Manuel Villalobos Mendoza – « Masculinity undone »

3. Wearing the (un)manly toga

But being a neaniskos, with its connotations of problematic behaviors, was not the only threat against Mark’s young man’s masculinity. The sindōn or ‘soft linen garment’ that this neaniskos is wearing in Mark’s text, can also be read as an ambivalent signifier of gender. Clothing is language, as Tertullian says: ‘Even if utterance is mute […] my very clothing speaks’ (De pallio 6.1.1). And clothing speaks particularly loudly about gender. It distinguishes the real man from the effeminate, honor from shame, active from passive, top from bottom. As a primary signifier of the gendered body, dress was an essential, means of constructing, maintaining, and negotiating these ‘masculine’ categories. So we can ask: What does the neaniskos’s sindōn say? Does the sindōn, a piece of clothing associated in Antiquity with verus vir, signify his appropriate masculinity or is it another element through which Mark renders his masculinity subversive?

Glenys Davies writes of the toga, ‘what makes the garment virilis [manly] is not so much the toga itself as how it is worn, and the behaviour of the wearer.’[5] The neaniskos is wearing a delicate garment which may indicates some signs of effemianncy. Mark informs us that sindōn was made of linen. This detail has caused some biblical scholars to infer, due to the expensiveness of the light, soft material, that the neaniskos was most likely from a wealthy family.[6] But this detail is more interesting with regard to the question of masculinity, because fabric, color, cut, and ways of wearing clothes are all part of the construction of masculinity.

Lighter fabrics for the tunic and toga than wool were known and often denounced as effeminate, despite the fact that they also demonstrated the wearer’s wealth. For Juvenal, wearing light garments, or being clothed in transparency, is the mark of unmanly men. This trend in senatorial fashion is in his eyes a dangerous contagion which will lead to effeminacy and cross-dressing (Juvenal, Perluces 2.78). Thus, for a beautiful neaniskos to wear a light and transparent sindōn during this night of terror demonstrates his unmanly behavior.

The Roman rhetorician Quintilian provides us with powerful examples of how the way clothes are worn, and which ones, construct a man’s masculinity: 

‘With regard to dress, there is no special garb peculiar to the orator, but his dress comes more under the public eye than that of other men. It should, therefore, be distinguished and manly, as, indeed, it ought to be with all men of position. For excessive care with regard to the cut of the toga, the style of the shoes, or the arrangement of the hair, is just as reprehensible as excessive carelessness’ (Quintilian, Institutio oratoria 11.3.137–149).

So far there is nothing ‘distinguished and manly’ in the way that the neaniskos’ is wearing his garment. The neaniskos, because of the problematics of his age, must master the art of combining and performing extraordinarily well body, dress and gesture, if he wants to be treated like a verus vir. Yet Mark’s representation of the young man’s clothes, and his way of wearing them, suggest that they fail to signify ‘normal’ masculinity.

[5] Glenys Davies, ‘What Made the Roman Toga virilis?’, in Liza Cleland, Mary Harlow and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (eds) The Clothed Body in the Ancient World, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2005, p. 121. 

[6] William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974, p. 527.