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What if Men Challenged Women as the Fashionable Sex?

Men may have finally broken the style barrier.

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OK, I get that. You won’t find me tripping around town in ankle-twisting stilettos. Still, it’s possible to combine comfort with style. Loose-fitting clothing can accommodate even the exigencies of male anatomy and not look ridiculous. Neck-constricting ties aren't neccesary in most settings. And trousers don’t have to be crotch-suffocating. Inspired by kilts and togas, cutting-edge designers have even been dabbling in producing smart-looking skirts for men, with Jean Paul Gaultier leading the charge in his 1985 collection. (I used to love watching the summer Olympics as a kid to see those hunky Cook Islanders wearing groovy skirts in the Parade of Nations.)

So the next time a man pulls the comfort card on a date, I think I’m going to reply, “Really? Then could we please sit near a mirror? Because I’d like to look at something aesthetically pleasing.” I resent it when men make no effort in their appearance when being seen with me, not only because it conveys a lack of respect, but also because women are voyeurs, too. Sue me, but I like to look at a well-dressed man. I enjoy formal affairs, partly because I have yet to meet the man who did not instantly become more attractive in a crisp, elegant tuxedo. I love a neatly fitting shirt, made of fabric I’d like to touch. On a date, I want to gaze upon someone whose appearance has been designed to please me – it doesn’t have to be ostentatious or even expensive. What I want are well-cut pieces, attractive fabrics and shoes that do not require white shoestrings. Not only is it nicer for me, I’ll wager it’s nicer for them, too.

Why should women have all the fun of changing our appearance to suit the mood or occasion? Why should we be the only ones who get to enjoy being sexually alluring? There’s a terrible downside to expectations of female appearance – the expense, the discomfort and the pressure to be thin are high on the list. But I, for one, would not trade my closet of exciting female regalia for business suits and baseball caps. I relish the transformation that happens in the mirror when I get dressed. Do I want fierce don't-fuck-with-me boots or a flowy feminine dress? I decide. It’s energizing. It creates a break in routine. I very much want to invite men to be able to join me in this excitement.

Of course, there is danger in changing the rules. Men who look sexy at work may find themselves dealing with the same dichotomy of risk/reward that women have confronted. In social situations, men will walk a fine line in presenting masculinity that doesn’t confuse or invite ridicule. I once blew off a dinner invitation with a guy because I was sure he was gay. He owned an art gallery! He wore elegant shirts! He rode a red Vespa! I admit that in the rigid categories of my mind, all of this signaled “gay.” But what if it didn’t? What if it just meant that the guy was into art and enjoyed fun, stylish clothes and accoutrements? Wouldn’t this likely mean I’d have a more enjoyable date than I’d have with Mr. Baseball Cap? Very likely it would. I missed out on that one.

Gender roles have been in awkward transition for some time now, and everybody is pretty perplexed. In a prescient essay in her 1996 book The Power of Beauty, Nancy Friday suggested that if women wanted to share political and economic power with men, perhaps it was about time we began sharing the power of beauty, too. That doesn’t mean that men have to go prancing about being frivolous and obsessive about their looks – though for some that will undoubtedly happen. But it might mean a wider range of options to express style and creativity and be spared the rigid conformity that begins in childhood. Girls are allowed to be tomboys; I wore nothing but corduroy jeans and T-shirts for years as a child. But boys risk ostracization if they dare to relish frills and fun in their attire. (Some experiments are challenging this childhood regime, such as summer camps where boys who enjoy dressing in feminine styles can do so without shame -- see a recent NYT story.)