“When you come to the Oscars, you must dress up,” tweeted the actor Billy Porter, shortly after he swept down the red carpet in a glorious Christian Siriano mash-up of the traditional black-tie code. On top, Porter wore a sharp pastiche of the classic tux with prim white sleeves at the wrist; beneath was a sumptuous ballgown in rich black velvet.
Twitter exploded. Elle’s R. Eric Thomas likened Porter to “the glamorous dowager with a dangerous secret in a Victorian novel and also her suave butler with a mysterious past.” And Vogue called his outfit “a play on masculinity and femininity,” and said the look was “boundary-pushing in all the right ways”.
It makes for a refreshing change to be dissecting men’s fashion choices on a red carpet rather than women’s and Porter has been instrumental in subverting this gaze. But even more illuminating than his clothes are his words, which speak to the immense power of a statement like this.
“I grew up loving fashion, but there was a limit to the ways in which I could express myself,” he told Vogue. “When you’re black and you’re gay, one’s masculinity is in question.”
Although Porter faces challenges that are particular to him (and further compounded because of his intersections of identity), it’s also true that society in general is not kind to masculine expression that ventures outside the box.
Western culture is still so hostile towards any expression of masculinity that embraces things coded as feminine. Think of the antics of Mad Monday, the annual end-of-season footy celebration. It’s acceptable for cisgender, heterosexual football players to ‘dress in drag’ as way of mocking themselves for fun, but imagine the response if they turned up to the Brownlows rocking a gown like Porter’s.
It makes for a refreshing change to be dissecting men’s fashion choices on a red carpet rather than women’s
It’s a tragedy that aspects of femininity seem to be available to men only when they incorporate some kind of ridicule into the performance. And this policing starts so young. Just this past weekend, I posted a photograph of my infant son to Instagram. He and I were both wearing red lipstick, because – SPOILER – small children love colour and paint, and mimicking what their primary carers do.
I captioned it with some words about supporting kids’ creative expressions and dismantling unhelpful ideas around gender and fashion. The response was overwhelmingly positive, but there were still some (unsurprising) comments about how wrong this was. One man suggested I had “brainwashed” my two year old. Another called me a “stupid fucking bitch” and said it was “borderline child abuse”.
Is their sense of manhood so fragile they feel threatened by the simple sight of a child wearing lipstick? Presumably these are the same men who crumble over an ad for razor blades and form angry internet mobs to protest superhero movies that star women.
Boys aren’t biologically drawn towards staid, conservative fashion. They are conditioned into it. I once spoke with a woman whose son was starting school. She was concerned he might be teased by the other kids, because he often liked to wear skirts and dresses. She was right – he was teased. But in response to their taunts that he was wearing ‘girls clothes’, he said this: “There are no such things as girls clothes or boys clothes. These are just clothes that I like.”
When Porter was first fitted for his Siriano gown, he had a transformative experience. “I felt alive,” he said. “I felt free. And open, and radiant. And beautiful! Which has not always been the case for me. I haven’t always felt so good about myself.”
There are no such things as girls clothes or boys clothes. These are just clothes
That’s just one of the many reasons that Porter’s red carpet gown is so damn powerful. This is about a man reclaiming some of the parts of himself that patriarchy has tried to force him to destroy, and doing it on a stage big enough to tell all the other boys out there that it’s OK. That they are allowed to feel good about themselves. To feel free. To feel beautiful!
Men should be free to express themselves through clothes and make-up as freely as women, to play with fashion as an expression of their personality. These things don’t detract from the strength of someone’s masculinity – they only enhance them. With men like Porter blazing the trail, perhaps one day some of them will also be able to experience the joy of finding a great dress. And with any luck, it will have a big enough pocket to hold their lipstick.