Why are some fashion items inexplicably gendered?

Nail polish, skirts, makeup: they’re all seen as feminine today, but if you ask someone why, you’re unlikely to get a real answer. Men have worn all of them in numerous cultures and societies across history – so what changed?

Why are some fashion items inexplicably gendered?

Nail polish, makeup, skirts and dresses – they are all things that have been worn by men historically (and still are in some cultures), and yet in the Western world today, they are inexplicably seen as feminine. Why? 

If you ask someone why exactly it is feminine to paint your nails, you’ll probably be told “because that’s what women do,” but that doesn’t really answer your question. That’s because there isn’t an answer, because gender is a social construct, so anything that is seen as “feminine” or “masculine” is entirely nonsensical and can always be traced back to some sort of historical event where the public’s perception shifted. Even for something as inconsequential as colours – most people will tell you that pink is feminine and blue is masculine, but before the early 20th century, the exact opposite was true. An article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department claimed in 1918 that “pink is for the boy and blue for the girl.” The reasoning behind that was that pink is apparently a stronger colour while blue is more delicate and dainty – quite literally the opposite of what is believed today. So what happened? Well, in the early-mid 20th century, capitalism was booming, and American manufacturers and retailers essentially decided the status quo, labelling blue as masculine and pink as feminine in order to sell clothing. The reasoning is entirely inexplicable, and it could just as easily have gone the other way, but it stuck, and now it’s part of the public consciousness without people really knowing why. 

It isn’t just colours that became inexplicably gendered. At the same time American retailers were gendering colours to sell clothing, dresses were becoming labelled as feminine also. You can find pictures of Franklin D. Roosevelt as a young boy (in the late 1800s) with shoulder-length hair wearing a frilly white dress. That was the norm. Most children would wear dresses for the sake of convenience, regardless of gender. The change in public perception of dresses is again almost entirely down to manufacturers and retailers marketing fashion items as either masculine of feminine in order to sell more clothes. 

So that’s what happened with colours and with children’s clothing. What about adults? Can men wear dresses and makeup? Why is it more acceptable for a woman to dress in “masculine” clothing than it is for a man to dress in “feminine” clothing? Feminism is largely to thank for that. A woman wearing pants would have been seen as weird and problematic prior to the 1970s, and women’s clothing was something that was dictated by men. Women were told to dress in a certain way, and it was one of the many methods of oppression that the women’s liberation movement sought to overthrow. Thus, there was a rise in androgynous fashion and women wearing “masculine” clothing (like pants) in the 70s and onward. It sounds insanely stupid now to call pants “masculine” (and that’s because it is stupid), but it used to be the norm. Perhaps at some point in the future it will sound equally stupid to label a dress as feminine. If “masculine” clothing stemmed from the patriarchy dictating what women should and shouldn’t wear, what about “feminine” fashion? Why isn’t it socially acceptable for men to wear nail polish, for example?

Historically, nail polish – like every other fashion item – has not been a gendered thing. Nail polish dates back to 3000 BCE, and it was common practice in both ancient Egypt and ancient China, where the colour of your nails would represent your social status. In Egypt, red would signify that the wearer was of great importance, with royals like Cleopatra and Queen Nefertiti wearing rust red and ruby red respectively, while lower ranking citizens would have to wear pale colours. In ancient China, the preferred colours for royals varied from dynasty to dynasty, but all of these cultures and norms had one thing in common: nail polish was not gendered. Both men and women would wear it, whether they were royals or of lower class, and it was never seen as feminine – in fact, it was sometimes the opposite. Egyptian, Babylonian, Roman, and various other cultures across history saw men paint their nails if they were high ranking warriors or commanders, and in some cultures, men would get manicures before going into battle. 

A lot of these same cultures were the same with regards to makeup. Ancient Egypt had both men and women using kohl and malachite for eye makeup as well as henna for their hair. King Tutankhamun is probably the most famous example of the eye makeup ancient Egyptians used. Ancient Rome also saw men using makeup, where males would lighten their skin with powder and apply red pigment to their cheeks (alongside their painted nails). It wasn’t just an ancient thing either, though – as recently as the 18th century, men in the Western world were donning very artificial looks, with powdery white skin, rouged cheeks, large wigs, and fake moles. (If you’ve ever watched a period film like Amadeus, you can probably picture that look very clearly.) 

If makeup and nail polish have been worn by both men and women in countless cultures and societies across the globe, what happened? Why did it suddenly become a feminine thing in the last 200 years or so? The use of makeup in general began to dwindle after the Elizabethan era, as makeup at the time contained lead. The lead would often cause facial scars, but that would result in them using more makeup to cover the scarring, which led to… more scars. In more extreme cases – and this wasn’t uncommon – use of makeup that contained lead could result in premature death. This may have been a contributing factor to the demonisation of makeup during the Victorian era. 

Queen Victoria thought the use of cosmetics was vulgar, impolite, and suitable only for prostitutes to wear. (With the exception of male actors, funnily, because women were not allowed to be actors, so men had to perform in drag.) It was a time when the royals had a massive influence on public opinion, and so Queen Victoria labelling it as vulgar created an association in the public consciousness between makeup, vanity, and femininity, and it was seen as the work of the devil. Since it was also a time when the church held a lot of power, makeup being labelled the “Devil’s work” contributed massively to its hugely dwindling use. Putting a little powder on your face is the personification of evil, apparently. So, essentially, Queen Victoria didn’t like makeup, and it led to everyone associating it with femininity (because apparently only prostitutes used it). Around that time, while the majority stopped using it altogether, the feminine association was reinforced further throughout wartime, as men would be on battlefields and thus did not have time for any sort of grooming. 

It’s a similar story with clothing items like dresses. When horse riding became the norm as both a method of transportation and waging war, men began to wear pants rather than dresses (for obvious reasons). With a few exceptions, women were not riding into battle on horseback, so they had no need to wear pants, and so it just kind of stuck that women wear dresses and men wear pants. Never mind the fact that everyone wore dresses prior to that. In ancient Rome, for example, men would wear tunics, often with a toga over them. While technically different to a dress, they are basically the same thing. When pants first started to grow in popularity, they were considered inferior by most men to the toga, and it was only when their benefits on the battlefield became apparent that pants became more accepted.

 It would be remiss not to mention kilts, which are one of the only traditional dress-like garments that have persisted through to the present day in their usage, with them still being common in Scotland. Nobody is labelling those as feminine. 

Since gender is entirely a social construct in the first place, there is not a single fashion item that is justifiably gendered. There is nothing feminine about makeup, or a dress, or nail polish, just as there is nothing masculine about pants or the colour blue. It is all entirely nonsensical. Thankfully, public perception does seem to be shifting somewhat. It is far more acceptable now than it was in the mid-20th century for men to wear nail polish or makeup, and celebrities like Harry Styles, Kid Cudi, and Pete Davidson have all worn skirts in the past. That hasn’t happened without predictable controversy surrounding it, though, so we do still have a ways to go before the public consciousness finally aligns with the truth: anyone, male or female, should be able to wear whatever they damn well please without people expressing judgement – especially judgements that stem from asinine traditions originating from things like corporate greed and the bizarre claims that the Devil is somehow involved.

Header Image Credit: Ryan McGuire - Pixabay


Callum Holt

Callum Holt Kickstart

Callum is a film studies student with an enormous passion for cinema. When he isn't watching or writing about movies, he enjoys playing chess, catching up with the latest headlines, and reading.

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