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Women dressing as men trope - what do we all think about it?

So there are some common themes that run throughout my storytelling - I love historical settings, so naturally I also enjoy working with the restrictions that this places on the narrative, such as horses as the main mode of transport, a strict patriarchy, modes of dress, ie. women in dresses, men in breeches.

I write many female main and minor characters and they’re all different, though sometimes for practicality, comfort or for personal preference they wear mens clothing.

The reasons vary, but mainly fall into the categories of; it gives them the opportunity to do what they want to do that wearing a dress would otherwise prevent them from doing. The other main reasons are for travel and comfort, rebellion and personal preference for what they like to wear every single day as part of their identity.

My reasoning is not to be making a feminist statement per se, but is more to show a realistic interpretation of how impractical wearing a long heavy and restrictive dress would be for certain activities, and also to speak to the personal characters of the women I write. It is also not a comment on gender identity, as in the female characters I write that might wear mens clothing at one point or another are not transgender. Historically speaking, women have worn men’s clothing many times over.

BUT, I have also read here there and everywhere that this ‘trope’ is one that many female readers see as a fallback for a somewhat anti-feminist plot device…the idea that in order for a female character to be strong or independent, she must must take on masculine traits or clothing is somehow poor writing.

So, that puts me in a quandary. Do I pander to the potential pushback from this sort of criticism, or do I just write my female characters who like to / have to wear men’s clothes?
 

Rexenm

Inkling
The gender roles have ciertainly been defined by dress, excuse the pun. But as far as I see, men’s clothing is a feminine statement in itself. They could be wearing these kilts as such - but it would be a misnomer to think that a woman could not do exactly the same thing whilst wearing a dress or a kilt, much the same way as a man would.

It depends on what they are doing, however. Are they working? Are they being weak? Weakness, has always been a woman’s strength, whilst a mans has been stupidity - to stay out of trouble. There are other dresses that have a lot to do with fantasy, like a tunic vest, often used by thieves with daggers, which is likely a boys wish, to be one with the spirits.

It comes down to and depends on what the woman is doing, what does she mean?? Does she wish to enter the man’s world, does she wish to present a feminine voice. There are a lot of questions, and I suppose not very many answers. To be sure, a direct answer would be to say that it is okay, but an indirect question would be to say is it acceptable to feminists.
 
All fair points. It is highly context dependent. But I also think many readers will blindly read the female character who wears men’s clothing, for any reason, as an over-relied upon trope. Should I even be worried about potential critics? It turns out I am, and it’s annoying.

I can see what you say about women wearing dresses and doing all manner of physical things, and that is true, in that dresses also had many practical uses, but more for working class women who wore working clothes. Noblewomen would wear highly restrictive garments that were essentially made for them not to do any physical work - showing their status, and would need to be dressed by a servant, unlike a working woman who would dress herself.

But there are things situations where a dress is less practical then pants, in general.

Kilts! They are actually far less restrictive than breeches. You just have a waistband, and then rest can move freely…
 

Rexenm

Inkling
But there are things situations where a dress is less practical then pants, in general.
It depends on the publisher and the cultural decline as well. What would confidence in women encourage anyway. I bet there are tonnes of reasons other things are frowned upon in the same way. Myself, unless it is a little girl, a woman should wear jewellery and brooches just along with any kind of dress.
 

Queshire

Auror
Man, I can just imagine the kind of replies this thread will get. At work at the moment, so I can't really jot down my thoughts at the moment.
 
Man, I can just imagine the kind of replies this thread will get. At work at the moment, so I can't really jot down my thoughts at the moment.
Queshire, I’m hoping that it’s not going to become a total derailment, maybe just a partial one…I’ll take partial.
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
I'm very much NOT an expert in this, but I think this is a place where research would be helpful in putting the proper perspective on things. A lot of times our impressions of what the past was like are shaped by pop culture, which is incredibly inaccurate when it comes to history. Ask a historian about Braveheart. They'll probably have an aneurysm trying to explain everything wrong in that film, starting with kilts.

Did women always wear dresses in their day-to-days? I mean if you're doing labour, where it's more practical to dress in clothing similar to men, why wouldn't they do that? It would seem counter intuitive that they wouldn't either dress in men's clothing, or they'd adapt their own clothing to fit their practical needs. I remember vaguely watching some old west documentaries where it was common for some women who worked on ranches to dressed like men.

So is this trope based on a modern skew of what we think people back in the day dressed like, or is it based on something historically true?
 

Fyri

Inkling
Ew. XD Tropes are tropes, but the important thing is why you are writing your specific thing. You said they all had their personal reasons. I think that should be enough.

I don't think "women wearing men's clothes" has to be about feminism/anti-feminism. Really, it's just about social norms and practicality. If you're concerned about it seeming "anti-feminist" I'd just be sure to show how they are still women in other ways.

Reminds me of Suki from Avatar the Last Airbender. She is an epic warrior, but also reminds one of the main characters that she's also a girl who likes girly things, like a kiss from him or a romantic evening.

In the end, you can either choose to make a statement with men's clothing, or just let it be a happenstance. "Literally, she just felt more comfortable in a shirt and pants. Then she threw on some makeup/painted her nails/daydreamed about kissing the guy."

People will headcanon all they want. Women dressing as men will always hint toward trans questions. But feminist revolution was about equality. I say write your characters honestly here, and let the cookie crumble where it may, I think.
 
Hmm, well I can see myself stepping my foot in the wrong places with this thread, and maybe I should add that this trope can be about gender roles and identity, but again is context dependent. In my writing it isn’t always exclusively about identity. Sometimes it is.

When I say I enjoy working within the restriction of patriarchy, it’s pretty much about having my female characters work against the oppressive restriction that are put against them in one way or another at time, and sometimes that does indeed include wearing mens clothing - but is never about deception. I’m not re-inventing Mulan.
 
Did women always wear dresses in their day-to-days? I mean if you're doing labour, where it's more practical to dress in clothing similar to men, why wouldn't they do that?

So is this trope based on a modern skew of what we think people back in the day dressed like, or is it based on something historically true?
Maybe these were rhetorical questions, but to answer the first one, yes, the vast majority of women pre 20th century wore dresses in one form or another and were expected to do so.

Second question, working women also wore dresses. From collecting peat, to fishing, to domestic duties, to climbing mountains.

I’m very much interested in domestic history, and so I’d consider myself relatively knowledgable on women’s dress in historical terms, though no where near expert level, and so they way I see it is that I take what I think can be imbued into my fantasy worlds and what would make sense for that character whilst also giving my work that creative license that fiction affords.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
So I'm not going to take a side on the issue directly. But I do want to post this pic from one of my daughter's favorite shows:

debvqwf-ac920252-ead2-44ea-af80-4c896e7497a2.jpg

That's Sofia the First, a Disney TV princess, who spends most of her time in poofy frilly dresses.

That's her adventure outfit. It's clearly both functional and feminine.
 
Ew. XD Tropes are tropes, but the important thing is why you are writing your specific thing. You said they all had their personal reasons. I think that should be enough.
Ew? Do I already have my first critic? 🫣

Personal reasons and context is everything - but there’s also the thing. The basic fact of ‘this woman is dressed in men’s clothes’. And as far as that goes, I know it will be interpreted in many ways, some negative connotations are going to come up. It does bother me that this is so. It does also speak to my own personal experience, and whilst I am not writing Mary Sue’s, it’s kind of something I also feel quite strongly about.
Women dressing as men will always hint toward trans questions.
Are you thinking about this in historical terms only or at any time period? I think it’s too much of a blanket statement. How can I put it…I think a woman who could be described as feminine can still wear mens clothes and retain that femininity, and that is also my personal experience. There is something very aesthetically appealing to me about femininity in masculine attire, and that could be taken all sorts of ways but I think of Jane Birkin wearing a simple jeans and t-shirt and still appearing very feminine.

But then yes, in certain contexts gender identity can be explored in all kinds of ways and ideally it would be done in a sensitive way.
 

Fyri

Inkling
Ew? Do I already have my first critic? 🫣

Personal reasons and context is everything - but there’s also the thing. The basic fact of ‘this woman is dressed in men’s clothes’. And as far as that goes, I know it will be interpreted in many ways, some negative connotations are going to come up. It does bother me that this is so. It does also speak to my own personal experience, and whilst I am not writing Mary Sue’s, it’s kind of something I also feel quite strongly about.

Are you thinking about this in historical terms only or at any time period? I think it’s too much of a blanket statement. How can I put it…I think a woman who could be described as feminine can still wear mens clothes and retain that femininity, and that is also my personal experience. There is something very aesthetically appealing to me about femininity in masculine attire, and that could be taken all sorts of ways but I think of Jane Birkin wearing a simple jeans and t-shirt and still appearing very feminine.

But then yes, in certain contexts gender identity can be explored in all kinds of ways and ideally it would be done in a sensitive way.
XD I said "ew" to the idea of being overly concerned about tropes in the way of including one being seen as poor writing. Poor writing is simply bad execution of an idea, trope or no trope.

Unfortunately, you are always going to have people that complain about something in your work. It's pretty much inevitable. Those people are simply not your target audience. Focus on the people who will appreciate your message and write honestly from your heart. I'd suggest simply making sure you're not actually hurting someone/s to the best of your ability (this may also be inevitable). I really can't see how people today could majorly see a woman dressing in men's clothes as "anti-feminist" especially when that woman is living in a heavily patriarchal society that represses her humanity. At least in the US, it's more likely just going to be seen as a nod to actual feminists back when we started the revolution for women's rights. They also wore pants as a statement toward women's rights.

Ah! And to the trans question—I'm referring to how people interpret characters today. It's easy to write headcanons/fanfics about crossdressing characters being actually trans (especially since trans people are starving for more and better canon representation)! But I wouldn't worry about it, as long as you don't engage in queer-baiting (actively selling a character as a gay/trans/queer representation to get readers, but then not making it real in the actual story).

Also! Women dressing in "men's clothing" and still being feminine speaks to me as hinting toward butch lesbianism! Just another interpretation people may make. ;)
 
It will mainly depend on how you write it. If you jump up and down (figuratively speaking...) when a woman put on men's clothes and shout "Look, Look! Because she's wearing men's clothes she's now treated differently! Bad society!", then people will take that away as a message from your writing. If on the other hand, you make it a non-event, then readers will not care about it one way or the other.

You can even go for some middle ground. Where you have character A put on men's clothes, and character B remarks on it. If character A simply shrugs and responds that "this was the most practical outfit for activity X". Or you could have a character remark that it's not done in their society. Or any of another dozen remarks. Each of them will shape how your reader perceives it.

Of course, some people are simply serial complainers and will project their believes and messages onto whatever you write. There's simply no pleasing everyone.
 

Queshire

Auror
There's two wolves inside you. One says, "Fuck the idea of society saying girls needing to wear a skirt. I'm going to wear pants." The other says, "Fuck the idea of society saying girls needing to wear a skirt. I'm going to wear a skirt because I want to instead."
 

Mad Swede

Auror
I think you're worrying too much about what the critics and some readers may think. I'd focus more on your setting and the sort of society and people you are portraying. For example, why would a young woman not wear a skirt? Well, maybe she's about to ride off on a long journey - which means she's likely to wear trousers rather than a skirt. Or perhaps she's doing something where a skirt would simply be in the way - like climbing a building to break in. Then, how would society see these things? It's once you start asking questions like this that your setting and your characters come to life and stop being some sort of cliche.
 

pmmg

Myth Weaver
Well...I would return to my comment of measuring oneself against tropes. To me, they are just a superficial measure, and best ignored.

Taking from your intro of the restrictions of the world you are writing in, a woman dressing outside the norm would likely receive push back. And it would not be a one time thing, and we just forget it cause she said something snappy...it would be constant and prevalent. Men, and other women, would not easily just ignore it, and if they did, it would hurt the credibility of your story. Human cultures don't tend to like things that are different, and the pressure to conform would be great.

Women wearing clothes that have more practicality when a situation requires might get less push back, as people are not completely unreasonable, but it would become an avenue for detractors to whittle away at her. and perhaps, reassert the cultural expectation at any opportunity. For one to withstand the constant pressure would seem unlikely.

So, I would expect it to be an issue. And depending on the culture, maybe enough to convict her on.


And, on the other side of this, if the culture is excepting of it, and the push back is feeble, I would probably ask why? How would things develop such that one would dress outside of the cultural expectations and there was no push back, you are not writing modern western culture with its feminized attitudes.

As a reader, I am willing to accept a lot, but I'll want the reasons why it was able to fly.

HOWEVER....

We don't tend to write the people who cant take some push back, and stories sometimes need things that mean cutting against he grain. I would be cognizant that the more I include this, the more I would expect others to start asking questions. Is this uncommon if everyone is doing it? Why is there no push back, when its not supposed to be common? Or why is there push back when it is apparently common? And whatever the attitude, every new character would share it. So when does it stop being stage business to address it?

I would consider, that people learn to work in their limitations, and overcome them. Which is to say, is it truly impossible to ride a horse in a dress? To be in a fight and do well? I suspect, its not too hard to deal with a dress and still do this. And I could also see a character having a dress in a first battle, but by the third saying, you know what....I need something more useful than the dress, and changing over time. (But others would notice).

So, that puts me in a quandary. Do I pander to the potential pushback from this sort of criticism, or do I just write my female characters who like to / have to wear men’s clothes?

Its not pandering unless you are pandering. Write them how you like and give the story what it needs. For me personally, I use the measure of 'is this bullshit', and if so, I try to avoid it.
 

Azul-din

Troubadour
Um...define what you mean by 'dressing as men? ' What men? You mean dressing to deceive, to impersonate? Surely that depends wholly on what era you are writing in or imagining. Bradamante in 'Orlando Furioso' dressed as an armoured knight because she was a warrior and petticoats would have been silly. In spite of that she is usually in western art portrayed in a dress. Y'all don't remember the 50's, but I was there, and during the war women worked in factories and construction -ever hear of the iconic 'Rosie the Riveter'? Then the men came home and like magic they turned into permed and perfumed creatures in midi skirts and tight sweaters. Or dressing as a man in 18th century France or England, with the long curly hair, make-up and tights ? Would wearing a skirt in 19th century Scotland be classed as impersonating a man?
In our culture, let's face it, it is men who define what is masculine and feminine attire and 'dressing as a man' is and has always been a wholly flexible standard. Women tend to be more practical, given half a chance. Joan of Arc in the Shaw play is asked why she dresses as a man. The answer goes something like 'I am imprisoned night and day with five of the King's guards. Do you want me to live among them in petticoats?
 

pmmg

Myth Weaver
Well...I mean...Joan was burned alive after being convicted as dressing as a man....not sure that is the best example.
 
I think you're worrying too much about what the critics and some readers may think. I'd focus more on your setting and the sort of society and people you are portraying. For example, why would a young woman not wear a skirt? Well, maybe she's about to ride off on a long journey - which means she's likely to wear trousers rather than a skirt. Or perhaps she's doing something where a skirt would simply be in the way - like climbing a building to break in. Then, how would society see these things? It's once you start asking questions like this that your setting and your characters come to life and stop being some sort of cliche.
I probably am. And I’m usually the first one to advocate writing whatever you want and not pandering to the potential criticism, because there’s always going to be some. It’s honestly become quite volatile out there for book reviews, and I think the culture has definitely shifted. When I joined Goodreads back in the days of yesteryear, the reviews were along the lines of reasonable and normal - now they have become a thing. People realise they can make money from doing it and go to town, ripping and shredding books apart along with often times some really immature and ill-conceived view points. Maybe TikTok ‘booktok’ has a lot to answer for in this culture shift.
 
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