Who gets to decide which clothes end up on which side of the binary-gendered aisle? I know this sounds like a rhetorical question, but it actually has a concrete and predictable answer: cultural norms. Which in this case, have been determined not just by gender norms, but also by the North American and European domination of the global fashion landscape.
But first, let us talk about Brad Pitt. Because apparently, his skirt is what global media would rather discuss at length – in most cases, without even mentioning how queer people have been killed for wearing clothes along the same silhouettes. When Pitt turned up to the Berlin premiere of his action movie Bullet Train in a linen skirt, most media outlets and social media platforms had a field day. However, as this Washington Post Op-Ed highlights, the problem is that we are celebrating a rich, white cishet man for something that queer children and adults are still tormented for all over the world. The problem is not with letting Pitt wear what he wants to – it is that he is being grossly, disproportionately celebrated for something like this. A small moment on the red carpet does very little to move the needle to actually take us towards a more ‘gender-neutral’ norm for clothing. If Pitt had used that media attention to give a more direct statement about standing with the community – perhaps even spoken up for the queer children and adults in his own country by speaking up against the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill or the various anti-trans legislations that American states have passed this past year, it would have felt like his outfit was going beyond queerbaiting. Despite what clickbait headlines will make you believe, Pitt is NOT a trendsetter. What he is, is a privileged person who can wear whatever he wants whenever he wants because his race, public identity, money, and fame act as a protective bubble that keeps him safe and away from most forms of discrimination and harm.
Closer to home, we have Ayushman Khurana- the flag bearer of woke progressiveness – who appeared on the cover of GQ during the promotion of a film (why isn’t it the person playing the trans character, if anything?) with the words ‘Gender Fluid’ written next to him. The idea that a queer identity can be treated like a literal aesthetic by a celebrity is exactly the problem. Actual genderqueer folks face gross discrimination in India at both institutional and social levels affecting the quality of their lives in deeply painful ways, but a celebrity is hailed for painting his nails and standing next to these words as if they are a trending hashtag. Ranveer Singh, on the other hand, keeps making headlines for his clothes, which often include skirts. It is true that he faces a lot of trolling for his wardrobe, but the fact that he is a rich and famous cishet man means that the very real threat of facing violence for his clothing choices is probably not one that is omnipresent.
Just the fact that a random celebrity wearing a skirt makes headlines is telling of what a big deal the garment still is today, despite many versions of a wrap-around bottomwear being in existence for ‘men’ across various cultures. One need only look at the Scottish tradition of kilts signifying manhood or the West African Wrapper that is typically worn by everyone across the gender spectrum or even the lungis of South India to understand that the idea of flowy garments being ‘femme’ is a North American import to the rest of the world. The racial element of this dominance cannot be denied – just like White Supremacy sees the White cis-Man as superior to the White cis-Woman who in turn is superior to White people of other marginalized genders, it also sees him as superior to men from other nations, races, and identities that it considers ‘lesser than’. (Of course, that would make the Scottish kilt an outlier, but Scottish influence on global fashion has been minuscule compared to other European and North American nations.) This definition of who is ‘superior’ and who is ‘inferior’ drives our norms. This is why women wearing pants is (mostly) okay- they are aspiring to look like one who is ‘greater than’ them, but men in skirts are embracing what is ‘beneath them’ and is therefore a threat to patriarchal racism. It is also obviously why Western clothes are worn a lot more in Eastern countries than the other way round.
Our clothes are a way of expressing ourselves, and a skirt could mean anything from ‘this is what makes me feel like I’m being authentic to who I am’ to ‘I was feeling hot today.’ No matter which side of the aisle clothes are hung on in a store, the fact remains that there is nothing ‘natural’ about them ending up there. It is years of racism and queerphobic patriarchy that has convinced us that certain garments are appropriate for certain people. Our bodily autonomy and freedom of expression, however, state otherwise. What we need today is more vigorous advocacy and support for queer freedom of expression and stronger institutional and legal regulations that protect the community. Not celebrities being hailed for something that is a literal threat to queer people’s lives, without emphasis on the latter.