Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The History Of Men & Skirts

In the UK, where I live, a debate has recently erupted over student dress codes, as gender-neutral uniforms will soon be instituted at at least one school. Though the actual issue at hand has to do with students feeling free to express their gender identity and is rather complex, the media narrative is a bit more simplified: should boys be allowed to wear skirts, just as women can now wear pants?

But what you might not get from the current discussion is the notion that pants are masculine — and skirts are feminine — is much newer than most of us think. The entire idea of skirts as specifically female dress was brought about in European thought by a combination of tailoring innovation and particular occupations; and the tradition of men in cloth wraps, skirts, tunics, robes and other non-pant items is vast and ancient. So why are we getting our minis in a twist about private school kilts being available to all students?

Skirts on men have, of course, been used as a quick method of signaling gender-conforming behavior for decades, from the glorious gown-wearing David Bowie to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana sulking around in floral dresses. However, the movement to make skirts socially acceptable wear for men — something ordinary instead of a sign of specific thought or intent — is garnering strength on the world's catwalks and among certain millennial men. What's often missing in the discussions of skirts on men is historical context, so let's get into the realities of how men have been sporting flowing hemlines for eons.

Ancient World: Skirts For All Except Horse Riders

Skirts were the matter-of-fact wear of many of humanity's most ancient civilizations, on both sides of the gender divide. Gauzy wraps and loincloths for Egyptians, togas denoting class and status for Greeks and Romans, ornate military costumes for Aztecs: many ancient costumes were based around the idea of the skirt, purely because they were easy to construct and created huge freedom of movement. Whether you were fighting, building, farming or engaging in some kind of religious ritual, skirts provided cheap and efficient use. Short skirts among soldiers from the height of the Roman Empire, noted an exhibition at the Met called "Braveheart: Men In Skirts," were considered proof of virility, and allowed for swiftness while in combat.

14th-15th Century Europe: Suddenly, There's Hosiery

However, the demarcation between trousers-for-men and skirts-for-women wasn't actually completely set in stone until around the 19th century. For an extremely long time, the tunic or short skirt was a key part of the male outfit in medieval and Renaissance Europe; just going out with hose wasn't seen as acceptable. And even when the tunic overlay fell out of fashion, trousers themselves would swell to skirt-like proportions among the fashionable; 16th and 17th century nobles in England and elsewhere, for instance, were sometimes expected to wear hose, perhaps a codpiece, and giant breeches puffed to high heaven.

Even in the 19th century, as the paint-like breeches beloved of such dandies as Beau Brummel set the hearts of ladies aflutter (because they revealed everything of a gentleman's legs and buttocks), skirted garments were still acceptable in many contexts in European society. Academics, monks and men of leisure wore gowns, all of which are still in use today.

19th Century US & Europe: Male Children Start Wearing Pants

However, in the 19th century, the practice of "breeching" came into fashion, in which small boys, somewhere between the ages of 4 and 7, were given their first pair of trousers (breeches) to show that they'd gone beyond infancy. Part of this was due to new ideas about childhood and children's brains, but it was also down to shifting perspectives on what made a "man"— which led to skirts becoming less and less acceptable for young male children.

Modern Day: Skirts For Men Are Only Taboo In Certain Cultures

Fashion, as 1883 Magazine points out, is having a decidedly male-skirted moment; many contemporary menswear lines are sending skirts down the runway, though it remains to be seen whether the look will actually percolate into the mainstream (and not just on professionally quirky fashionable types, like Jared Leto). Men's skirts have received mainstream resistance — often based around the idea that, since the skirt is inherently feminine, a man wearing one is either feminine and therefore weakened, harkening back to a less sophisticated past, or looking for attention. But the idea that skirts are entirely feminine is in fact very Western-centered.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ancient Chinese dress finds a new following

“I felt a strong sense of affection and belonging,” the Guangzhou University design student said in an interview with the South China Morning Post. “I like the traditional culture behind it.”

Luo, a sophomore, now wears Hanfu once a week. He also joined the Hanfu Society at his school. Its members celebrate traditional Chinese festivals, clad in Hanfu, and go into the community to lecture about their garments.

Luo is by no means alone in venerating traditional Chinese attire. An increasing number of Chinese argue that Hanfu, which characterised the Han ethnic group for more than three millennia, is worthy of far greater attention today – both at home and abroad.

After vanishing from history for about 400 years, the style has gained a substantial number of followers on the mainland in the past 15 years as the country attaches more importance to tradition and calls on the public to be proud of Chinese culture.

Hanfu, Luo said, had a “more broad historical context” than he expected. He said he also admired the “historical origins and historical tales” in its components.

Most Hanfu enthusiasts, like Luo and his peers at the university, reserve their outfits for traditional festivals; only a small proportion wear them every day.

A university student recently made headlines on Chinese media for dressing in Hanfu for more than 300 days in a single year to promote the style and culture.

To complement his traditional robe, Kang Wei, a commerce and management student at Southwest Petroleum University in Chengdu, Sichuan province, wore shoes made from black cloth and, on rainy days, carried an umbrella made from oil paper, Chengdu Business News reported.

“I admire Kang’s courage to wear Hanfu every day,” Luo said. “This kind of dress is different from what people wear nowadays.”

Gao Zhiluo, a photographer from Luoyang in central China’s Henan province, is another diehard Hanfu supporter. She has worn the apparel almost every day since 2014.

When she is out and about, she said people often misunderstand her. Lots of people stare, she said, and some mock her for wearing what they assume is a cosplay outfit. Others, with a nationalistic or patriotic bent, get annoyed because they think her traditional robes are Japanese or South Korean.

“I’m never put off by what they think because I know I’ve done nothing wrong or broken any rules,” she said. “But I am sad that people have such a lack of awareness of Hanfu. They don’t know that this is what our Han ancestors wore for thousands of years.”

Friday, February 16, 2018

4 Winter Solstice Rituals From Around the World

Thousands of people around the globe will herald the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, with centuries-old rituals like soaking in fruit-filled baths and dressing up as a devilish folklore legend that punishes naughty children around Christmas.

The solstice, which falls on Dec. 21 this year, marks the first day of winter. It starts the moment the Northern Hemisphere is pointed at its farthest distance from the sun. The winter solstice is considered a turning point in the year in many cultures. The sacred day is also called Yule to pagans celebrating the birth of the new solar year, according to Circle Sanctuary, a prominent pagan group in America. Dozens of pagans and druids head to Stonehenge, an iconic site in England, to pay tribute to the sun during the solstice.

Getting scared by Krampus in Austria
Hordes of revelers descend on Hollabrunn, Austria each year during the winter solstice to watch a swarm of people dressed like Krampus — the half-demon, half-goat counterpart to Santa Claus — terrorize and tease the crowd in horned masks, fur body suits and whips. “It is weird, but it’s fun,” said Natalie Kononenko, a professor and Kule Chair in Ukrainian Ethnography Arts at the University of Alberta in Canada.

Krampus is a figure that punishes bad children by whipping and snatching them, according to Germanic folklore. The traditional Krampus run in Austria is believed to ward off bad spirits near the winter solstice, but it is also a source of local entertainment, Kononenko said. Last year, the creatures wielded torches, charged at delighted guests and jumped over security gates to lightly whip people, according to footage from the Associated Press.

While many of the costumes include giant horns, sharpened teeth and mangled faces — features that might be considered nightmarish to an ordinary person — the Krampus run annually amuses those in attendance. “It’s sort of like Halloween,” Kononenko said. “You get to dress up in these really disgusting costumes. You get to do stuff you don’t normally get to do.”

This year’s family-friendly Krampus run in Hollabrunn’s main square takes place Dec. 16. “To be really afraid again and experience evil with fun is the motto,” its organizers wrote on the event’s website.

Taking in a once-in-a-lifetime sight in Ireland
Dozens of people, lucky enough to be selected through an annual lottery, get the chance to stand inside the Newgrange monument in Ireland and absorb the first rays of the day as they fill the ancient chambers during the winter solstice.

Newgrange is a burial mound in Ireland’s Boyne Valley that is over 5,000 years old. The Stone Age monument contains a 62-foot passage that leads into a chamber that is aligned with the sun as it rises during the winter solstice, according to its website. Between Dec. 19 and Dec. 23 around dawn, sunlight pierces through the top of the chamber and slowly illuminates the room for about 17 minutes.

More than 32,500 people applied for a spot inside the chamber this year, according to Newgrange’s website. Only 60 of them were picked from the lottery to partake in this winter solstice ritual.

Soaking in baths full of fruit in Japan
In Japan, people traditionally soak in hot baths with the yuzu citrus fruit to welcome the winter solstice and protect their bodies from the common cold. During last year’s solstice celebration, children from a local preschool shared a dip in a traditional yuzu tub in the city of Toyooka as dozens of the yellow yuzu fruits surrounded them on the surface, according to Japan’s daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun. Similarly, the bath has become custom for animals in some Japanese zoos. Photos from the local media show Japanese macaques, hippos and capybaras enjoying fruit-filled baths last December in their enclosures at the Fukuoka City Zoological Garden and the Izu Shaboten Zoo.

In Korea, good luck on the solstice is associated with red bean porridge. Koreans will often make the dish both to eat and spread around the house to keep evil spirits away, according to Seungja Choi, a senior lector of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University. Besides its believed spiritual benefits, Choi said, the meal also contains a lot of nutrition. “If you eat this, you get healthy,” she said.

Catching the sunrise at Stonehenge
England’s famous Stonehenge lures thousands of visitors during the summer and winter solstices. Revelers gather at the prehistoric site of ancient stones in Wiltshire to sing, dance, play instruments, kiss the stones and do yoga as they wait for the sun to rise. The iconic Stonehenge is known for its precise alignment with the sun’s movement and may have been a sacred place of worship and celebration for solstices for thousands of years, according to English Heritage, which manages the popular destination.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Lewes Bonfire night parade's 'racist' costumes to be axed

Members of Lewes Borough Bonfire Society traditionally wear black face paint and extravagant accessories for the annual parade in the Sussex town.

But the leader of a Zulu dance troupe booked to perform at the event said the costumes were "incredibly offensive".

The society agreed to alter the costumes.

Thousands attend the event, which is famed for its raucous atmosphere.

Members of six bonfire societies march through the town, carrying effigies of famous or controversial figures which are eventually set alight.

Thandanani Gumede, leader of dance troupe Zulu Tradition, initially accepted an invitation to perform, but said he was inundated with images of performers in offensive dress.

'Viking and showgirl'

He said the first picture he saw - from a bonfire society's pamphlet - showed an acceptable version of the costume.

He said: "It didn't offend me because it was clear they had taken to time to make the details of the costume correct. They had the leopard skin umqhele, the 'crown', similar to my own, beads and sympathetic body paint."

However, he found subsequent images "disrespectful", and was alerted to a 1,600-strong petition to stop "the offensive practice of blacking up".

"I was really disappointed," he added, "bones through the noses, dead monkeys, skulls, horns, huge feathered headdresses.

"They looked barbaric, like a cross between a Viking and a showgirl. It was incredibly offensive. Nothing about those outfits resembled a Zulu warrior."

Mr Gumede said the society was receptive to his suggestions, and he did not believe anybody had intended to cause offence.

Mick Symes, of the society said: "These costumes have been used for 100 years, and during parades things do get a bit over-styled.

"We lost our way a bit, but we are delighted to welcome Zulu Tradition to what will be a most wonderful night."

The skulls, bones, dead monkeys and black face paint will now be omitted and more traditional headpieces created for next year.

A counter petition has the support of 600 people, and some locals commented that the tradition of painting faces had been going on for years.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Taiwan's tribal matchmaking festival

As night falls on a square in the village of Matai'an, young women cast critical eyes over a dancing circle of men in embroidered skirts and feathered head dresses as part of an ancient match-making ritual.

Known as "Lovers' Night", it is the grand finale of the annual harvest festival in the settlement which belongs to the Amis tribe, the largest of the 16 recognised indigenous groups in Taiwan.

Near the island's rugged east coast, the village is a collection of basic, low-lying houses along meandering streets, located in a valley between two mountain ranges.

The harvest festival -- which usually runs between June and August, with each village holding it at a different time -- is the biggest and most important celebration for the Amis tribe, and in Matai'an it culminates with single women taking their pick of eligible bachelors.The centuries-old custom is a reflection of the tribe's matriarchal system, which sees women make key decisions including managing finances and men marry into their wives' families.

As the singing and dancing men pick up their pace, the women move in behind their chosen love interest and tug on a multicoloured cloth bag slung on their target's shoulder.

To spark interest, the men wiggle and flex their muscles, the most popular among them accruing a queue of interested women.

If a man reciprocates the approach, he will give his bag -- known as an "alufo" -- to the woman, marking the beginning of a courtship.

In the past, the ritual would commonly lead to marriage and even now still sparks relationships, but it is also a chance for Amis community members who are working in the cities to return and socialise.

"Lovers' Night is to make friends," said Cheng Ying-hsuan, 22.

Dressed in a red traditional outfit adorned with green beads and her own sequined alufo, she had returned to the village from the city of Hualien, where she now lives, an hour's drive away.

When asked if she hoped to find a boyfriend, she laughed and said coyly: "That's also a possibility."

Matai'an is one of the biggest Amis settlements and is home to around 500 people -- mostly elders and children.

- Time to reconnect -

"We like the feeling of everyone coming back together and reconnecting. For us this is the most important," said Liao Ching-tung, 28, who lives in the capital Taipei.

Each harvest festival, hundreds who have moved away to work or study return to join in the festivities.

The indigenous community -- which remains a marginalised group in Taiwanese society -- has seen its traditional culture eroded since immigrants started arriving from China centuries ago.

Since President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in May 2016, her government has been pushing for greater indigenous rights and preservation of tribal languages and culture.

But some groups have criticised Tsai for not going far enough and have clashed with authorities over land rights policy, demanding their ancestral areas be returned.

In Matai'an, tradition is alive and kicking.

Lamen Panay, 41, who goes by her tribal name, says the matchmaking event is still meaningful to her even though she is no longer single.

She has a collection of lovers' bags from past harvest festivals, but has since settled down with her long-term boyfriend, living with him in Taipei.

The couple are both from the village and Lamen still makes a point of picking him out during the matchmaking ritual.

"We are both usually very busy with work," she said.

"It's necessary to rekindle the flames."