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Harry Styles can get away with wearing a skirt. But can I? | men’s fashion

I likes clothes, including those defined as feminine. I rarely wear such things outside, because who has the guts? Now could be the time. Gendered fashion is, it seems, dead. After wearing sweatpants for two years, men want to free their legs. To test the cultural temperature, I borrowed a long black skirt from my friend Rowena, and I’m wearing it in South London, to see if anyone cares. They do. Men in skirts might have a moment, but my experience is excruciating. Passers-by look at me with narrowed eyes, as if I were a piece of long division.

It looks so easy on magazine covers. Harry Styles, Pete Davidson and NBA star Russell Westbrook have burned the menswear rulebook, while celebrities such as Kid Cudi, Lewis Hamilton and Oscar Isaac are also celebrated as skirt kings straight male. Thom Browne, Raf Simons, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons have all pushed the look in the latest collections. But catwalks and red carpets are one thing, Peckham Rye in a split maxi is another. I might as well wear a colander for a wreath.

The skirt itself is great. Free, airy and elegant. “Is it a man’s skirt?” asks a woman sitting in front of a store. “Unisex,” I reply, telling a white lie. “Sounds good,” she decides. It’s hard to tell what people are thinking just from their expression. There is also another complication. In most parts of the world, much of which is warm, it is normal for men to wear airy clothing on their legs. Religious clothing often has a dress form. People might try to find out if I’m wearing a jalabiya or a jubba or even a sarong. I could be a funky clergyman. I’m basically wearing a skirt with an exit clause. It’s time to go bold.

Work… Rhik Samadder. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

I return the laundry number to Rowena and we go shopping. At a charity shop, I’m drawn to an animal print Lipsy number. “It’s a Wag prosecco dress,” laments Rowena, who doesn’t believe in mince words. “And not your role model.” I take a midi paisley, in white and coral. Sweet, sort of 90s and fun. I buy it, but not everyone is sold. “Maybe we do,” my friend said at home, pulling out some pins and taking it 25cm. She ties my T-shirt in a crop top that reveals the belly. “Now that’s a look.”

I could wear this near art school and blend in. But where would the fun be in that? I’m taking a trip to east London, to an old fashioned fruit and veg market. Traders look at me, but no one tells me to put away my plums. Similarly, in a crowded greasy spoon. Some of the older clientele seem a little offended, which doesn’t do any good. I don’t want to upset anyone. But I’m only wearing a skirt. Men in shorts run topless wherever they want and no one bats an eyelid.

In public transport, no one says anything. Then again, you could wear a pillowcase like a chef’s toque and talk to a blancmange on a bus and no one would notice. In the street, there are more interactions. An elderly Chinese woman staggers to tell me that I look good. I ask if the skirt is too short. “No. Pretty,” she says. What a baller. (For what it’s worth, another older woman shouts “What’s that?” in my direction.)

Young people are usually on board. “Slay,” smiled a teenage girl shyly. There are quite a few “work it!” to balance the disgust. School kids are the worst, bless their ailing hearts, but most are just curious.

I think gender roles are prisons, and we should all wear what we want. And I doubt I’m alone. I went to drama school and I would say about 100% of the boys were there so they could wear dresses. By the way, I am confusing two different garments here. Is there more of a cultural model for “the man in a dress” as opposed to a skirt? The aesthetic unity of dresses has always appealed to me, more so than skirts. In any case, we aspire to the forbidden.

There could be another reason for the confused faces. It is unusually cold for the season and it is raining. I don’t feel a pleasant lightness; the wind whips between my legs. Maybe I just look chilly.

Other steep learning curves include knowing how to sit on public transport (place bag on lap, not between), thigh modesty, and where in the hell’s teeth to put my stuff. It’s nothing if not a great lesson in empathy. Everyone should experience the exposure, scrutiny, and restricted movement that skirt wearers endure.

While time is the most hostile force I encounter, I wouldn’t say men in skirts are normalized. “What is that ?” is dehumanizing language, not good for old self-esteem. At first, I shrink. Then I straighten up. Look at me and I’ll look back at you. But distrust is tiring, and it saddens me that a man cannot wear a beautiful garment without arming himself with this combative attitude. I don’t have the energy for that every day. I can’t say what I’ll be wearing tomorrow, but I do know this: there will be fucking pockets on it.

Hazel J. Edmonds

The author Hazel J. Edmonds