Dresses: What They Meant Then and Mean Now

Recently, Jaden Smith made headlines by being the first Louis Vuitton’s male model to model their women wear.Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 5.52.23 PM

By using the Keywords passage “Girlhood” in Keywords for Children’s Literature by Jacqueline Reid-Walsh, we can compare what it means to be a girl now, in the 21st century, versus when the American girl Kirsten grew up, in 1854. While the way Kirsten is described in Meet Kirsten  is consistent with the theory that the word “Girl” “derives from the Old English word for dress or apparel,” Jaden Smith’s new gig challenges traditional ideas of gender specific clothing. More specifically, men wearing women’s clothing, because as Vanessa Friedman of the New York times pointed out, “Wearing a skirt comes as naturally to him as it would to a woman who, long ago, granted herself permission to wear a man’s trench or a tuxedo.”

Kirsten is always drawn with dresses on, and her outfits of dresses and skirts are referenced throughout the book.

kirsten dresses

In 1850’s when she grew up, “performing” your gender had a lot to do with what you wore, even more than today. Clothing was (and largely still is) the most immediate way to categorize someone as “female” or “male”. 

In her analysis of the word “Girlhood”, Reid-Walsh writes “some academics. . . consider girlhood almost exclusively a social construction”. If we think of girlhood as a social construction, what a girl wears is surely part of the constructed understanding of what makes a “girl.”

What Jaden Smith’s new modeling endeavor does is break down that social construction. It challenges not only what “girlhood” means, but what “boyhood” means. Someone who identifies as a boy performing how a “girl” traditionally performs her gender directly contradicts our programmed system designed to put people into categories of gender.

Kirsten wearing a dress in 1854 categorizes her as a “proper” girl in her society. Jaden Smith wearing a dress now, dismantles the entire social construct that Kirsten adhered to when she wore a dress.

9 thoughts on “Dresses: What They Meant Then and Mean Now”

  1. I think your comment on the idea of “boyhood” being challenged is interesting. In today’s world it seems as though society is more comfortable with girls taking on masculine roles rather than boys taking on feminine roles. Now that males are starting to take on more traditional female roles and attributes, such as wearing a dress, I think we will start to see an eventual close to the gender gap we have in society.

  2. With celebrities promoting the breaking of past historical “gender-norms”, it makes me wonder whether the present-day American Girl Company will ever break this stereotypical view of girlhood in their line of dolls and incorporate stories of dolls that are homosexual, asexual, or bisexual.

  3. Wow, this is a very intriguing connection you have made. I didn’t know that Jaden Smith did that. I really wonder how children are going to look at “youthfulness” and gender as they age.

  4. When Kirsten lived women were not allowed to wear pants, work, or be a dominant force in their families. Women have taken on more masculine roles in society now a days. From wearing pants, working, voting, and being leaders in their households, women have been working hard to stand up for their rights. Society has started to accept women taking on more masculine roles, I wonder if society will start to accept men taking on more feminine roles.

  5. I think it is so interesting to see Jaden Smith modeling women’s clothing. However, I cannot help but to think of how status has everything to do with society’s outlook on why it may be okay for him to dress that way. It makes me wonder if society would think it was fashionable to dress in women’s clothing if the model was “poor?” I think different -isms such as classism intersects on what society sees as fashionable or not.

    1. Thank you so much for bringing this up! I think that you are spot on. Class-ism influences how people perceive new and different things, or when people push the boundaries. When Kaitlyn Jenner came out as transgender to the public, many people also thought it was unfair that she was welcomed with open arms while transgender men and women without tons of money and access to publicity are many times not even embraced by their own families, much less the entire world.

      1. When I read this, I thought of Caitlyn Jenner too! She created a show after she came out to describe what it was like in her newfound life and she did address the backlash that she received because she came out. I found it very interesting that other people in the transgender community were unwelcoming to her transition. I thought that having such a high profile celebrity bring light to the transgender community would be a beneficial thing for the community as a whole. But I think that people felt like her life did not represent the reality of a transgender person. Most transgender people going through their transition do not have the luxury of designer clothes, make up artists and the ability to hide out until the transition was complete. I think that the reaction to Jaden Smith and Caitlyn Jenner is heavily influenced by class status. I think that if someone in the middle or lower class would have done the same thing, the reaction of the public would be very different.

  6. I love this post. It has always been interesting to me that it is considered more socially “appropriate” for a woman to wear traditionally male apparel where as it is considered entirely wrong for a man to wear feminine clothing. I think it is really impressive and intriguing that Jaden Smith is breaking these boundaries, especially considering that (from what little I know about him) he is a cis-gendered heterosexual male.

  7. I think this post is great, and what Jaden Smith is doing is promoting the idea and breaking the social construction that Women wearing men’s clothes isn’t seen as “weird” but men wearing women’s clothes is seen much differently. I think it’s great that he is modeling women’s clothing, and maybe some people seeing him modeling this clothing may see it and have the strength to themselves break what many see as “appropriate” attire for genders, and wear what they want to wear. But as someone mentioned above, I still cannot help but think, because of his status is this seen as more ok, than if a person not of his wealth or status were to do the same. I also wonder what kinds of feedback he has received since the shoot? Is he being praised by other people that are of the same status, that we would call “famous”, or are others praising him as well? Are other people equally struck by this in a different way? And do you think that if someone who wasn’t of his status did the same, would get the same amount of attention that he is getting? And would it be positive or negative attention?

Leave a Reply