Dress codes have been much in the news recently, largely because of the way the burden of compliance seems to fall on women — whether it be requiring them to don heels instead of flats, not to wear leggings or simply to “dress like a woman” (remember that?). But last week, the tables were turned, and men suddenly found themselves in what they deemed a discriminatory situation.
Namely, they were being ordered to wear trousers, rather than shorts, in the midst of a heat wave. The resulting ad hoc protest united men across countries, age groups and employers. It took the form of … skirts. And therein lay some important lessons.
An early example came June 19, when Joey Barge, who works at a call centre in Buckinghamshire, in southern England, went to work in tailored navy shorts, despite their not being included in his office’s dress code. He was sent home, whereupon he changed into a dress — a simple black and hot pink number — and returned to work.
The next day, bus drivers in the French city of Nantes who had been told that company policy did not allow shorts even though their vehicles were not air-conditioned and (as they pointed out) they were generally hidden from the waist down, showed up for work in skirts.
And at about the same time, a group of schoolboys in the English city of Exeter, for whom shorts were not a uniform option, started showing up for school in the plaid skirts that were part of the dress code for their female classmates.
The protests were widely applauded on social media.
And the protests did effect change: Barge’s employers relaxed their policy and allowed male employees to wear three-quarter-length shorts in black, navy and beige according to a note he posted on Twitter.
By Thursday, Semitan, the French bus company at the centre of the Nantes protest, had told drivers that they could wear black or beige shorts as a temporary measure and that the official policy would be reviewed, according to The Local, an English-language news site. And The Guardian reported that the “box-pleat rebellion” — and the generally positive reaction to it — had prompted the school in Exeter to allow boys to wear shorts starting in the next school year.
All of this is worth considering, for a number of reasons. First, they demonstrate that implicit gender bias in dress codes works both ways, something we should not forget.
Second, they show the changing balance of power in the relationship between the individual and the institution, and that the individual increasingly seems to be gaining.
And third, they reveal our own strange prejudices against men in shorts, and our growing level of comfort with men in skirts. That’s a pretty notable development.
As for men in shorts, why it is such a problem is not entirely clear. Because shorts denote childhood and weekends? Because we are weirdly uncomfortable with the idea of an exposed male calf? You tell me.
When it comes to men in skirts, however, it has been a subject of conversation for a while now, thanks in part to fashion’s interest in acknowledging and respecting a discussion around gender fluidity and the challenging of stereotypes.
Jaden Smith appeared in Louis Vuitton ads in 2016 in a skirt from the label’s women’s collection, and Sunday, Thom Browne (a major proponent of men in shorts, as it happens) showed an entire men’s collection of traditional suits — including some with skirts or shorts, rather than with trousers. Although designers have been floating the idea on the runway for a long time (Jean Paul Gaultier did it in 1984), I wonder if it may actually be reaching critical mass.
After all, although the shorts protesters were not suggesting that they wanted to wear skirts as a rule, the ease with which they adopted the garment, and the geniality of the reaction to their sartorial statement, certainly suggested a breaking down of traditional dress prejudice.
As Gaultier told The New York Times after his show in 1984: “Wearing a skirt doesn’t mean you’re not masculine. Masculinity doesn’t come from clothes. It comes from something inside you. Men and women can wear the same clothes and still be men and women. It’s fun.”
It may have taken more than 30 years, but his words are beginning to seem almost prophetic. Odds are, we are going to see more of it. Employers had better get ready.
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