If you were Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada Pinkett, brother of Willow, what would you do to change the world? The list of things a wealthy, visible, plugged-in youth could do to influence in the world is basically endless. Some, like Kylie Jenner, change the world by causing hysteria over lip gloss. Others, like Malala Yousafzai, attempt to provide education to young women who might otherwise be precluded from going to school. Jaden Smith, somewhere in between lip gloss and social activism, is the new face of rejecting the gender binary in fashion.
Appearing in Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer ‘16 campaign wearing a skirt, Jaden is challenging the way we think about clothing and what denotes masculine and feminine. It’s a bold new frontier for a 17-year-old. And perhaps, as Vuitton creative director Nicolas Ghesquière muses, indicative that a new generation of youth are approaching gender without reservation. “[Jaden] represents a generation that has assimilated the codes of true freedom, one that is free of manifestos and questions about gender," says Ghesquiere.
The inherent issue with the gender binary in mainstream fashion is that it’s a one way street. And an arbitrarily heteronormative street at that. While womenswear has mastered the art of “masculine” dressing, menswear lags on inviting in the feminine--unless it comes to style represented through an LGBTQ lens. Women have been wearing pants in the mainstream since the 1920s and ‘30s.
“Masculine” dressing soon became glamorous and actresses like Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich oozed sex appeal in pantsuits on the silver screen. Before long, a woman in pants was perceived as a woman of power. Pat Nixon was the first First Lady to wear pants in public in the ‘70s, while at the same time vocally lobbying her husband to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court. Later, Hillary Clinton would be the first and only first lady to wear pants in her official First Lady portrait in 2003. Now she might be our next President.
Indeed, “power” dressing for women really found its feet in the ‘80s. But “power” dressing was fraught. While women were fighting back in the Working Girl era of “mind for business and body for sin”, their clothing reflected masculinity, as if power emanated from boxy pantsuits with stuffed shoulders to emulate male broadness. “Dressing like a man” was thus acceptable for a woman because dressing like a man was a more legitimate way to dress to court success. Here’s where the binary diverges. While this notion of “power” dressing being masculine no longer exists, the history of women wearing men’s clothes is rooted deeply in a systemic sexism that pairs masculinity with competence and authority, and femininity with weakness and emotion.
The fact is: men don’t dress in women’s clothes. When we welcomed the “metrosexual” male in the late ‘00s, his jeans were skinnier and his hair longer, but dresses and skirts were not in his repertoire. Skirts and dresses have been reserved for special men in special circumstances--traditional garb, like a Scottish kilt at a wedding (Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman and David Tennant have all worn traditional kilts on the red carpet) for instance, is acceptable because it’s a ceremonial costume. Likewise, skirts on men are acceptable in art (Kanye West favored a leather skirt during his Watch The Throne phase and because he’s considered conceptual as an artist he’s “excused” from heteronormative style in that performance), and in the LGBT community (Ru Paul’s Drag Race is notable for helping mainstream/normalize drag, while fashion designer Marc Jacobs often wears skirts, and may I add, on a personal note, “hallelujah, those calves!”) Otherwise, men wear dresses as a goof, making a comic spectacle of going in drag, which needless to say, can be offensive.
But it seems as though the skirts are shifting with a new vanguard of brave youth, and leading by example is Jaden Smith who, in terrifying feats of self-assuredness for a teen, effortlessly and stylishly pulls of “feminine” clothing in both his work and personal life. We certainly can’t consider the importance of Jaden’s brazen embracing of the skirt without remembering how dashing he looked when he accompanied Hunger Games star, Amandla Stenberg, to prom wearing a skirt.
The brilliant thing about Jaden’s commitment to womens-wear is that we don’t ever need to condescend to coddling him for being “different” or “interesting”. He wears his skirts in such a way that it doesn’t look “different” or “interesting” at all. It simply looks natural, vibrant, and brimming with confidence--everything traditional rules of masculine/feminine dressing would have you believe wasn’t possible for a man in a skirt. Leading a bright new generation of visible youth who aren’t hampered by the oppressiveness of the jargon of what is for boys and what is for girls, Jaden, dare I say it, makes wearing a skirt look downright masculine.