By Ben Barry
This article will be available for free access through SAGE until November 1, 2018.
I have always loved fashion. In high school, I spent hours in second-hand clothing stores searching the racks for velvet shirts, sequined pants and colorful scarves. I mixed my new finds with old ones to create unexpected outfits. This continued during my undergraduate degree in women’s studies and when I worked in the fashion industry. When I started my PhD, my fashion experiments were abruptly crushed. On the first day of classes, I was pulled aside and told that my colorful, textured outfit was inappropriate for the business department: a collared shirt and chinos were the “professional” choice. I have since been mindful when I open my wardrobe and decide what to wear for the day ahead. As I look at the clothes, I often think back to my first day as a PhD student. I consider what I plan to do, where I will go, and whom I expect to see.
Men follow this same routine each day. In my Gender & Society article, I discuss results from my research project on men and fashion. I interviewed 35 men of diverse ages, races, sexualities, social classes and occupations to understand what motivates their everyday clothing choices and how their choices influence larger structures of gender. These interviews took place in men’s wardrobes: they showed me their clothing and described the uses and memories that they attached to each piece. My interviews revealed that men’s clothing choices are based on the relationship between their personal and professional identities in conjunction with the contexts in which they find or situate themselves. As I prepared for these interviews, I foreshadowed this finding in my own decision-making process about what to wear.
Dressing for the Interview
Researchers are encouraged to be self-reflexive about their influence on interviews. They often focus on their social identities in relation to participants and their lived experiences in relation to the research topic. However, the clothing that researchers wear to interviews also influences the process because clothing is one of the most visible ways in which we socially construct and express our identities. With this in mind, I carefully considered how I should dress and how my clothes might impact my conversations with my participants. My intention was to make them feel comfortable and create space for an open dialogue. I thought that my clothing would in particular garner attention because I was researching fashion and I was a professor in a fashion department. I also thought that speaking with me would be difficult for many men because they had been taught that, to prove their masculinity, they shouldn’t be interested in fashion.
As I placed different outfit options on my bed before the first interview, I wondered whether I should tailor my clothing to what I knew about each participant from our initial exchanges. If I knew that he was a conservative dresser, should I wear a solid-colored, button-down shirt? If I knew that he was a fabulous dresser, should I wear bold patterns? It was a good thing that my first interview was in the afternoon because I spent three hours assembling and re-assembling different outfits beforehand. I decided to wear dark blue, straight-fit jeans and a black, loose-fit, long-sleeved t-shirt. I wore this outfit not only to the first interview but also to most of the subsequent ones. I thought this look was plain and simple, and so it would go unnoticed. For most interviews, this was the case. The few times that participants did say something about what I had on, it was often to breathe a sigh of relief that I was not a “fashion plate.” As one man said to me, “I’m so glad you don’t look these guys in fashion. I wouldn’t want to offend you.”
Towards My (Critical) Clothing Choices
As a researcher who studies gender inequalities, I recognized these comments as indicative of my own practice of complicity reinforcing dominant masculine ideologies. By wearing dark, loose-fitting clothes, I was rejecting men’s femininity and also devaluing my own love of sequins and colors to appease my participants and obtain the best data. My practice reinforced the idea that men should make dress decisions to “fit in” based on what styles to avoid (i.e., anything deemed feminine). Even knowing that I had the ability to shift what I wore to meet the conditions—to swap sequined jackets for solid-colored ones depending on who I was interviewing—fortified my own privilege. In fact, I did exactly what I argue men do in my article: men strategically shift their clothing based on their identities and contexts to garner opportunities and shore up masculinity.
Bringing my complicit masculinity to the surface has helped me make more critical clothing choices. As part of my research on men and fashion, I co-created a fashion show to share the research with the public. Participants were invited to model their own clothing, and quotations from their interviews were mixed with music to provide context on their outfits and reflect on the complex relationship between fashion and masculinity. I also took part in the show to demonstrate that I was also connected to my research topic. In front an audience of 300 people, including colleagues and senior university officials, I wore a skirt as well as futuristic vest. While the fashion show offered a safe space to play with fashion, I have begun to wear my flamboyant and fabulous pieces to everyday activities in which these outfits are uncommon, such as meetings at the university or walking my dog in the park.
The significant privilege that I have to wear these outfits is not lost on me. I am also protected by my career in fashion because these looks are not only expected of me but enhance my status in the field—within the industry and at events in my department these outfits legitimate my creativity and knowledge. But I hope that dressing my body in clothes associated with women and femininity within spaces in which these outfits are not the norm helps unsettle assumptions and inspire unspoken conversations about masculinity. Transforming gender inequalities is messy, but it requires men like me to be mindful of the multiple, conflicting consequences of our actions and to use our privilege to change inequalities rather than fortify them. For me and other men, that process starts when we open our wardrobes.
Ben Barry is an Associate Professor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and incoming Chair in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University.