A quintessential British wedding rarely occurs over the fall but this time, I had the privilege to escape the city and enter the Welsh valleys where the golden leaves framed by a crisp blue sky beautifully encircled our friend’s nuptial ceremony. Everything was in place. The bride abounded with lace and taffeta and the groom — as well as most of the male attendees — conscientiously suited in greys, navy and royal blues. Except for me, as a good friend of the groom decided to point out comically, “Oh, nice clutch (bag) you’ve got there”.
The clutch in question was, in fact, my sunglasses case. A somewhat boxy but a well-worn black case that shouldn’t have seemed out of place nor as an anomaly to the ‘perfect picture’, except for the fact that the case was glossed with a patent-like finish.
As a man’s ‘clutch’ welcomed both amusement and comments, I was reminded of the narrow dialogue around the fabrics and textiles that men can hold and wear.
Runways have long included men with sheers, leather, and frills, but in reality, it is utility and functional fabrics that reign in a man’s wardrobe. The ethos of ‘The Dominant Man’, though waning, continues to assert its grip on the cloths of men, upholding the need to resemble strength and ruggedness for the ultimate performance. Silk, satin and the delicate coarseness of embroidery have little place but on the bodies of the protected; the aristocrats and those with hereditary nobilities, or as seen on the female side of a shared wardrobe.
Our ‘second skin’ then becomes a reality that speaks persona and social order; it dictates how we ought to behave. For many men, it means dressing in a way that speaks masculine prowess. For me, it means I should have felt uncomfortable for holding something that is effeminately patent. In a study that explored the identity of men who wore ‘utility kilts’ for work — a kilt with multiple pockets so that men can carry their workman tools — the canny resemblance of the garment to a skirt was heavily compensated by man-talk. This was done through an over-emphasis that only “real men” can wear a kilt, as well as comments on their hyper-heterosexual sex drive, told with no-holds-barred. As most of the kilt designs were either black, khaki or military, made from the fabric of toughness that can take “a beating”, the men were affirming a masculine identity that the feminine association of a kilt/skirt had taken away. Ostensibly, the touch of fabric on our skin, amongst other gender-defining cues, can make us fervently defend our gender profile yet restrain us back into the traditional sex divide.
Fashion — an industry that has the power to inform culture and identity — has long been on the side of breaking the binary gender norms, not least to question the impact of toxic masculinity that has affected many including men themselves; sealing the lips of men who are suffering and in need to call for help. As performed by this issue’s collaborating artists Nicci James and Simon Schmidt, it is the physical exchange between body and fabric that brings a gender-free garment closer to our senses and beliefs, creating a chance for our skin to finally re-learn.
What is your experience — and the memories — that different fabrics bring to you? Share with us via email or Instagram. We would love to collate the way clothes have shaped or challenged your understanding of gender.
When in Doubt, Pursue Masculinity: Gender Identity & Brand Response by Larry Neale, Renee Robbie and Brett Martin.
Gender Schema and Fashion Consciousness by Stephen Gould and Barbara Stern.
Negotiations of Masculine Identities in the Utilikilts Brand Community by Kelly Reddy-Best and Alexandra Howell.