Do clothes make a man? Nicole Douglas Morris turns to Grayson Perry for answers.
‘I grew up thinking that men just are, while women have to work at it’, writes Grayson Perry in his most recent book, The Descent of Man. This misconception is propagated within families, institutions and structures around the world. The belief holds that being a man is effortless and natural, far removed from the stage-shaking performativity of womanhood. Popular culture would have us believe that our breasts are superficial appendages affixed onto chests, always consciously flaunted or hidden, and that blusher, dangly earrings or fishnets reveal far more conscious consideration than men’s workwear or choice of underwear. In reality, none of us just are.
We all subconsciously work at our identities, despite hoping that they flow naturally from our inner, ‘truer’ selves. The myth is that men have less to prove and less to perform. This is disruptive to all genders: men feel nervous of appearing too concerned with their appearance or behaviour and the rest of us feel excessive.
Perry argues against this damaging assumption, confessing his own childhood concern that he must appear manly despite his interest in wearing dresses. ‘Real man’ culture stems from these ideas and causes men to wonder, “Am I a real man? what would a real man do?” ‘Real men in their eyes are authentic, with no need for performance, or in other words a layer of behavior on top of something else’, explains Perry. Not feeling like a ‘real man’ causes men to compete with one another to achieve this perceived ‘genuine’ masculinity. In extreme circumstances, this can even lead to acts of violence.
I am interested in the ‘layer of behaviour’ that many fear. This is because women often feel that they themselves are covered in various layers which need to be unpeeled. For instance, ‘curves’ that are an addition to the original, plainer male body, or the farce of jewellery and creams and thongs. While men are praised for their simplicity and straightforwardness, women are characterised as over-the-top and frilly. Perry affirms that ‘inherent in a lot of old-school male attire is a feeling that it is ‘classic’, ‘appropriate’ or ‘essential’, that it is hardly clothes at all, more like a pelt that comes with the role’. Male costumes have simply been normalised by dominant culture so as not to make their wearer feel like they are dressing up – but we are nearly always dressing up. Men’s clothing lines continue to be shaded in safe, ‘manly’ colours and are advertised using buzzwords like ‘practical’ or ‘utility’. We continue this sham so men will buy items without being made to feel like they’ve picked it simply because they like the way it looks.
If we acknowledge that there is no inherent behaviour in clothing – that a suit and tie are no more naturally masculine than a skirt is feminine – then we make a start on unpicking patriarchal theories created to make women feel superfluous. In the meantime, remember, you’re onstage!