Engineer Mark Bryan was in college the first time he put on a pair of heels. Initially, it was a joke; he was dating a woman who, in heels, was taller than he was, and so he tried on a pair to give himself a boost, too. But, he found that there was nothing funny about how he felt in them. “I was very comfortable wearing them,” he told Refinery29. So much so that, five years ago, Bryan started wearing heels full-time. Then came the skirts. “The skirt is just an extension of, basically, being able to show off the heels a bit more,” he said.
Today, Bryan boasts over 500,000 followers on Instagram, where he documents his daily outfits, which often include a shirt-and-tie combo with pencil skirts and pumps. “I never bother about what people think because to me I'm not doing anything wrong,” he said.
It seems that 2021 agrees with Bryan. This year, global fashion search site Lyst reported that a Thom Browne menswear skirt was one of the top-searched items of 2021, marking the first time the silhouette has been on the site’s top trends for men. Celebrities like Harry Styles, Bad Bunny, Billy Porter, Kid Cudi, Kanye West, Diddy, and Lil Nas X have chosen skirts on the red carpet and in music videos. Just last week, comedian Pete Davidson showed up to the 2021 Met Gala in a Thom Browne dress that he wore with a blazer and sunglasses. And while many designers continue to show men’s and women’s lines on separate runways, some have started to erase gender divisions, with brands like Versace and Balenciaga merging their womenswear and menswear in one collection.
Despite its recent popularity, skirts in men’s fashion aren’t a new phenomenon. According to Jo Paoletti, an independent scholar focused on the history of dress in the United States, it was customary for European men to wear skirts before the 14th century, when they started wearing pants for ease of horse-riding. And, up until the 19th century, Paoletti said that young American boys wore skirts until they were old enough for trousers. According to her, this is how the skirt became “not only associated with being [a woman] but with being young or not being a grown man.”
While traditionally menswear-inspired trends are commonplace within womenswear today, society is less accepting of men wearing skirts and dresses. “It’s okay for women to adopt men’s clothing, and that has to do with the power and status difference of masculinity and femininity,” said Paoletti. “For a man to adopt something that’s feminine is seen as giving up his power.”
Jorge Dugan, a Netherlands-based fashion designer, has worn skirts since 2019. He likens the current fight for men to wear skirts to Western feminists in the 19th and 20th century who saw pants — called bloomers — as a key symbol of women’s rights. From suffragist Elizabeth Miller’s early version of pants-like skirts in 1851 and Coco Chanel’s menswear-inspired clothing to the World War II era and the women’s rights movement of the 1970s, women have historically fought for the right to wear a simple pair of pants (until the 1990s, it was forbidden for women to wear pants in Congress). “Society, in general, was not ready for new things,” said Dugan. “But thanks to those women [back then] who decided to wear pants, now it’s normal.”
Prior to mainstream fashion’s embrace of gender fluidity that has made it so cis men like Styles, Machine Gun Kelly, and Lil Nas X wear skirts in magazines and red carpets, the LGBTQ+ community has pushed to dispel the gender norms put on clothes. Yet, it’s often cisgender men who get celebrated for bending them in public. Bryan — who identifies as a cisgender, heterosexual man — said he gets messages from the LGBTQ+ community, who want to talk about his privilege. Dugan, who identifies as queer, agreed. "Heterosexual men, famous or not, get applauded, while gay men are oppressed for doing the same.”
Not only are cis men celebrated, but they are also not in danger for challenging gender boundaries. Bryan said that his privilege in wearing skirts as a cisgender, heterosexual man speaks volumes about what’s really behind the men-in-skirts taboo: “I don't think they are discriminating against you by what you're wearing, they're discriminating against you about your sexual orientation.”
“Thanks to heterosexual men in skirts, other heterosexual men can start seeing skirts as normal,” said Dugan, who’s also contributing to this mission through his blog Jorge Con Falda, where he documents his skirt-clad outfits and will soon start selling his own line. “Every man should wear skirts at least once in their life,” he said.
As a non-binary person, George Tyrone is also on a mission to use social media to confront the taboos around non-femme people wearing skirts. “It’s just a piece of fabric and it shouldn’t matter so much,” said Tyrone. Originally from Cameroon, they grew up thinking that skirts on men were normal. According to them, it’s traditional in their southwestern Cameroon tribe, as well nearby communities, for men to wear a cloth tied around their waist with a shirt.
But it wasn’t until Tyrone, who now lives in London, tried on a kilt, a customary skirt from the Scottish Highlands, to attend a friend’s party that they asked themselves: “Why is a fabric in this particular form only limited to women on a daily basis?” They first started wearing skirts at home, but finally sported them out a few years ago. Today, they’re building a community on TikTok, dedicated to stripping fashion’s gender constructs by showing off their skirt-based outfits. They say they’ve slowly realised that skirts on men only become taboo through the Western gaze.
“In so many parts of Africa and Asia, it’s normal for men to wear just a gown,” they said, referring to the East African kanga and the Southeast Asian sarong. “A lot of the clothing is not even gender-specific, it’s just what people wear.” Paoletti agrees. She points to the use of lungis, a traditional skirt worn by men in the southern part of India. Other examples include the lavalava, a rectangular wrap-around skirt worn by Polynesians, and the longyi, a tubular skirt worn by both men and women in Myanmar.
While other people may wear skirts to express their identity or culture, for Tyrone, the decision to wear a skirt everyday is still rooted in their belief that clothes have no gender. “What I wear is not because I’m non-binary,” they said. “It’s because it’s just what I like.”