Clothing has long been a means of expressing gender identity, with different cultures and historical periods associating certain types of clothing with either masculinity or femininity. In this article, we will explore the fascinating history of clothing and its association with gender, examining how this relationship has evolved over time and across different societies. 

This topic is relevant today as the perception of gender identity and expression is an ongoing discussion in society. Understanding the history and evolution of gender identity through clothing can help us have a better understanding of the current situation and can also prevent discrimination and oppression based on clothing choices. 

Beginning with an examination of Western society, we will then turn our attention to our own country. By this, we can gain a deeper understanding of the social and cultural forces that shape our understanding of gender today.

The persistence of the stereotype that men are expected to display “manly” behaviour is evident in our society, with some individuals pointing to the past to emphasize the supposed qualities of masculinity. However, as men today embrace a broader range of self-expression, such as wearing nail polish or expressing emotions, some criticize these actions as being “feminine.”

Today, the public often reacts with surprise or criticism when they see male celebrities embracing clothing choices traditionally associated with femininity, such as dresses or makeup. Instances like Ranveer Singh confidently striding the red carpet in a skirt or Harry Styles captivating audiences with a Vogue photoshoot in a dress tend to elicit strong reactions. Critics, expressing their discontent, may exclaim, “Bring back the notion of manly men!”

This begs the question of how our perceptions of masculinity and femininity relating to fashion have been shaped over time. In looking at historical examples, we can see that what we now consider feminine clothing styles were often worn by powerful rulers and emperors in the past.

Let’s have a closer look.



To understand today’s perception of clothing we must start by looking at its history. 

Let’s start with the time of the Greek empire.

“Ancient Greek clothing was mainly based on necessity, function, materials, and protection rather than identity.” [1]

As depicted in the above images, the distinction between men’s and women’s clothing was nearly imperceptible during that era. Both men and women wore tunics, and interestingly, pants were not favoured by the Greeks or Romans.

The Greeks influenced Roman architecture, mythology, government, language, and even clothing.

“Pants were originally associated with the Persians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Eastern and Central Asian peoples. The Greeks used the term anhydrides for pants and thought that wearing pants was a sign of barbarism and they even found them ridiculous.” [2]

According to some historians, wearing pants was also considered feminine. 

“For the ancient Greeks, trousers were worn by Persian barbarians, the people of the modern-day Middle East, and they were considered feminine and often ridiculed.” [3]

In comparison to our culture, pants are usually associated with men.

The way these great leaders, including Augustus, Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great, used to dress could be seen as “feminine” from today’s point of view.

Soon, the Romans started to wearing pants as they moved northwards and started riding horses.

Let’s move on to medieval times.

Medieval period

In the medieval period, clothes weren’t ready divided based on gender but based on class.

In the 10th century, heels were first worn by Persian cavalry. And since then it symbolised high social stature, military prowess, refined fashionable taste, and the height of “cool” throughout history.


As you can see here, Luis XIV is wearing heels. “The red heel was symbolic: it showed that its wearer was rich enough not to dirty his shoes and that he was powerful enough to crush his enemies underfoot.” [4]

Click here to read more on this topic.

Even makeup was worn by men until the 17th century.

“From 4000 BC to the 18th century, men wore makeup every day for various purposes, traditions, and simple enjoyment. This changed when Queen Victoria associated makeup with the devil and declared it a horrible invention.3 Soon, makeup was perceived as feminine, thus vilifying its use by men, narrowing the depiction of masculinity.” [5]

Both heels and makeup were initially worn by men, but over time, they became associated with femininity, creating a taboo for men to consider wearing them.



Even in ancient India, clothes didn’t have much of a gender binary.

If you study Indian costumes and clothing over millennia, for instance, there is a large visibility of genderless fashion, explains stylist and creative consultant Ekta Rajani. “Our goddesses were bare-chested, and men and women both wore loincloths. Ditto with kurtas-pyjamas, dhotis, and even angarakhas. We had it, we lost touch with it, and now the world is waking up to it again.” [6]

Indian kings such as Krishnadevaraya, Shivaji Maharaj, Akbar the great, and Maharana Pratab can be seen wearing clothes that might be considered “feminine” in today’s day and age. 
Which wasn’t the case in their time as men at that time used to wear long dresses with jewelleries. And today dresses and jewellery holds a “feminine” tag.

Contemporary culture 


Let’s take a look at more recent history when the colour pink was associated with boys and blue with girls.

As Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department of 1918 stated, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys and blue for the girls… The reason is that pink, being the more decided and strong colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” [7]

This colour association was a marketing strategy to attract customers. Throughout the 20th century, many companies arbitrarily assigned pink to girls and blue to boys, solidifying these colours as gender-specific. [7]

If we shift our focus to India, where many men wear lungis, a garment wrapped around the waist, it bears a resemblance to a skirt. In cultures outside of India, it might be considered a “feminine” piece of clothing.

The representation of gender through clothing has changed over time and across cultures. This indicates that there is no inherent connection between clothes and gender.


The idea that clothing and gender are intrinsically linked is flawed. The fact that what we consider to be masculine or feminine clothing has changed over time and across cultures proves that clothing is not inherently gendered. Today, men choosing to wear what we consider “feminine” clothing is simply a reflection of the current cultural climate. 

It is also important to recognize that historically, femininity was often viewed as degrading, and clothing associated with femininity was seen as inferior. 

For example, in ancient Rome, wearing pants was seen as degrading because it was associated with femininity. In contrast, today, wearing a skirt may be viewed as degrading for men. This highlights the arbitrary nature of our perceptions of gendered clothing. 

In the end, it is important to challenge these rigid gender norms and celebrate the freedom to wear what makes us feel comfortable and confident, regardless of gender.

Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it’s okay to be a boy; for girls, it’s like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, according to you, because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading.

-Ian McEwan

Read more: Bring Back Manly Men