When I used to teach Introduction to Sociology, I always included a section on gender roles and related social expectations… what we consider to be defining traits of masculinity and femininity. I would show the class a series of photographs and ask them whether the person pictured was a beautiful woman.
One of the photos featured a member of an African tribe. She was clad in a long red robe. Her braided hair was intricately beaded. Her features were accented by bright makeup.
Almost all of the students agreed she was very beautiful. There was only one problem: she was a man. With that disquieting revelation, we were able to better interrogate whether clothes do in fact “make the man.”
In the April issue of Smithsonian magazine, Jeanne Maglaty wrote an article titled, “When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?” She opens the piece with this snippet of U. S. history, “Little Franklin Delano Roosevelt sits primly on a stool, his white skirt spread smoothly over his lap, his hands clasping a hat trimmed with a marabou feather. Shoulder-length hair and patent leather party shoes complete the ensemble.”
In 1884, FDR’s trappings were regarded as gender neutral. Maglaty reminds us that boys in the late 19th and early 20th century routinely wore long hair and dresses until the time of their first haircut around age six.
Maglaty also cites a 1918 article from a trade publication: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
Huh? How many of us know an adult male who would rather go naked than wear a pink dress shirt? Even so, the modern gendered color palette didn’t come into popular use until the 1940s. Apparently, caveboys didn’t wear blue hides exclusively.
Then there’s the whole matter of dresses. I’m not suggesting a subversion of the dominant paradigm here. Rather, that more masculine pursuits in other cultures require wearing something different than trousers.
To this point, I have regularly participated in two cultural traditions of this sort. Owing to the fact that my ancestors came here from the Fife region of Scotland, I wore a kilt of MacDuff tartan to get married. On occasion, I still don the rig for some fancy affair. It also bears note that the Highland people were not known as meek, pacifistic sorts.
In the second instance, I practice a Japanese martial art known as iaido. Iaidoka (iaido practitioners) wear hakama, which is a blousy-legged pleated pant that looks like a long skirt. One of the aims of iaido is to perfect the act of drawing and cutting with a samurai sword. As such, people don’t usually give iaidoka much static about the “little dress.”
Even so, I already hear the predictable yammer: “That’s fine for them foreigners, but we don’t do that here in ‘merika.”
As above, my intent isn’t to suggest radical changes to modern American fashion sense. Heck, you can barely pry me out of khakis and an old ball cap. Instead, I’m suggesting we ask why little things cause such affront?
I recognize certain religious traditions have pre/proscriptions about appropriate dress. This isn’t that. If I so much as wear a bowtie to a meeting, it’s greeted with a mixture of admiration and suspicion. Heaven forbid we color outside the lines a little.
More seriously, I recall my break with the Boy Scouts, an organization to which I very much wanted to belong. A local scoutmaster made several loud, hateful comments about my character because my hair was longer than he thought was befitting an adolescent boy (it was the 1970s). His intolerance was a metaphor for a lot of things. I guess my hair would have prevented successful knot tying and fire-building.
In sum, we tend to do a lot of book judging by cover art. I wonder how many people we exclude and unfairly malign not because of gross aberration or misdeed, but simply by fiat of a small deviation from the lowest common denominator.
For the record, ladies really like my pink shirt.
Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org