Extreme weather has driven hordes of boys and men to embrace skirts as a form of protest

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A ferocious heat wave has swept through Europe, with temperatures reaching 38°C (100°F). To beat the heat, some men and boys are leaving their trousers behind.

In France, a group of bus drivers in the city Nantes who were really feeling the heat asked their employers to be allowed to wear shorts. Their bosses declined. To protest what they claimed to be unacceptable working conditions, the drivers wore the summer clothes that were allowed at work: skirts.

Didier Sauvetre, who wore a black knee-length skirt with socks and sandals, told the Guardian, “Our bosses offices are air-conditioned, which isn’t the case with the majority of our vehicles. To spend more than seven hours in a vehicle in 50°C temperatures is not easy.” Sauvetre’s employers deny they have air conditioning in their office and insist their new buses do. The skirt protest has yet to lead to any changes in company policy.

Europe has a long history of skirts being worn to protest dress codes. In 2013, a group of Swedish train conductors wore skirts to protest their company’s ban on shorts. After the drivers wore skirts for two weeks, the company agreed to change the company dress code and introduce shorts.

In the same week as the French bus drivers protest, some 30 boys in England wore skirts to school to protest their school’s uniform policy. Just like the bus drivers, the boys asked to wear shorts because of the hot weather, but their request was denied. Soon after, they walked to school wearing skirts, chanting, “Let boys wear shorts!” The principle agreed to look at the school’s policy again. Similar protests, where British schoolboys donned skirts to protest summer dress codes, occurred in 2011, 2013, and 2016 in Britain.

While skirts have been used to protest the hypocrisy of dress codes, it’s worth noting that the notion that skirts are for girls is a lot newer than people realize. Skirts were often worn by men in many ancient societies and are only taboo to men in certain cultures today (men still wear skirts in several cultures from Africa to Southeast Asia). So how did trousers become associated as a masculine item of clothing? Evolutionary biologist Peter Turchin blames horseriding.

The idea that skirts were for girls and trousers were for boys began to take hold in Europe in the 14th century with the development of tailoring, according to the Victoria & Albert Museum. “Previously, both men and women wore draped or unshaped garments and tunics. As men’s tunics became shorter and tighter-fitting in the 15th century, fashionable men began to wear hose or stockings as outer leg wear,” the museum notes. By the 19th century, trousers were associated with masculinity.

Across the world, there’s been a growing movement to tackle the taboo of boys wearing skirts. Jaden Smith, the 17-year-old son of Will Smith, made headlines last year for walking around in a skirt. The young actor said he wears skirt to fight gender stereotypes. The movement is having some impact; in May this year, a private school in England announced it would consider allowing boys to wear skirts at school as a growing number of students questioned the binary way society looked at clothes.