The Future of Menswear Isn't About Who Wears the Pants

by Naveen Kumar

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday July 6, 2021
Originally published on February 13, 2021

The Future of Menswear Isn't About Who Wears the Pants

When Oday Shakar began his latest venture, he heard every designer's usual question: Who is the girl? Where is she going? How does she represent your point of view? It was summer 2020, and no one was going much of anywhere. "I didn't have to look for the girl," Shakar tells EDGE. "She was right there; the girl became me."

To be fair, Shakar came up with the idea for Kaftko, which began with a line of comfy kaftans in various bold prints, on a visit to Fire Island. But its signature garments are both well-suited to today's stay-at-home lifestyle and part of a long history of silhouettes designed with cisgender men in mind but considered, in the west, to be conventionally feminine. As the pandemic has upended what it means to get dressed, and a rising generation of designers and consumers eschew conventional gender norms altogether, kaftans may be more than just a garment for the moment. They look more and more like the future of men's' fashion.

Known by different names, from Indian kurtas to West African dashikis, the tented silhouette of Shakar's designs has been worn by men around the world for centuries, including in Shakar's native Iraq. The combination of a jacket and trousers "is a very specific European ideal" of menswear, says Amy Sperber, assistant professor of fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. But ideas of what menswear is or should be are undergoing a seismic shift.

Louis XIV
Louis XIV  (Source: Getty Images)

The Intertwined History of Fashion and Power

The history of fashion is also a history of power. And the types of clothes considered powerful, and who gets to wear them, is as storied as history itself. Sumptuary laws began dictating rules of dress based on status and gender as far back as Ancient Rome. Who wore the pants, and what wearing them meant, has shifted over time around the world.

"If you look back to the court of Versailles, which is fabulous to study and think about now, the frippery and fanciful dress that would now be considered very feminine was restricted just for men, including high heels," Sperber notes.

The suit's dominance over western ideals of masculine dress went hand in hand with colonialism. (Though let's not forget the Founding Fathers loved their powdered wigs.) Trousers solidified their place as conventional menswear, telegraphing a kind of social power rooted in gender. "There were times when women were banned from wearing pants because they became such a symbol of dominance," Sperber says.

The opposite has also largely held true: for men to wear skirts, dresses, or similar silhouettes has long been considered transgressive because of the garments' association with femininity. Crossdressing in women's clothes has meant many different things to men of varying gender identities and sexual orientation. Drag, it hardly needs to be said, has become a cultural phenomenon. Feminine dress is also, of course, a meaningful way of expressing gender identity for trans and nonbinary people. But for self-identified cisgender men, donning womenswear has largely remained taboo.

That's still true to some extent, though the tides seem to be more visibly turning. Consider the backlash to Vogue's December cover featuring Harry Styles in a Gucci dress. For every conservative commentator who cried out to "bring back manly men," there were millions more fans who applauded the move —more than 8 million on Styles' Instagram response to the hoopla.

Northern Irish designer JW Anderson's latest menswear collection (Fall 2021), which premiered in late January, offers another example of converging aesthetics with knee-length mohair sweaters and jersey peplum dresses.

"We have a generation of design students who, this is just the way they think," Sperber says. "It's not a trend; they consider gender to be a construct. There are spectrums of identity, and that's reflected in the clothes."

Rio lace short-sleeve top and shorts.
Rio lace short-sleeve top and shorts.  (Source: Palomo Spain)

Who Wears What? And Why Does It Matter?

How fluid ideas of gender manifest in design can vary. Men, women, and anyone in between can now find garments to fit different body types. But a move toward collections broadly marketed as all-inclusive seems to be growing, with brands like Marrakshi Life modernizing the kaftan and Palomo Spain ignoring gender nomenclatures entirely.

"The Palomo line reminds me of Versailles in some of its design gestures," says Sperber. "Designers commonly reference the past while offering a transhistorical connection to the future. The intention may be aesthetic, but the narrative's history was to display one's wealth and power. It's interesting to note the bodies displaying the clothing — whether they identify as men, women or gender-fluid, are the same. There is no diversity of human geometry."

The reimagined kaftan's silhouette, "oversized, voluminous, layered, abstracted," as Sperber describes, offers a different approach. "It's a simple solution to the challenge of more expansive design: "If you want to be able to appeal to the broadest number of people, well, if it's big enough, then there's room for everyone, so to speak."

Shakar has applied a similar philosophy to his designs for Kaftko, which begin on his own body but are designed to fit anyone. "To me, it's not about the girl, the boy, or the person — it's about yourself," Shakar says. "If you can design something that you really love, then everyone else will enjoy it. That's what I'm continuing to try to do." While Kaftko's garments may appeal to younger generations with more fluid ideas about gender, designing them has been a way for Shakar, 38, to process and let go of the stricter norms he was raised with.

"I grew up wanting to be a girl," Shakar says. "It wasn't that I actually wanted to have girl parts, but I wanted to play with Barbies and be a ballerina, but I was told that as a boy I couldn't do those things." For Shakar, designing garments that make him feel most like himself has meant reclaiming a bit of what was lost in conforming to masculinity standards.

"To me, the company says: Gender does not define who we are; it's just part of what we're given. I'm creating things that I truly believe will make people feel joyous. It's not about anything else," Shakar says. "Everyone wants to feel good."

Naveen Kumar is a culture writer and editor whose recent work appears on, The Daily Beast, The Hollywood Reporter, and The New York Times.