Historical Sew Fortnightly

The HSM 2016: Challenge #4: Gender-Bender

The fourth Historical Sew Monthly challenge of 2016, due by the end of April, is Gender-Bender.  In this challenge you should make an item for the opposite gender, or make an item with elements inspired by the fashions of the opposite gender.

The first option in the challenge is easy: if you have someone of the opposite gender to sew for, or an excuse to make something historical that was traditionally worn by the opposite gender for yourself.

Personally, I’ve always hankered for my own pair of 18th c breeches.  Maybe even in leopard skin print…

Interior with three men, seated woman and a dog, Venceslao Verlin, 1768

Interior with three men, seated woman and a dog, Venceslao Verlin, 1768

The second option is significantly more complicated.  On the surface, it seems simple.  There are dozens of instances of clothing inspired by the fashions of the opposite gender.

The  fashion for slashing that emerged in the  later  15th century and lasted into the first few decades of the 17th, is generally attributed to the actions of the Swiss army in the aftermath of the Battle of Grandson in 1476.  The Swiss supposedly celebrated their victory over one of the biggest powers in Europe, and symbolically revenged themselves on them for the deaths of their compatriots, by despoiling the lavish textiles the Burgundians  had left behind, slashing them and using them to patch their own clothes.  The story may not be completely true: there are examples of slashing that predate the battle, but it appears in contemporary accounts, and women who wore the style may have felt they were borrowing the strength and styling of the ascendent Swiss military.

Elisabeth of Austria (1554—1592) Queen of France, by François Clouet (1515—1572)

Elisabeth of Austria (1554—1592) Queen of France, by François Clouet (1515—1572)

In the 18th century militaria was out, and leisure sports were in, particularly hunting.  Ladies copied the jackets of men’s riding habits detail for detail in their own riding attire, and it was not unknown for them to borrow even the breeches.  Both Marie Antoinette and her irreproachable mother-in-law were known to wear breeches for riding.

Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, the later Queen Marie Antoinette of France, at the age of 16 years, 1771

Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, the later Queen Marie Antoinette of France, at the age of 16 years, 1771

In the 19th century, the Napoleonic wars made militaria fashionable once again, and trimmings influenced by various military uniforms, particularly that of the Hussars, was seen on women’s  riding habits, spencer jackets (which originated as a men’s jacket) and other day wear,  and even evening dress.

Riding habit of green wool, circa 1825. From the Rijks Museum.

Riding habit of green wool, circa 1825. From the Rijks Museum.

Dress (bodice detail), ca. 1818, British, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dress (bodice detail), ca. 1818, British, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art

As the 19th century progress, and the navy became more and more important as a military arm, naval inspired uniforms became more common and fashionable for women, sported by everyone from the Princess of Wales to lower-middle class girls.

Princess Alexandra in a sailor suit, 1880s

Princess Alexandra in a sailor suit, 1880s

Princess Alexandra’s jacket demonstrates another form of gender-bending: the blurring of lines between the dressmaker, who did soft-fabric sewing and draping, and the tailor, whose more structured craft had traditionally been the male prerogative.  As the 19th century progressed more and more women’s clothes were made by tailors, and more dressmakers incorporated tailoring techniques into their work

In addition to being more tailored, women’s clothing also became more practical and less about showing conspicuous consumption and enforced ornamentalism, culminating in the widespread adaption of the standard collared shirt and knitwear in the 1890s, and trousers as an acceptable form of dress in the 1920s & 30s.

Beach pyjamas, ca 1930

Beach pyjamas, ca 1930

Notice a theme in all of these?  All these examples of gender bending are  examples where women’s fashion borrows elements of mens fashion.  There are very, very few examples where men’s fashion borrows elements from women’s fashion (the only one I can think of that could plausibly be argued for is the Brummel bodice).

The reason?  Historically, men have been seen as superior, and their dress was  thus superior.  Women borrowed men’s fashion because it meant they were adopting a position of strength.  Men didn’t borrow women’s fashion, because while would they take on something that represented weakness?  Society tolerated women borrowing men’s styles, though there were inevitably complaints about it, because it did not challenge the status quo: it reinforced the idea that what men did was to be emulated and admired.  Society has long frowned upon men adopting women’s attire in anything but mockery, because it opens up a  dangerous Pandora’s box of a question: if the way women dress is to be emulated, is there anything else that women do that is better than what men do, and should be taken up?

While clothing has become less gendered, and society more balanced, this attitude still persists in many insidious ways.  ‘Androgynous’ styles that appear on the catwalk, and filter down to plebeian fashions, are predominantly based on menswear, and are adopted by women, who end up looking more like men – the desired look is still masculine.  In the West, it’s generally acceptable to be a woman who doesn’t own a dress or a skirt, but is considered extremely weird for a guy to wear a skirt (other than traditionally male ones like kilts), even though I would definitely argue that there are situations and climates where it is more comfortable and practical to wear a skirt than shorts or pants.  ‘Gender neutral’ children’s clothes aren’t really gender neutral.  They are boy-friendly clothes, with the more overtly masculine imagery toned down, so that they are acceptable for girls as well as boys.  They  come in shades of blue, but never, ever, shades of pink.  ‘Gender neutral’ children’s clothes include trousers and shorts, but never, ever skirts.  When we give them to kids to wear we are telling girls that it’s good to be like boys, but we certainly aren’t telling boys that it’s good to be like girls.

Even examples of historical menswear that look feminine to us, weren’t considered feminine at the time: 18th century men’s waistcoats embroidered in delicate vining flowers just advertised that the wearer had the wealth to pay for silk, and to live a leisured lifestyle – admired attributes in a man at the time.  ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ outfits for boys look ridiculously girlish to the modern eye, but Burnett’s novel makes his ‘manly’ looks explicitly clear, and the novel was actually responsible for the decline in dressing small children in gender-identical outfits, as even tiny boys were put in the breeches of the suit.

Gender-bending is fascinating, but it also reveals some unpleasant truths about our society, and how far we have to go to reach gender-equality.


  1. Elise says

    Thank you so much for this post! As the mother of a daughter, an LGBT rights activist, and a STEM educator, I am grateful that you put into words something I haven’t been able to. It’s just too close, and I see too many people getting hurt, so I’m too emotional to put together words correctly. Thank you.

    Also, I love navy styling.

  2. I’m always drawn to sailor inspired fashion so I LOVE Princess Alexandra’s suit! This was a really good read and has given me a lot to think about… Why are we stuck in these gender rules of fashion? Then again I would think it odd if I saw a man walking around in a dress… Hmm

  3. Thank you for that statement about the sexism around gender-bending fashions. Sadly, it is pervasive even in trans/queer spaces – for example, the relative acceptance (or, at least relative lack of outrage regarding) FtM trans people vs. MtF trans people, or the fact that non-binary/genderqueer/angrogyne/etc. spaces tend to be swamped by FtN people and notably lacking MtN people and all recommendations to tweak your appearance, mannerisms, etc. towards ‘neutrality’ or ‘non-male/female’ actually are recommendations towards masculinity (e.g. cut your hair short, stop wearing skirts and dresses, etc.).

    Shows how skewed things are in Western culture, that even those actively attempting to step outside the bounds of gendered actions, fashion, etc. are still following the ‘rules’.

    • You’re welcome. I do think it’s important that we acknowledge the bias, and the implicit belief in Western society that the ‘real’ / ‘right’ way is the guy way. I’m actually more familiar with MtF, because in many Pacific cultures there is a (mostly) accepted traditional third gender that is usually MtF. So I grew up with very feminine māhÅ«, and there are Samoan fa’afafine in NZ.. Of course, in many Pacific cultures men wear ‘skirts’, so the entire Western construct around garments doesn’t entirely translate in the Pacific.

      • Elise says


        It’s been so interesting coming back to read the comments! Queer issues bring to stark relief sexism and the sad issue of binary-only. Girly is just fine, manly is just fine, but we shouldn’t force behavior and value for conforming.

        It also talks a lot about clothing. Clothing sends a message, part of the “ask her more” campaign in the 2015 Oscars–not just asking the designer who designed the dress, but also why the dress, and also about the acting role that resulted in being invited to the ceremony. Women are asked about clothing, not men. So the importance of communication through dress is highlighted and diminished at the same time, due to the double standard.

        Really, thank you for saying as much so eloquently. And thank you for the kind words, too.

    • Wonderful post and wonderful comments!
      I’ve just recently come out as a trans man and completely agree with this point.

      It’s so annoying that menswear never takes inspiration from womenswear. Historical dresses have so many fabulous details!

      I haven’t done one of these challenges in almost a year, but I’ll make an effort to do this one! I have some feminine garments I started a long time ago and never finished.

  4. Btw, here’s another earlier example of gender-bending. The late 14th C Italian women’s wear with its pronounced high pigeon-breast and narrow waist, inspired by the same shape in menswear which was itself inspired by the shape given to a man’s body by the globular-breastplate / globular coat-of-plates armour of the era. The Hundred Year’s War was raging between England and France and Italian mercenaries were highly involved. Militaria was high fashion.

    Men’s and women’s clothing: http://manuscriptminiatures.com/4317/10196/
    Armour of the same date: http://manuscriptminiatures.com/4317/17218/

    • Thank you! There really are dozens and dozens of examples, in every era, but they are almost all women’s wear borrowing from men’s wear. And in the early ones, often from militaria.

  5. You pinged it, as always!! I am excited to see tiny glimpses of light in emerging fashion – one of our Massey Graduates, Steve Hall, does a line of menswear that is decidedly androgynous. It looks awesome, although lots of black and grey, no pink yet.
    Surrounded as I am by fabulous men who do drag, and in some cases are “gender fluid” off stage also, I am so used to it, I don’t see it in any way other than an expression of who each one is as an individual. Maybe the more we see of it, the more our societies will accept it. I really hope something shifts as this rigid gendering of children has definitely gotten worse – I actually think the main cause is scans – knowing the gender of a child before birth has had a ridiculous impact on the pinking of girls and the blueing of boys. No more “neutral” choices.
    A fantastic challenge!

    • Elise says

      I do believe that the scans reduced the gender neutral aspects of birth. We got so much pink stuff, once people knew that my daughter-to-be would be a girl. They were being nice, but still…

      So, do you do sewing for drag shows? That must be so much fun, creatively!

      • Ugh. I’ve never considered that aspect of having a baby. Well-meaning family and friends pushing clothes on you, I mean, and those being gendered if you tell them what it is… I have pondered the toy thing, but not clothes…
        … not that I have an immediate reason to, but it’s something one ponders occasionally, especially if one has friends with children.

    • Elise says

      Interesting! Yes, feministing via clothing has so many expressions: decoupling sexualization of girls from clothing advertizements, creating active clothes for girls, and also ameliorating working conditions for the (mostly women) garmet workers. Thanks for the link!

  6. The latest Dress of the Year from the Museum of Costume, Bath, for the first time since 1963, is two menswear ensembles – although they are designed to be androgynous and unisex and one is displayed on a female mannequin.

    Thom Browne, the American designer, has also produced a number of pretty amazing reinterpretations of male suits with deliberately female details such as bustles and trains, I kind of have a crush on his sheer Swiss dot batiste shorts suits… But obviously these are not mainstream designs.

    In the early 2000s I did buy one of Topman’s “man-skirts” in grey polished cotton. I even wore it a couple of times, but the problem with the fabric was that it was pretty stiff, and when you sat down, the fabric didn’t always immediately drop down when you stood up….

  7. HoiLei says

    Oddly enough, one area where modern menswear does take what are nowadays considered feminine elements, is pimp fashion. A number of things not considered “manly” in other contexts signify masculine wealth, power, and status in pimp-wear. For instance:

    Sensual materials like fur, feathers, silk scarves;
    Big jewelry (bling);
    Bright colors like purple and ruby red;
    Statement hats; and
    Contrast trims on pockets, cuffs, and lapels.

    Even the stereotypical pimp jacket with big furry collar and lots of volume all around looks like a woman’s opera coat from the 20’s. Pimp fashions are not mainstream, but within their subculture, the clothes connote something serious. And in their use of expensive materials and showy consumption, they aren’t too different in spirit from Elizabethan or Georgian men’s ensembles.

  8. The one eensy quibble I’d have here–there was a hot trend in late 18th century habits to go military, in which British women imitated their husbands’ regimental coats (to particularly handsome effect, I would say!). (Non-military spouses may have worn them, too, but I only have the deets on real-life women who had military husbands wearing them…more research, yay!!) Of course men’s military and civilian fashions tend to evolve together, but these include particular colorways and lacing detail only really seen in uniforms.

    One thing I find interesting is the historical acceptability for men to wear “pretty” clothing that has declined to almost zilch in the modern Western world. I look at the embroidered suits of the 18th century, dripping with florals and color and delicate details, and I imagine the man putting that on had to derive some enjoyment from the clothes themselves. Modern, mainstream clothes–sheesh, you fellows are allowed to enjoy your tie, maybe? A pocket square? Pushing it, shoes? And “androgynous” clothing is very often gender-stripped rather than gender-inclusive. I’ve never been fond of androgynous clothing not because I dislike the idea of experimenting with norms and presenting sartorial equality, but because it’s very often quite joyless. I think (I hope?) that’s changing!

  9. Heidruna says

    This is so true! It always makes me angry to see even women themselves look down upon traditional “feminine” clothing/behavior/traditions/hobbies. Proudly declaring them self a “tomboy”, and “not like other girls”, like being girly is something to be ashamed of…

    We have a long way to go still

  10. You already mentioned it but it used to be common to dress small children in gender-neutral clothes: loose dresses. It seems to have gradually fallen out of favour during the 19th century although there are still (dwindling) examples of European folk costume in which this is still done.

    And then there is the colour pink: Once it was THE colour for little boys. A light version of manly red, you know.
    The overwhelming notion that pink is a girl’s colour didn’t really arrive (at least, here in the Netherlands) until after WWII.
    I once wrote a blogpost about that ( http://petitmainsauvage.blogspot.nl/2014/03/little-boy-blue.html ) and got a lot of comments from mothers. Some about the practical issues of dressing a larger family, some about clothes on offer and some from those who had tomboy girls, which made me a bit uncomfortable for exactly the reasons you outline at the end of this post.

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