The History Of Men & Skirts, From Ancient Times To Today

They’ve been sporting flowing hemlines for eons.

by JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
Were dresses made for men? The history of men and skirts may surprise you.
Scipione Pulzone. Getty Images.

With Jaden Smith, Kanye West, Billy Porter, Kid Cudi, and more wearing skirts and dresses with abandon, there’s been a lot of public discourse around men wearing, well, anything other than pants and shorts. 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 people think. In fact, it might have you asking the question: were dresses made for men? And you’ll be surprised what you find out.

The entire idea of skirts being gendered, specifically female dress, was brought about by a combination of tailoring innovation and particular occupations. But the tradition of men in cloth wraps, skirts, tunics, robes and other non-pant items is vast and ancient.

Today, it’s considered notable and even gender-nonconforming when a man wears a skirt, from the aforementioned Jaden Smith to Mark Bryan, an influencer on Instagram whose posts in button-down blazers, dress skirts, and heels often go viral.

However, the movement to make skirts socially acceptable to wear for men — something ordinary and par for the course — is garnering strength on the runway and on the red carpet.

What's often missing in the discussions of skirts on men is historical context, so scroll down for the realities of how men have been sporting flowing hemlines for eons.

Ancient World: Skirts For All Except Horse Riders

Albert Kretschmer

Skirts were the matter-of-fact wear of many of humanity's most ancient civilizations, on both sides of the gender binary. 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 were cheap and efficient to 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, it stands to reason that pants slowly developed to be a "masculine" necessity. As most people no longer ride horses daily, though, it's scarcely an applicable logic nowadays.

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

Scipione Pulzone

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, came 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

Flemish School

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.

2013: Skirts For Men Are Only Taboo In Certain Cultures

Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic/Getty Images

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).

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, 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.

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 because they wear skirts. It’s totally acceptable and encouraged in certain parts of the world and should be here as well.

2020: Skirts Fit for a Red Carpet

Steve Granitz/WireImage/Getty Images

Billy Porter has done his part to bust gender lines, wearing tuxedo gowns, vest trains, cape suits, and most recently stunning at the 2020 Oscars in a Giles Deacon gold feather bustier and voluminous bubble hem printed silk skirt.

Deacon told The Hollywood Reporter that Billy Porter’s skirt was inspired by the Cupola Room at Kensington Palace in London. “A place of music, theater, and art-adorned pilasters by the artist William Kent, I wanted the piece to evoke the ethereal sense of beauty,” he said. “The skirt, printed on silk duchess, is a manipulated artwork of the striking elements that adorn the walls.”

2021: Skirts & Heels Go Viral On Social Media

Engineer, coach, and model Mark Bryan is always going viral for his easeful wear of skirts in lieu of pants. To date, the 61-year-old has over a half a million followers on Instagram, where he posts images in everything from mini skirts to full tulle confections. He also pairs nearly every look with a pair of sky-high stilettos that are impressive for anyone to walk in.

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