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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
Obviously, if worn daily, they come in for harder use; it also means that they are less likely to flap embarrassingly upwards...