Shortly before my son turned four, he decided that he wanted to wear dresses. He had seen his sister wearing dresses for two years and asked to wear a dress like her. So I pulled out a larger sized dress from the garage and put it on him. He wore it for an hour or two and then asked to take it off.
A few months later, he and his sister went to a Frozen themed birthday party and were requesting to watch the movie whenever they got screen time. My son asked to wear a dress so he and his sister could be Anna and Elsa. The two of them ran around in their dresses singing “Let It Go” for a good chunk of the morning. When it was time to go to school, he asked to take the dress with him so he could be Elsa with his friends. When he came home, he told me that his teacher wouldn’t let him wear the dress. That was my first glimpse into the fact that society hasn’t come as far as I had hoped in challenging traditional gender stereotypes.
My second glimpse took place last night at my parents’ house. My mom was talking about which dress she was going to wear to a party and my son said he wants to wear a dress too. My mom quickly responded with, “You can’t wear a dress. Boys don’t wear dresses,” knowing that that’s not what we believe in our family and not what we’re teaching our children. Thems were fightin’ words and I had to protect my son.
One of my core values and goals as a parent is to think critically about what I teach my children, not simply do things the way they’ve always been done, especially with beliefs and practices that do more harm than good.
My mom and I eventually hugged it out and I saw this as the beginning of a much longer conversation, a topic that will be revisited. I know that these deeply ingrained gender norms, toxic masculinity and fears of the feminine will take a lot of time and effort to dismantle. But the work needs to start somewhere.
5 Reasons Why I “Let” My Son Wear a Dress
To show him my unconditional love and acceptance
The harm in the words “boys don’t wear dresses” is in the implication: boys don’t wear dresses, you’re a boy and you want to wear a dress so there is something wrong with you.
The world has already started trying to break my son’s spirit, attempting to fit him into a tiny box of what is “right” and what is “wrong,” and judging him for his innocent preferences. It’s my job as his parent to build his confidence so he can stand in his strength and self-esteem, love him unconditionally and encourage him to understand and accept the wide array of humans in the world without judgment. My hope is that if and when he sees another boy wearing a dress (and potentially being bullied for it), that he is a friend and ally, a light in the darkness. I refuse to be the one to dim his light. And I will not allow it in my presence.
Since the invention of skirts and dresses, men in cultures around the world have always worn them without ridicule.
In Bhutan, they wear the gho. In Scotland, the kilt. In Morocco, they rock the djellaba. The fustanella is worn in Greece and men in Fiji don the sulu.
It wasn’t until the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution (when the sewing machine was invented) that the dress code for men and women changed. From the early Victorian era, there was a decline in the wearing of bright colors and luxurious fabrics by men, with a definite preference for sobriety of dress. This phenomenon the English psychologist John Flügel termed "The Great Masculine Renunciation". Skirts were effeminized.
"Henceforth trousers became the ultimate clothing for men to wear, while women had their essential frivolity forced on them by the dresses and skirts they were expected to wear,” wrote Robert Ross in his book, Clothing: A Global History. By the mid-20th century, orthodox Western male dress, especially business and semi-formal dress, was dominated by sober suits, plain shirts and ties. The connotation of trousers as exclusively male has since been lifted by the power of the feminist movement.
According to Marnie Fogg in The Fashion Design Directory, the French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier created his first skirt for men in 1985. Transgressing social codes, Gaultier frequently introduces the skirt into his men's wear collections as a means of injecting novelty into male attire, most famously the sarong seen on David Beckham. Other famous designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Giorgio Armani, John Galliano, Kenzo, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto also created men's skirts. In the US, Marc Jacobs became the most prominent supporter of the skirt for men. The Milan men's fashion shows and the New York fashion shows frequently show skirts for men. Jonathan Davis, the lead singer of Korn, has been known to wear kilts at live shows and in music videos throughout his 18-year career with that band. Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones and Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers were photographed wearing dresses by Anton Corbijn.
And who could forget when the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, attended the Academy Awards wearing their custom-made dresses? If this isn’t an acceptable list of “boys wearing dresses", then I don’t know what is.
Arbitrary gender stereotypes only hold us back.
Many people who believe boys shouldn’t wear dresses also subscribe to other traditional and harmful male gender roles, like “boys shouldn’t cry” or “boys shouldn’t play with dolls,” also known as toxic masculinity. There are many ways that toxic masculinity is dangerous for men, women and society at large, and an article on Focus for Health explains it perfectly.
The article states, “Emotionally and mentally, being the primary and/or sole breadwinner does not benefit men, but the ideology that men must be the provider persists for a multitude of reasons, whether it be power and control, fear of the unknown, or some other reason. There are several other instances of toxic masculinity negatively affecting male suicide rates, sexual assault rates, STD rates, and their ability to discuss health problems with health care providers.”
Forbidding boys and men to tap into their nurturing side has negative effects across the board, including feeling inadequate to care for their babies once men become fathers and resulting in women having to shoulder a large portion of the child rearing (in addition to many mothers working outside the home full-time now). For my son’s wellbeing and the health of his future relationships with his partner and potential children, I’m leaving behind any practices that emerge from toxic masculinity and encouraging him to develop his emotions and his desire and ability to nurture.
I couldn’t think of any logical reason for him not to be able to wear anything he wanted.
We have come so far where gender equality is concerned. But societal fashion rules are wild and fickle and still wreaking havoc on our children. When pants were first invented, men and women both wore them.
According to Adrienne Mayor, a classics scholar at Stanford University, “evidence indicates that both women and men may have donned pants. Greek writings refer to Scythian women wearing pants, as do numerous paintings on vases, while archaeological sites have uncovered the remains of battle scarred Scythian women who appear to have rode and fought like the men.”
Then for some reason (likely misogyny), women exclusively wore dresses for centuries and had to fight to wear pants again. If we’re adhering to some arbitrary fashion rules from days of yore, then my daughter, my mother and I shouldn’t be wearing pants at all. But of course, my mom loves to wear pants AND dresses. Both of those garments are wonderful for different reasons. Yet we live in a world of double standards where girls are allowed to wear everything and adults perpetuate their own homophobic and transphobic beliefs that if boys are allowed to wear dresses, they’ll become gay or transgendered. And we all now know that’s not how sexuality and gender works.
I refuse to allow homophobia and transphobia to take root in my children.
If we get down to the root of why people think boys shouldn’t wear dresses, it’s 100% rooted in homophobia and transphobia. So let me be very clear: I don’t think my son wearing a dress will turn him gay or into a woman. This is just science. If he is gay, transgender or nonbinary, he already is. Nothing he wears will influence that part of his identity. And furthermore, if he tells me at some point in his life that he is not a heterosexual man, I WILL STILL LOVE AND ACCEPT HIM.
That is literally one of my only two jobs as his mom: to keep him safe and to love him unconditionally. In our home and family, he will always know that there is nothing wrong with being himself. He will know that all people, regardless of their sex, gender, race or sexual orientation are worthy of love and acceptance. And he will know that what you wear doesn’t define your worth and humanity at all.
Fashion is fun. It’s a creative way to express oneself. But wearing one thing over another doesn’t make you less of a man, less of a woman, less of a person deserving respect.
Does your son wear dresses? How do family members feel about that? Let me know!