Gender is something that we live with and experience everyday. It is not something we are born with, but what culture imposes upon us. It pervades different aspects of our lives.

Collin McKinney

The black suit is the workhorse for every man's closet. It appears at weddings, on the runway and at business meetings. It is also one of the ingredients that make up the 19th-century Spanish man, a topic Professor Collin McKinney, Spanish, first became interested in while reading the novels of Benito Pérez Galdós.

Until recently, there has been no counterpart to feminism, says McKinney. "People have viewed masculinity as a default identity and did not see the need to explore and explain masculinity. But critics have realized that you can't look at feminism without masculinity. You need to look at both sides of gender identity."

McKinney notes that men across all social classes and regions started wearing black suits in the 19th century and that this default uniform for Spanish men has endured. "The question is, what caused the sudden change in dress?" he says. "Clothing ran on parallel tracks, more or less until the 19th century when it suddenly diverged in a drastic way. Women's dresses continued to expand with exaggerated bustles, bows, ribbons, ruffles and fine silks in every color of the rainbow. Men, on the other hand, adopted a drab black suit."

McKinney looks at fashion magazines, conduct manuals and portraits from the 19th century to see how people dressed or how they discussed fashion. By doing so, he draws conclusions about how masculinity is viewed through men's relationship with clothing.

"It has to do with the rise of the middle class in Spain," says McKinney. "The clothes we wear make male and female bodies into men and women – they are outer expressions of gender.  A black suit says first and foremost, 'I don't want to be seen. I want you to look at my wife and not me because I don't want to be objectified.' But on the other hand it also says, 'Look at me, I'm calling the shots.'"

By looking at the gender identities of yesterday, we can better understand the gender identities of today, says McKinney. "Gender is something that we live with and experience everyday. It is not something we are born with, but what culture imposes upon us. It pervades different aspects of our lives."

Posted August 10, 2012

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