The History of Men & Skirts

In the UK, where I live, a debate has recently erupted over student dress codes, as gender-neutral uniforms will soon be instituted at at least one school. Though the actual issue at hand has to do with students feeling free to express their gender identity and is rather complex, the media narrative is a bit more simplified: should boys be allowed to wear skirts, just as women can now wear pants?

But what you might not get from the current discussion is the notion that pants are masculine — and skirts are feminine — is much newer than most of us think. The entire idea of skirts as specifically female dress was brought about in European thought by a combination of tailoring innovation and particular occupations; and the tradition of men in cloth wraps, skirts, tunics, robes and other non-pant items is vast and ancient. So why are we getting our minis in a twist about private school kilts being available to all students?

Skirts on men have, of course, been used as a quick method of signaling gender-conforming behavior for decades, from the glorious gown-wearing David Bowie to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana sulking around in floral dresses. However, the movement to make skirts socially acceptable wear for men — something ordinary instead of a sign of specific thought or intent — is garnering strength on the world's catwalks and among certain millennial men. What's often missing in the discussions of skirts on men is historical context, so let's get into the realities of how men have been sporting flowing hemlines for eons.

Ancient World: Skirts For All Except Horse Riders

Skirts were the matter-of-fact wear of many of humanity's most ancient civilizations, on both sides of the gender divide. Gauzy wraps and loincloths for Egyptians, togas denoting class and status for Greeks and Romans, ornate military costumes for Aztecs: many ancient costumes were based around the idea of the skirt, purely because they were easy to construct and created huge freedom of movement. Whether you were fighting, building, farming or engaging in some kind of religious ritual, skirts provided cheap and efficient use. Short skirts among soldiers from the height of the Roman Empire, noted an exhibition at the Met called "Braveheart: Men In Skirts," were considered proof of virility, and allowed for swiftness while in combat.

Two factors, theorists note, determined the use of pants by either gender: cold and the necessity for horse-riding. The evolutionary biologist Peter Turchin explained to LiveScience that you can tie the development of pants-based technology pretty closely to the introduction of animals that required riding, which just wasn't practical in skirts: from samurai riding costumes in Japan to the nomadic herders of Mongolia, horses and riding meant trousers. (Leather Mongolian riding trousers are the oldest ever discovered, at a whopping 3,000 years old.)

If societies were gender-divided as to who rode the horses, did the fighting and rounded up the cattle, as many of them seem to have been, it must have seemed natural that pants slowly developed to be a "masculine" necessity. As most of us no longer ride horses daily, though, it's scarcely an applicable logic nowadays.

14th-15th Century Europe: Suddenly, There's Hosiery

The big change that brought trousers definitively into the mainstream for European men, according to the Victoria & Albert Museum, occurred in the 14th and 15th centuries and was based around something practical: tailoring. The evolution, the museum notes, was down to technology:

"It was with the evolution of tailoring from the 14th century that bifurcated garments gradually became associated with men’s dress and masculinity. Previously, both men and women wore draped or unshaped garments and tunics. As men’s tunics became shorter and tighter-fitting in the 15th century, fashionable men began to wear hose or stockings as outer leg wear."

However, the demarcation between trousers-for-men and skirts-for-women wasn't actually completely set in stone until around the 19th century. For an extremely long time, the tunic or short skirt was a key part of the male outfit in medieval and Renaissance Europe; just going out with hose wasn't seen as acceptable. And even when the tunic overlay fell out of fashion, trousers themselves would swell to skirt-like proportions among the fashionable; 16th and 17th century nobles in England and elsewhere, for instance, were sometimes expected to wear hose, perhaps a codpiece, and giant breeches puffed to high heaven.

Even in the 19th century, as the paint-like breeches beloved of such dandies as Beau Brummel set the hearts of ladies aflutter (because they revealed everything of a gentleman's legs and buttocks), skirted garments were still acceptable in many contexts in European society. Academics, monks and men of leisure wore gowns, all of which are still in use today.

19th Century US & Europe: Male Children Start Wearing Pants

One of the most intriguing facts about the ways in which skirts have gradually become less acceptable for men is how this thinking has been applied to small children. Nowadays, aside from christening gowns, small boys are usually dressed in pants as soon as they're born; but that's an intensely modern invention. Up until the 19th century, European children were dressed in skirts regardless of their gender, up until they reached an age considered to be reasonably "adult." Prominent families would occasionally dress children of both genders in incredibly elaborate gowns that replicated adult fashion for portraits.

However, in the 19th century, the practice of "breeching" came into fashion, in which small boys, somewhere between the ages of 4 and 7, were given their first pair of trousers (breeches) to show that they'd gone beyond infancy. Part of this was due to new ideas about childhood and children's brains, but it was also down to shifting perspectives on what made a "man"— which led to skirts becoming less and less acceptable for young male children.

Modern Day: Skirts For Men Are Only Taboo In Certain Cultures

Fashion, as 1883 Magazine points out, is having a decidedly male-skirted moment; many contemporary menswear lines are sending skirts down the runway, though it remains to be seen whether the look will actually percolate into the mainstream (and not just on professionally quirky fashionable types, like Jared Leto). Men's skirts have received mainstream resistance — often based around the idea that, since the skirt is inherently feminine, a man wearing one is either feminine and therefore weakened, harkening back to a less sophisticated past, or looking for attention. But the idea that skirts are entirely feminine is in fact very Western-centered.

In several cultures, from India to Japan and Southeast Asia, robes and skirts remain completely acceptable wear for adult men, which is an important aspect to bring to the conversation. In that sense, people like Jaden Smith — who often wears skirts in public and has advocated for the need to stop gender divisiveness in clothing — aren't avant-garde; they're just sensibly advocating that we understand our ideas about skirts are tied to our very specific culture, rather than some innate quality that skirts possess.