Why do boys wear pants and girls wear dresses?

June 17, 2008 | By | 22 Replies More

It’s the political season and there are a lot of bad arguments being made these days. There are plenty of non sequiturs, red herrings, ad hominem attacks and ex hominem attacks. It is the season when we vividly see that there is no such thing as pure reason. Instead, cognition is always infused with emotion (as Antonio Demasio described in his excellent work, Descartes’s Error).

This is also the season of unrelenting rhetorical tricks. One of the most common rhetorical tricks is the constant misuse of the word “because.” Simply uttering the word “because” tends to convince people that you are correct and logical even when you have said nothing meaningful at all. The great power of the word “because” has been demonstrated in a classic experiment involving a stooge trying to butt in line at a library copy machine. I discussed that experiment at a post that I entitled “Just Because.” I highly recommend a quick review of that psychology experiment before proceeding.

Considering the persuasive power of the word “because” reminded me of a special day in sixth grade, back in the late 1960s. This is a true story. I went to All Souls Grade School, a Catholic grade school in Overland Missouri. It was a school where boys wore pants and girls wore dresses (Catholic school girl’s uniforms, to be precise). A few times a year, one of the parish priests would drop by to teach religion to the students (we were usually taught by nuns). One of the parish priests at All Souls was an energetic, articulate and likable young man named Father Wilkins.

In order to convey the proper emotion of this story, I need to emphasize that the children in the sixth grade class were all starting to get laced with sex hormones, compliments of our maturing bodies. We were 12 and 13-year-olds. We were all fascinated with sex, but no one talked straight about sex back then (remember, this was back in the 1960s). It was a land of half-truths and outlandish lies. Now, back to the story.

Into the classroom walks Father Wilkins with a big smile. He sat at the teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom, chatted with us a bit and then paused for a couple seconds before starting his lesson:

“Do you know why boys wear pants and girls wear dresses?

I remember feeling shocked to hear this question. And I was also excited because I had wondered about this precise topic and I was eager to learn the answer. But no one raised a hand. I vividly remember the silence and I remember everyone looking down, hoping not to get called on. Undeterred, Father Wilkins asked the question again.

“Come on now. This is a simple question. Why do boys wear pants and girls wear dresses?”

Again, no one raised his or her hand and there was painful silence. Although my knowledge of female anatomy was quite limited back then, I assumed (with some embarrassment) that girls wore dresses for a reason that had to do with their lack of penises. I wasn’t about to raise my hand and volunteer such an answer, however. No one else was willing to volunteer an answer either.

Father Wilkins was starting to look frustrated. He cajoled us a third time.

“Nobody knows? Nobody’s going to answer my question? Well then, I’ll answer it. Why do boys wear pants and why do girls wear dresses?”

Father Wilkins folded his hands on top of his desk and looked straight at us.

“Boys wear pants and girls wear dresses because boys are boys and girls are girls! Now do you see? Now do you understand?”

Father Wilkins uttered his answer in a proud, almost smug way. He thought he was really onto something big. He went on to explain that things are often the way they are because that’s the way they’ve always been. And that’s the way they should be, et cetera. This was a perfect sort of answer for the sort of fellow who believed in the virgin birth and infallibility of the Pope.

To this day, I remember the immense disappointment I felt upon hearing this “answer.” His “answer” was actually no answer at all. I was certain of this, but I was not about to raise my hand to accuse the parish priest of pulling an intellectual con job on a classroom full of sixth graders. I can guarantee you, though, some of the kids in that classroom found his “answer” to be meaningful in the same way that they found his sermons to be meaningful. They believed that they had been provided knowledge when they had been subjected to nothing but a tautology anchored by that magically powerful word “because.”

“Because” is such an incredibly powerful word that a politician who sprinkles into his or her speeches sounds like he or she is a bubbling ferment of precision logic. We needed to attack Iraq because of 9/11. We need to fight them over there because we don’t want to fight them over here. We need to privatize Social Security because we’re trying to save it. We need to torture innocent people because other people are trying to kill us. Or “[Fill in this blank] because America is the worlds greatest country.” Or “because we’re freedom loving people.” or because [whatever].

For many people, it seems, hearing the word “because” turns off all sense of skepticism. It is for this reason that “because” is such a powerful and dangerous word.


I’m wondering whether the real lesson of Father Wilkins was the importance of stare decisis, the importance of doing something a certain way because that is the way it’s always been done.

I now believe that I have a much better answer to the father Wilkins question (and I do believe his question was a good one). I believe that girls wear dresses to display their legs in order to convince potential mates that the girls are biologically fit. In other words, this is a question for which evolutionary psychology offers an interesting perspective. For more on this connection, see my earlier post, “Killer High Heels.”

Do it just because.


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Category: American Culture, Education, Iraq, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (22)

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  1. Vicki Baker says:

    I believe that girls wear dresses to display their legs in order to convince potential mates that the girls are biologically fit.

    Good lord, how did we manage to survive and reproduce all those centuries when a glimpse of female stocking was looked upon as something shocking?

    And what about all those pinup boys of Western art, in their short come-hither tunics and sexy tight hose?

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Vicki: I know that the my EP-based answer is not totally satisfying to you (or to me). But assume that you simply HAD to give your best guess. Why do girls wear dresses but not boys? Is it totally happenstance or is there something deep-rooted in our biology that pushes it that way?

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    A more likely explanation is related to social roles and mode of transportation. In ancient societies pants were a part of slave attire, but as horseback riding became more common, pants offered more protection to the legs than kilts and similar skirt like garb. Also in ancient society, women were sheltered due to their importance as mothers, and as such took on the roles of raising the children while the men hunted and farmed to provide for the family. pants were much more practical than skirts for hunting and farming as they provided protection from thorns, poisonous plants and insects, as well as from the effects of cold.

    Over the years, the roles were slowly redefined. Women were protected not because of their importance to survival, but because they were deemed "weak", and pants became a symbol of masculinity.

    I know that some church's doctrine actually require that women wear dresses and men wear pants, but they accept that men in the time of Jesus did not wear pants without question.

  4. Vicki Baker says:

    Erich – to clarify, are you seriously suggesting that there is some sort of evolved mental module that explains why men wear pants and women dresses? Or do clothing choices instead rely on a generalized desire to attract admiring glances from the opposite sex without making others in one's social group feel overly uncomfortable or jealous, combined with a generalized mental ability to make choices to achieve this goal from the behavioral repertoire available within a given culture?

    If you arguing the first alternative, you got a lot of 'splainin' to do, starting with why salwar-kameez-wearing cultures don't seem to have this mental module. If the second, then it seems that cultural/historical explanations would probably provide a better explanation for a behavior that is culturally determined, and which depends on a relatively recent technological innovation (tailoring).

  5. Vicki Baker says:

    Of course I should point out that something's sarong with your basic premise that "boys don't wear dresses." I think you are kilty of over-generalizing from your own cultural premises.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Vicki: I'm not claiming that there is a gene for dress-wearing. My gut feeling is that things developed, in the culture in which I live, along the line described above in the comment by Niklaus Pfirsig.

    I don't believe that the gender divide in American culture is written on a blank slate. If I didn't make it clear, my suggestion in the "epilogue" of the post focused on a faux explanation of the gender divide in dress wearing in American culture.

  7. Dan Klarmann says:

    I thought the point of the post was of dogma presented as proof via the conjunction "because", not of skirts per se. I've never worn a dress, but there is a picture of me posing in a skirt, somewhere online.

  8. Vicki Baker says:

    Sorry, I didn't get that the explanation you gave in the Epilogue was an example of a faux explanation.

    But then you asked: .

    Why do girls wear dresses but not boys? Is it totally happenstance or is there something deep-rooted in our biology that pushes it that way?

    No, culture doesn't get written on a completely blank slate. But consider:

    1. In Culture A, women wear skirts that expose their legs and men wear pants.

    2. In Culture B, women always wear pants and never skirts. Men also wear pants.

    3. in Culture C, men wear short skirts that expose their legs and women wear long skirts that cover their legs. Nobody wears pants, though they might wear socks or stockings.

    All 3 cultures are located in temperate climates that experience a wide range of weather conditions. Since the biology is the same in all 3 cultures, how could there be a biological explanation that is more salient or "deep-rooted" than historical/cultural explanations?

    Nikolaus' story is another example of the seductiveness of "because."

    women were sheltered due to their importance as mothers, and as such took on the roles of raising the children while the men hunted and farmed to provide for the family.

    OK, I'll grant that hunting and warfare are male occupations pretty universally. But historically only very very wealthy women have been "sheltered" from food-gathering and agricultural work.

    pants were much more practical than skirts for hunting and farming as they provided protection from thorns, poisonous plants and insects, as well as from the effects of cold.

    Tell that to the ancient Romans, the Scots and the Bhutanese.

    I'll grant that there's a deep-rooted biological reason for horseback riders of whatever sex to wear trousers, with or without an overskirt. But why ride the horse instead of harnessing it to a chariot?

  9. I seem to remember that both the Jesuit and Franciscan fathers in my youth wore dresses.

    What does it all mean?

  10. grumpypilgrim says:

    I believe I can say with confidence that all of you are wrong. The divergence of clothing styles for men and women in Europe began during the Renaissance and then evolved over the centuries into the conventions we see today. In the Middle Ages, clothing styles for men and women were basically the same: both wore loose-fitting, knee-length tunics (similar to today's dresses) and hose (we call them tights). During the Renaissance, with its emphasis on the human form, clothing became more fitted. As it did so, and in part because of hunting and military needs, men's clothing evolved in the direction of ever-smaller skirts, while women's clothing evolved in the direction of ever-larger skirts. For men, hose eventually gave way to breeches (loose-fitting, knee-length hose) in the early 1600s, and breeches then gave way to we know today as pants. Women remained in skirts, in part because hose and breeches were originally fastened to the bodice with a series of tied ribbons, which made removing them for bathroom functions a time-consuming process. Men, by contrast, didn't need to remove their breeches to urinate.

    Indeed, bathroom functions were apparently responsible for the fact that hose (for both men and women) and breeches (for men) were originally made separately for each leg and did not cover the crotch, much as cowboy chaps are today. I suspect this is why we still refer to pants (a plural term) as "a pair" even though a modern "pair of pants" is actually a unitary item. Of course, as men's tunics became shorter (becoming the doublet of the Renaissance), the open crotch needed to be covered, which led to the creation of the codpiece — a fashion statement that was, thankfully, short-lived.

    Meanwhile, women's dresses likewise evolved, developing hoops, bustles, corsets, etc., to emphasize various "ideal" forms of the female shape — ideals that, as with men, changed over time (and continue to do so).

    For more information on this topic, just google any of the clothing terms mentioned above.

  11. Funny story. That Fr. Wilkins was pretty smart, but not smart enough to explain himself. I think you're exactly right in your reflection on stare decisis. Wilkins was saying, "Let's question the obvious," without realizing the kids were habituated to timidity.

  12. Mellie Agon says:

    Well, there is a real answer to Father Wilkins' question.

    It is not innate to males to wear bifurcated clothes or for females to wear skirt-like garments. These are social conventions, nothing more. Men for example have worn and do wear kilts, sarongs and other things which are skirts by another name.

    The real issue is that women have been the oppressed sex for many centuries (and still are, despite making gains over the last century). This is why they are expected to wearing "prettifying" clothes. This is why it is predominantly women, not men, who wear colourful patterns, makeup, jewellery, and so on. There is nothing innately gendered about a stick of lipstick, for example – it's just a bit of dyed wax. But social rules contend that women must go to especial lengths to beautify themselves for men's gratification, whereas this behaviour is considered degrading for men. Thus skirts/dresses/blouses/high heels are generally much less practical, more difficult to keep clean, etc, and therefore more "suited" to a sex that is meant to look pretty and not do anything resembling real work.

    Of course, real women don't fit these conventions. But they have been around for centuries and are still pushed upon us today.

  13. Robert says:

    Why all the uproar about whether boys can or should wear dresses or skirts. If you look at history you will find that boys here in America wore dresses up til the 1940's. (histclo.com) Although I feel skirts are more appropriate for boys or men to wear, there is nothing wrong with boys wearing dresses. If men or boys do wear, or are about to, they need to be taught how to wear them for modesty's sake. We don't want them flashing their underwear just like girls. However if skirts are coming into vogue for guys, they could wear a mans/boys shirt (like a polo or t-shirt) as a top. We put little boys in tights til they are 3 yrs of age, so why don't we make them available for older boys and men. The only gender clothing is actually only 2 items, that is a bra for girls/women and a jockstrap for boys/men, as neither has a need (usually)for wearing them.

  14. Ronnie says:

    Either North or South Carolina made it a law that women have to wear skirts/dresses to enter their state senate or house. This happened in the 90's I think, and made me so mad I could've spit nails. I'd love to see a group of women in the sluttiest skirts and dresses, and the most ridiculous garments possible demand entry because they are technically wearing the "right" clothing for women.

    I'm going to pick on them as a group because they are a big part of the religious right. . . Do they think Jesus is going to come back to earth in a proper three piece suit with a nice red Republican tie and a lapel pin of the American flag? Will they be outraged if he's wearing a "dress" and send him right back where he came from?

    The authoritarian mind cannot tolerate deviance from the "norm" and reacts violently to anything that challenges the status quo. They accept things on the grounds of respect for tradition, but any rejection of tradition is viewed as a risk that earns a knee jerk response. This a group who exits in fear of the unknown, relying on group cohesion for a sense of safety and security, and shuns anyone who refuses to adopt their mindset. Is it any wonder a male in a skirt sends them into a tizzy?

  15. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    While dining at a restaurant, the subject came up about a weirdo in the neighborhood, an 80 year-old man who, in the summer months wears only flip-flops and a Speedo. He had been turned away from the restaurant once because he wasn't wearing of his (lack of) attire.

    The sign on the door stated "No shirt, no shoes, no service."

    I pointed out that they served many customers wearing no pants, referring to those wearing dresses. The funny part was that the dress wearers included one man who worked at a night club featuring female impersonators, who would often stop by wearing very nice evening dress after working the early shift at the club.

  16. Tim Hogan says:

    According to "Weird Laws" on my phone:

    It is illegal for women to wear pants in Tuscon AZ, and;

    It is illegal in Raton NM for a woman to ride horseback down a public street wearing a kimono, and;

    In Charlotte NC, women must have their bodies covered by at least 16 yards of cloth at all times, and;

    In Morrisville PA, women neeed a permit to wear cosmetics, and;

    In WY, it is illedgal for women to stand within 5 feet of a bar while drinking, and;

    there are lots of silly things everywhere!

  17. Alison says:

    I can't imagine 16 yards of fabric! You can cover an entire size 12 woman quite modestly with as little as three yards. Plus, last time I went there, I'd say pretty much everyone was flouting that law with impunity. . .

  18. T says:

    Well I never though about this. I think maybe back then, men hunt and you dont want anything getting to your private areas. Then they just had girls wear dresses/skirts to show men were different. Men were though of better back then and that was just how they showed some importance, by wearing pants.

    Its just a theory and I dont really know why men wear pants and girls dont.

  19. Martin Carman says:

    GrumpyPilgrim is correct – evolution commands everything – form follows function. Anyway, dresses are fun and cool to wear.

  20. Mac says:

    Women wore skirts until the manufactured menstrual napkin became common and affordable. Before the days of (usually) readily available restrooms, a woman could simply squat to relieve herself (pee). Her skirt provided cover. She wore her "outhouse."

    Today women who have certain medical problems of the groin are sometimes advised to wear skirts with no underpants, or airy, lacy ones.

    While crotchless panties are nowadays thought quite risque, only a hundred years ago women's underpants commonly were crotchless. This feature allowed changing menstrual cloths and voiding without having to undress.

    For those who pay attention to the Bible, the only mention of trousers is the Levitical priests' linen undershorts. Men are said to "gird their loins," put on a wrapping around their waist-to-knee area. A good example of this garment is seen on the Indian men in Gunga Din. While not trousers in the form we are used to, the loincloth forms a sort of short trouser.

  21. mark says:

    Im going to guess its so that men can have easy access to a woman for a sexual reasons whereas men have no need of such types of easy access. A guy could drop his pants and the girl could lift her skirt/dress. Now theres womens lib that says women arent sex objects so they wear pants now. Men dont wear dresses because……heck i dont know why. Perhaps women would get mad and think we were trying to take something that belongs strictly to them. If thats the case we want our pants back. Another possibility is that its just so deep down inside our psyche that men wear pants and thats just how it is that we keep to that societal philosophy. Whatever the case, fashion changes dont occur until someone goes against the norm. You guys want men to be accepted in dresses? Start wearing dresses. Might want to check public decency laws in your area first though.

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