There was a time, centuries ago, when all clothing was unisex – not because of any cultural or philosophical standards, but simply because of pure, practical reasons. Men and women wore the same animal skins not to look good but to keep the cold of the night away. In time, cutting, then textile was invented, creating a new form of covering one’s body up. Then, the style was born, then fashion. The earliest of clothes, while they did have some differences, were, at least to today’s eyes, quite similar when it came to men’s clothes vs. women’s clothes. In Europe, though, the garments worn by men and women have slowly grown very different, giving birth to long-standing traditions and standards that even today’s gender-fluid clothing lines fail to break.
Skirts were the matter-of-fact wear of many of humanity’s most ancient civilizations, on both sides of the gender divide. 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 provided cheap and efficient 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.
In the Middle Ages, the majority of Europeans in the areas with a moderate climate preferred garments similar to the dresses we know today. These were worn by both sexes. Those worn by men were usually shorter at the bottom, and those worn by women often had more decorative prints. Otherwise, these pieces of clothing were mostly the same. In time, the dresses worn by men became shorter, leaving more room to the trousers and tights that emerged around this time, while women’s robes grew in length, becoming the skirts we know today. In more modern times, men slowly relegated their “skirts”, leaving them to their female partners, while they transitioned to suits, shirts, and ties.
By the middle of the 20th century, male skirts have completely vanished, being completely replaced by suits. The unisex fashion movement that emerged in the 1960s made an attempt to “eliminate the sartorial differences” between men and women. This, in turn, mostly meant women wearing men’s clothes, like pants and shirts, and not the other way around, even though many men adopted feminine elements of style such as long hair. This doesn’t mean that there were no attempts to bring them back. In the 1970s, Stanford researcher David Hall advocated men to wear skirts as a far more practical attire at warmer climates. In 1985, famous French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier created his first male skirt, and his example was followed by other famous designers like Giorgio Armani, Kenzo, and others. Still, the male population of the Western hemisphere leans against the revival of the male skirt, considering it an exclusively female piece of clothing.
Today, the fashion is for men to wear women’s clothes, but it needs to be stressed that kilts and other skirt-like garments men wore in the past were in no way associated with womenswear – they were the suits, tracksuits and military gear of their age. They were simply more practical for the time, given the means they had to construct fabrics and wearing pants would have caused more harm than help, which is no longer the case today.