Nobody messes with a man in a skirt
The sarong is wispy, caring and heterosexual. The kilt is hard- nut and overwhelmingly gay
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 16 October 1998
Tragically, I've never been able to find the faintest transvestite urge in myself - imagine the awesome pleasure of having two complete wardrobes. So it's been surprising, when skirts-for-men started making an appearance in the fash mags this year, to observe the incredible degree of covetousness they awoke in me. Tommy Hilfiger brought out an advert of some kilt-wearing boys, and I was there like a shot. "We're not selling them," the shop- boy said. "It's just an advert." "So," I said, "you have so little faith in your own clothes that you're preferring to photograph someone else's?" "I don't really want to continue this conversation," he said, carrying on refolding the sweatshirts.
The great Danbert Nobacon appeared in public in a brown leather skirt, and looked great; the sarong showed dangerous signs of becoming the New Lad's favoured beachwear. And then someone told me that kilts were about to make an appearance in Jigsaw's men's shop. I was down there the same afternoon; there was quite a scrum, and, by now, I understand that they can't be had for love or money.
You certainly feel you are taking your life in your hands the first time you walk out of your front door in it. It's a very strange feeling indeed; it makes you walk in a completely different way, a sort of aggressive stomp; you have to learn a new way of sitting; it makes you feel that everyone is staring at you, which of course they are; and, weirdly, it gives you a strong feeling of confidence. Nobody messes with a man in a skirt; in London, I suppose there is a sense that picking on anyone because of what they are wearing exposes you as uncool. And perhaps even lads out on a Friday night quickly come to the conclusion that anyone who goes out dressed like that must be quite incredibly hard. A photographer wolf-whistled me as I was going into a London Fashion Week party, but I prefer to think that was genuine appreciation.
On the whole, people make three comments. The first is: "Are you wearing any underwear?" To which the only proper response is "Why? Are you?" The second, more learned, is: "Of course, if you think of the whole range of cultures, the skirt is as much a male garment as a female one. Think of Greece." I don't know why, but it's always Greece; perhaps because the ceremonial uniform of Greek soldiers, all white ra-ra skirts and pompoms, sticks in the mind. And the third, very gratifyingly, is: "Where can I get one?"
It's not a new thing, of course. There was a terrific gay-fuelled obsession with mini-kilts about five years ago which swept Europe. Jean-Paul Gaultier started it, and it came to an abrupt end with the alarming rumour that he and his entourage had been seen at The Fridge, pointing and laughing at anyone foolish enough to be wearing a kilt three years too late.
The automatic interpretation is that all this getting into kilter, as it were, is a New Age thing, that men in skirts are men getting in touch with their feminine side. I don't see it. The semiotics of a kilt are completely different from the signals a sarong, say, sends out. The sarong is wispy, caring, and heterosexual, David Beckham with his floppy hair and his sandals in the south of France. The kilt is hard-nut, testosterone- crazed and overwhelmingly gay. You wear it not with sandals and floppy hair, but with a shaved head and 14-hole Doc Martens; and, I promise you, no one gives you any grief at all.
Of course, the whole thing is a big girly front, and just another stage in the great big dressing-up box of fashion. As RuPaul says, we are born naked; the rest is just drag. You want to look caring and cosmopolitan today? Go to Voyage. Profoundly cultured? Issey Miyake, or, if you seriously want to say "Big operator", the conflicting signals of a good suit and an unironed lumberjack shirt. Fashion is full of meaning, and the biggest meaning now is that we all know it, and it doesn't really mean anything. "Don't mess with me," my kilt is saying, but of course it doesn't really mean it, or not for long. Tonight you might feel like dressing for 10 hours of lunacy in Soho. Tomorrow, why not play at cosy farmers in an Aran sweater and corduroys? Next week, care about the plight of the whales in something filmy and white. The appeal of fashion is that you can be who you like, for as long as you like; it can make you seductive, anonymous, or confrontational. And now I can't resist putting my skirt on and going to have some fun in Sainsbury's.
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