Refashioning Masculinity project offers a fresh model for gender equality

Katrina Clarke | May 21, 2016 | Toronto Star

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Model Travis Martin. Photo credit: Lawrence Cortez

Montrealer Travis Martin had just gone though a breakup, escaped a bus crash that left him luggage-less en route to Toronto and he was feeling a nagging desire to explore his feminine side.

So when he wandered into a Toronto Value Village, it seemed serendipitous that one item caught his eye: a skirt. He bought two.

“It was empowering,” said the 27-year-old actor, recalling his first time wearing one last summer. “It contributed to this freedom that I was more and more experiencing.”

Martin, who now wears skirts weekly, is one of 50 men who participated in a Ryerson University research project exploring the intersection of masculinity, fashion, gender and feminism, called Refashioning Masculinity. It was a two-year project led by Ben Barry, an associate professor of equity, diversity and inclusion at Ryerson’s school of fashion, that saw Barry and his team poking through the wardrobes of 49 Torontonians and Martin, the one Montrealer, and starting conversations about fashion and what it means to be masculine today.

The research culminated in a fashion show in early May, held in a Ryerson weight room — the ideal space to juxtapose traditional thinking about masculinity with the so-called feminized realm of fashion, said Barry — with 23 of his subjects strutting and rolling around the runway in clothes reflecting their own expression of masculinity, while audio quotes from their interviews played over a loudspeaker.

For Barry, the wardrobe interviews were the gateway into his subjects’ minds.

“There’s something really powerful about clothing,” Barry told the Star. “Touching that fabric elicited memories, experiences, feelings and we could really engage in these complex conversations around masculinity just through the experiences of buying and wearing clothing.”

The stories that flowed included one doctor’s experience of discrimination when he wore a floral shirt to work, another’s experience of street harassment while wearing short shorts, and others recalling complex memories of their fathers while holding their hand-me-downs.

Subjects in the project — funded mainly by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council — included men ages 22 to 72, transgender men, men with disabilities, doctors, lawyers, a kindergarten teacher and MPP Jagmeet Singh. Some lived for fashion, others didn’t much care about clothes. Barry drew from his own circle of friends and their networks to bring together as diverse a group as possible.

For Alkarim Jadavji, 30, a Toronto user-experience designer, the project gave him a chance to reflect on his own style.

“I know the way I dress is different from other men,” he said, noting that he favours mixing women’s accessories with sportswear. “What excites me about dressing more than anything is being able to talk to somebody that I don’t think I would talk to, simply because they’re interested in what I’m wearing.”

Favouring women’s clothing over men’s was a common theme in Barry’s interviews. Men frequently said men’s clothing often didn’t fit and that women’s clothing often fit better and was more exciting. Barry calls the line between women’s and men’s fashion an arbitrary one.

“Masculinity is fluid and diverse,” he said.

Moving forward, Barry plans to put together a book based on his team’s interviews. In the meantime, he hopes the project stirs conversation and disrupts conventional thinking about masculinity, men’s fashion and the hierarchy of gender relations.

“By being able to deconstruct masculinity, to take down that ideal, to allow men to feel confident and comfortable to embrace the feminine, we’re able to challenge patriarchy, to challenge sexism and to challenge misogyny,” said Barry. “By deconstructing that, we’re able to advance gender equality.”

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About Katrina Clarke

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto- and Vancouver-based freelance reporter. Her work appears in the National Post, the Toronto Star, CBC Life and J-Source. Reach her at katrina.clarke24@gmail.com or on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.
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