If you go by the headlines, it was a big deal.
“Brad Pitt Makes Fashion Statement by Rocking a Skirt at Bullet Train Screening,” People wrote. “Brad Pitt Is Back In His Skirt Era,” New York Magazine’s the Cut stated. “Brad Pitt skirt alert!” GQ practically yelled.
The actor, 58, did indeed rock a tattered brown linen skirt to the Berlin premiere of the action-comedy “Bullet Train.” And fashion experts were ready to comment.
“It’s giving a rich, ’90s, new-age traveler energy,” Jessica Glasscock, a fashion historian and lecturer at Parsons School of Design, told Grid. “Sort of frat boy goes to Thailand for a rave and stays to master yoga and write a roman à clef about self-discovery outside the bounds of American consumerism.”
Pitt isn’t the only male celebrity who has thrown on the occasional skirt. Kid Cudi, Lil Nas X, Harry Styles and others have gone the easy, breezy skirt route and received (mostly positive) media attention.
But the real question is, why is there attention at all?
It’s all about putting these moments in the context of fashion history so we can understand why it’s causing a stir now, said Glasscock. She spoke with Grid about why we think of some clothes as only for women and some only for men, and how people (celebrities included) have often been using those divisions to make statements and break down stereotypes for years. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: We are seeing male-identifying individuals wearing skirts more often. Why now?
Jessica Glasscock: There’s an enormous interest now by younger people in [pushing] and even eradicating traditional boundaries and lines between genders in a variety of ways in our society. With that comes a sort of nonbinary ideal to their fashion. You can also use that style to identify with that movement.
I think even if you’re not someone who identifies as nonbinary, in a sense, a man in a skirt is putting himself forward as an ally to people who are asserting more radical change in values in our culture right now.
That can be said of the unisex fashion moment in the late ’60s, early 1970s moment as well. It was this idea of fashion coming to meet a change that was happening in the culture and finding a way to represent it — some manufacturers more effectively than others, but that was the ideal.
G: Why do we have separate genders for clothing? Aren’t they inanimate objects?
JG: Fashion is an industry that has many manufacturers whose bread and butter is making clothes that they can sell well. And so, the sort of separation of menswear/womenswear as separate ideas comes very much from the industry — having people be able to be specialized.
It’s important to look back at the history of fashion; I’m not talking about the world of couture here, which has been restricted to womenswear through most of history. I’m talking about manufacturing history in New York City and other parts of the United States, where you had people who were specialized down to [making and selling] skirts, belts, wallets — all those things. And so, of course, there’s a specialization for womenswear and menswear.
G: How have some people used those strict marketing categories — menswear and womenswear — to challenge gender stereotypes?
JG: Systems [like the one set up to market clothes to men and women separately] can be used to undermine gender stereotypes. I’m speaking now of like the 1890s, when women started to adapt menswear accessories to their womenswear, and in doing so were sort of making a statement about equality and about their role in the world. You can see a similar thing when men take on women’s dress, in a way that sort of positions them as perhaps an object of desire. I’m thinking now of the late 1960s to early 1970s, and the adoption by men of certain womenswear, particularly in the culture of rock ’n’ roll and in hippie culture. It has to do with the idea of asserting themselves as sex objects in a sense.
G: OK, so flouting gender stereotypes via clothing has been going on for a long time. Why does it still make news? Why the shock?
JG: The idea of a man in a skirt has always been, and remains, I think, kind of a confrontational ideal. In the 19th century, when you have the greatest distance between menswear and womenswear, as genres of clothing, that is very strongly reinforced.
Pants were the keystone of that. When you look into the history of the bloomer, which were very full pants for women introduced in the 1850s as a sort of rational dress for women who were [at health and wellness facilities], the primary goal was ease of movement and comfort.
But when women wore what were perceived as pants outside of a sort of spa space or politically progressive space, crowds of men would follow them and throw things. I mean, pants were like the thing that men owned and women couldn’t have in that period.
There’s been a real evolution of what women can wear over the past 150, now 175, years following that. But for men to wear skirts? It remains the equal and opposite of that transgression of women wearing pants.
G: What is it about Brad Pitt as a spectacle part of the reason we care so much?
JG: Pitt is a man in his 50s connecting with an ideal that is much more related to the youth culture of the moment. So, I think there’s also a little dissonance there of like, “That’s for the kids, like Harry Styles can do that, but what if your dad did it?” So, I feel like that’s an element as well.
But I feel like skirts still haven’t stopped being transgressive for men for the same reasons that pants were transgressive for women over those many years. Because pants were the line for whatever reason. You know, when you look at the history of women in men’s dress, one of the early accomplishments was women to get riding clothes on, and that’s in the 16th century. So, from the waist up, it would be menswear, but she had to wear a skirt while riding a horse, which is absurd if you think about it for even a second. Pants were the line.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.