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Gender and Clothing: Gendered Divisions in Life

Gender and clothing. Sleeves of several men's shirts

In a previous post, I talked about gendered space, which is when physical space is divided by gender. There are some spaces meant for men and other spaces meant for women. But other aspects of life can be divided by gender as well. One example is gender and clothing.

Gender and Clothing

In many places around the world, clothing is gendered, meaning there are clothes for men, and clothes for women. And if you don’t wear the clothing meant for your gender, you may be seen as unusual. But what counts as women’s clothes and what counts as men’s clothes varies depending on the time and place you’re looking at. For example, in Western cultures, it wasn’t until the 18th century that there even started to be differences in men’s and women’s clothing.

Now if you are from the United States, you might think that skirts and dresses are for women, but in different times and places, men have worn them. For example, in Scotland and Greece, men used to wear kilts. Also, in many religions, male priests wear a long robe that is like a dress. And in Arab cultures and in places like Indonesia, the men wear a sort of dress as well.

In addition to skirts and dresses, throughout history men have worn fabrics that are considered feminine today. For example, velvet, silk, and lace are thought to be women’s fabrics in the USA, but the 18th Century English noblemen wore them.

So, then what clothes are meant for men and which ones are for women? It just depends on the culture.

Gender and clothing. Pink baby clothes folded in a pile with pink booties on top.

When does the gendered division of clothing start in life? Right at birth. Say a baby is born in the United States. The first thing everyone wants to know is, is it a boy or a girl? And people try to figure it out based on the clothing the baby is wearing. In the United States, if the baby is wearing pink, it’s a girl. If the baby is wearing blue, it’s a boy. And when you go to buy a baby outfit for someone who doesn’t know which gender they’re having, you are supposed to buy green or yellow, because these are considered gender-neutral colors in the USA. This is an example of how clothes are gendered by color.

And it’s not just babies that have clothing gendered by color. Clothing for toddlers and young children is often divided by gender as well. In the United States, clothing for little girls is very different from clothing for little boys. Little girls tend to have clothing that is pink or pastel colors, and little boys have clothing with deep dark colors like blue. Children’s clothing can also be gendered by style. Girls’ clothing tends to have flowers and frills and lace, while boys’ clothing often has plaids or stripes or pictures of vehicles printed on them. However, clothing for girls and boys can be different in other cultures. For example, in villages in Turkey, girls and boys are dressed pretty much the same, in simple pants and shirts.

Clothing can vary within the United States as well. Working-class families tend to dress children in gender-specific clothing, while middle-class parents use more gender-neutral clothing like pants and tops. Clothes for teens and adults are also gendered in the United States, but there are also options like jeans and sweatpants that either gender can wear.

Gender and clothing. Woman wearing a soft green head covering and a yellow and purple long sleeved outfit.

Gender and Clothing in Muslim Countries

Now I’d like to talk about women’s clothing in Muslim countries. In many countries, Muslim women are expected to wear the hijab, or head covering. People who aren’t Muslim often think that making women wear the hijab is a form of oppression. But many Muslim women want to wear the hijab because it makes others see them as more than just sexual objects. The hijab also shows these women’s proud identity as Muslims.

Many women say that the veil and other garments gives them protection from strangers, and helps them not feel self-conscious in public. These garments also make a political statement, that these women are resisting Western influences. In fact, when Afghanistan was liberated from the Taliban, outsiders thought that the women would start dressing in a Western fashion, but the women kept wearing their burqas.

Exactly what clothing a Muslim woman wears also depends on the country she lives in. This is because the Quran directs women to dress modestly, but doesn’t specifically explain what would be considered modest. So, different cultures interpret modest clothing in different ways, resulting in a lot of variation in Muslim women’s clothing styles. So, this means that in some places like in Turkey, women wear just a hijab, and in other places, like Yemen, women have to wear full-body coverings and a face veil. As another example, under the Taliban, women in Afghanistan had to wear a burka, which covered their entire body and face. But in other places, Muslim women don’t wear anything special. For example, in Tunisia, wearing a veil is discouraged, while Muslim Bedouin women usually don’t even wear a veil or a hijab.

Also, a head covering can have different meanings in different cultures. For example, in Kuwait, when women wear a head covering it marks them as wealthy and honorable, in comparison to the Asian immigrant women who have come to the country and do not cover their heads. As another example, in Egypt, usually only the lower and middle classes wear a head covering.

Learn More

Want to learn more about gender and clothing? Check out this article, 5 Unexpected Gender Differences in Children’s Clothing.

Thanks for reading!