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Martin Foreman

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Men in Skirts
originally posted 22 March 2004 when I was living in Bangkok; minor editing since

I'm not much of a culture vulture; if there's an exhibition on in the city I am living in I'll put it down in my diary and sometimes I will actually drag myself over there and see what's on offer. It's a hit and miss policy that has allowed me to see and to miss some impressive shows and to witness some pretty tacky ones, among which I include the pathetic display four or five years ago at the London Millennium Dome.

Very rarely do I make the effort to see an exhibition in another city. The last time I did so was in 2002, when I Eurostarred to Paris to see Alair Gomes' photos in some small gallery south of the Seine. I went partly because I had known him when I lived in Rio, partly because he had taken some photos of me and I was curious to know if I was up there for public display (I wasn't), and partly to see the extent to which black and white photos of of be-speedoed and sometimes naked men can transcend the sexual to become art.

So I looked at the pictures and read the commentaries, by Gomes and others, and said to myself "yeah, yeah, intellectualise as much as you want, but you know and I know that the only reason why I'm and most of those around me are standing here is because we are seeing hunky young men in little or no clothing and we're fantasising leaping into bed with them or at the very least pinning them up against the nearest wall or palm tree and letting nature take its course."

Moving on . . . The most recent exhibition that I have failed to see closed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last month. "Bravehearts: Men in Skirts". Sponsored by Jean-Paul Gaultier (who else? award that man several gold stars), it "look[ed] at designers and individuals who have appropriated the skirt as a means of injecting novelty into male fashion, as a means of transgressing moral and social codes, and as a means of redefining an ideal masculinity. In an unprecedented survey of "men in skirts" in historical and cross-cultural contexts, the exhibition feature[d] more than 100 items, balancing items drawn from The Costume Institute's permanent collection with loans from cultural institutions and fashion houses in Europe and America." (text taken from the pitifully minimal information that languished on a no-longer-available page on the Met's website)

My first - in many ways irrational - quibble is the conflation of kilts and skirts. It's not surprising that most people consider there is no difference between them, but as a Scot I grew up in a society where kilts are common enough to arouse no comment, but where they and skirts are as different as trousers and shorts. A skirt is everyday wear for women while the kilt is predominantly formal wear for men, equivalent to the tuxedo more than the suit. That doesn't mean I was enamoured of the kilt. As a child I was often made to wear one in situations where all others my age  were in shorts or trousers (even in the Scottish capital), which almost put me off the kilt for life. Only now, in the unlikely case I were to settle in the land of my birth, do I suspect I might voluntarily wear one again. And if I were to do so, it would be not with the traditional formal jacket, sporran and sgian dhu (the dagger stuck into the long socks) but more likely with a t-shirt or sweater and boots. In other words, I would mutate the kilt into a skirt.

The fact is, it is only in the last couple of years that I have come to appreciate men in skirts, which explains why I missed the Met exhibition when it was in London in 2002. I like to wear them and to see good-looking men in skirts. But I am seldom so attired. I do not wear one in Bangkok because when living abroad I tend to dress within locally acceptable parameters. In London I do not have that excuse but I do not have the courage to make a skirt daily wear and only put one on in situations where extremes of clothing are expected, including gay pride events and the more exotic nightclubs. Although here too I suspect that my attitude is changing and one day that courage may emerge.

Note that I am talking about a particular kind of skirt. My usual preference is for short, no longer than knee length and of lightweight fabric. On formal occasions I would go for an ankle-length sarong, the equivalent of a woman's evening dress and worn properly it suggesting formality, wealth, intelligence and wit. (I lay claim to about 30% of these properties.)

The comfort of short skirts should speak for itself. (Long skirts, like all formal clothes, are never intended for comfort.) Except when it is very cold and the thickness of a kilt or a longer skirt becomes preferable, short skirts allow the legs to breathe and allow more freedom of movement. It is not that you want to do a high kick or are even capable of doing so, but trousers or a long skirt prevent you from ever giving in to that urge, while short skirts allow perfect freedom to do so. The freedom that comes with a skirt may be subconscious, but it's definitely there.

The sexual element to skirt-wearing is also obvious. Although underwear is appropriate in public - I prefer to sit in the underground without exposing my genitals to those sitting opposite - in private, lack of underwear under a skirt constantly reminds a man of the pleasure of his sexuality. (In comparison, lack of underwear under trousers can be just irritating.) This is not a subject that needs to be discussed with one's mother or neighbour, but it is a significant factor in deciding what clothes one wears and when.

And sexuality is a major factor for the viewer. I always appreciate the sight of good masculine legs and, just as heterosexual men appreciate the view of women's underwear, so too I get brief - in both senses of the word - pleasure from glimpses of the slip or jockeys worn by a man in a skirt. The other evening I was with the current squeeze, who had dressed in drag to celebrate his friend's birthday. He made a very striking woman, but my response to his long hair and make-up was only aesthetic. On the other hand, the fact that his minidress stopped half-way down his thighs was a definite turn-on and my hand was more than once tempted to stray into what trousers would have made forbidden and / or difficult territory.

I am not the only pro-skirt man on the planet, nor are we all gay. The opening of the Met exhibition last year was celebrated by a small parade of New York men in skirts. And some, presumably heterosexual, women also appreciate men in skirts, if the comment on the Horsefeathers' site (see next paragraph) is representative. Several websites are devoted to men in skirts, among them Kiltmen and Seattle-based Utilikilts. The former gave an entertaining full-blown rant on why men should wear skirts and the latter was an interesting commercial site, which informed the reader that "The Utility Kilt offers the Utility Patented Pleat System #6,282,723 which separates our product from any other Mens Unbifurcated Garment on the market today." They may have had a patent and been pentasyllabic, but they didn't understand how to use your basic apostrophe. (The fact that both websites have now closed suggests that the fashion for men's skirts was short-lived.)

While writing this article, I googled "Men in skirts" and "exhibition" and came up with 600+ entries. The Met's site came first and was followed by an entry for (another now closed site) Horsefeathers, where a remarkably camp commentary berated the Museum for its promotion of bisexuality and androgyny. It was actually quite a funny piece as it trips over its own observations in its attempt to see conspiracy where almost certainly none existed.

HF argued that "in every culture each sex evolves its own conventional gender configurations enabling men and women to distinguish each other by length of garment, by color or pattern, or by accessories. There is no built-in ambiguity about gender in the traditional evolution of clothes no matter what the culture." Such statement raises more questions than they answer; (a) is it true about gender differentiation? (b) if it is true, why do people think it matters? (c) if it does matter, why the concern over men in skirts but not women in trousers?

And, of course, note the assumption, shared by others whose fingers hit the keyboard before the brain is engaged, that a man in a skirt is somehow blurring gender boundaries. Just as women are indubitably women when they wear trousers, most men in skirts cannot be mistaken for anything but men. In fact, a man in a skirt that reveals muscular and / or hairy legs, combined with the flat chest of a t-shirt or regular shirt is presents a much more masculine figure than one in trousers.

Even if skirts did feminise men, clothing is only one of many gender markers. Body size and shape, facial appearance, voice, mannerisms all indicate for the observer one or other gender. Look at a hundred photos of people's faces and you will be able to specify sex in all but a handful of cases. Despite Horsefeathers' paranoia, ambiguous clothing does not destroy sexual distinctions.

And even if sexual distinctions are blurred, so what? Although they may be critical to those who are uncertain of their sexual identity or sexuality, there is no proof that gender distinctions in clothing contribute to society's well-being. In fact, it can be easily demonstrated that that insistence on rigid divisions between the sexes harms rather than benefits society. (Look at the abuses that occur in ultra-conservative Christian communities in Utah and neighbouring states in the US or in strictly Muslim societies.)

Horsefeathers wrote articulately*, but his essay was a typical example of conservative thinking - thinking which, as I have argued before, is ultimately rooted in fear. Not physical fear, but fear of change, of flexibility, of the unknown. His - I'm assuming HF is a he - whole outlook on life is based on a series of premises that create a social structure that provides him with security - men are men and dress as men, women are women etc. When changes are proposed that are incompatible with that social structure - eg sexual identity might not be that important - his worldview is threatened. Rather than accept the possibility that such changes may be innocuous or desirable he has to condemn them.

At least HF recognised that some change is inevitable and even uses that word that scares so many US conservatives almost as much as liberalism - evolution. But he does so in a way that suggests that for him change is only acceptable when it is very clear movement in one direction in very narrow parameters. Of course he justifies his argument by claiming that society as a whole is threatened, but assuming one's own beliefs are valid for society as a whole is a common failure in many commentators.

All I would have said to Horsefeathers is, lighten up; society is not going to fall apart because some or many men decide that skirts are more comfortable and / or erotic than trousers. if you really want to talk about how society is threatened, let's look at George W Bush's critical failure to offer an effective response to terrorism. That's a really scary topic.

* But without understanding the difference between "its" and "it's".
Many Men in Skirts
posted 8 April 2008 when I was living in London

So there I was at home at the tail end of a Saturday afternoon, the quiet hour between shopping and nightclubbing. I turn on the television and get the last twenty minutes of Alexander Korda's 1938 film The Drum. (Korda was a well-known Hungarian-British director in the mid 20th-century.) Set in North-West Frontier, it pits the brave Brits and their good Indian subjects, led by the young prince,

This was the only picture I could find.
The film is in early Technicolor.
played by pretty but hopelessly untalented Sabu, against his evil uncle, played in full melodramatic mode, eyes glaring under his thick brown make-up, by Raymond Massey. Treachery and death abound.

And so, to my surprise, do men in kilts. While the occasional officer was betrousered, the battalions under their commando all wore kilts - some tartan (that's plaid to the North Americans among you), some khaki and some green. The latter two colours surprised me and a quick Google couldn't find an example of Scottish soldiers wearing anything but their regimental tartan. Can anyone enlighten me?

On the other hand, I did come up with the interesting fact that army kilts are made of a heavier material than those worn by civilians. Obviously, if worn daily, they come in for harder use; it also means that they are less likely to flap embarrassingly upwards...

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