty fanatics who have built followings via social media. Take, for instance CoverGirl’s latest face, James Charles, 17, a high school senior from Bethlehem, N.Y., with nearly 650,000 followers on Instagram and over 90,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel. Following suit, Maybelline unveiled their first ever male model, Manny Gutierrez, the 25-year-old “beauty boy”, with a whopping 3 million followers on Instagram and 2.1 million YouTube subscribers.

And then there is the eventful history of high-heels. From Medieval Persia to Carrie Bradshaw, the elevated shoe has come a long way. Initially donned by Persian noblemen as riding shoes, the heel enabled a steadier stance so that the rider could shoot his arrow more effectively while standing up in the stirrups. European royals took notice when Persian monarch, Shah Abbas went to tour European courts around the 1500s. And so the Persian style shoes were adopted by the aristocracy who felt it lent their demeanor a masculine edge, until it was eventually taken over by women.

Cut to the present, where more men are adopting the style originally meant for them, dispelling invisible boundaries and gender norms. In 2014, Yanis Marshall auditioned for the talent show Britain’s Got Talent; the part French, part British dancer combined his passion for dance and his undying love for high heels, and along with his two friends Arnaud and Mehdi, won the hearts of everyone who was watching. Sure-footed (in 6-inch heels, no less) and sassy as can be, the trio stunned the crowd and received nothing but adoration and respect from the judges, with their up-beat and bold moves on numbers by the Spice Girls and Beyoncé, among others. When asked why he dances in high heels, Yanis replied with the same answer he has always uttered, i.e.- “Why not?”

And truly, that is a question we must all ask ourselves. Why can’t men wear high heels? Why must make-up be withheld from the masculine? Why should women worry about being looked down upon for wearing a tuxedo instead of a dress? Can the walls we see around us be crossed and broken? More importantly, who built them to begin with? In part, we all are culprits, and these walls stand testament to our crime. Every naysayer has placed a brick and a dollop of mortar. It seemed a small contribution at the time- but then, no individual water drop holds itself responsible for the flood.

And while, as a general rule, things are easier to break than build- these walls are standing exceptions. We must all resolve to make a small indent, to chisel away yet another bit of prejudice, and to bury away our notions, in order to break the walls that separate us from each other, and ourselves. For, there are those amongst us who do not identify as either male or female- everything is not, after all, simply black or white. But this human tendency, an obsession almost, to put things into neat, tiny little boxes, has imprisoned some of our own; the breaking of these walls may be the first step for some of us to see ourselves in the clear light of day and do justice to who we truly are.

After all, walls are only so good as long as they protect and support us. But when they begin separating us from reality, and each other, it’s time to start considering cutting a few doors into them. And even if we don’t find the courage to cross those doors immediately, at least we’d have let in a bit of light from the other side.

– Divas Kindra


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