Material Visions

Material Visions

Why don’t more men wear skirts?

Two weeks ago, the bi-annual runway collections got off to a cracking start with the display of the Men’s Collections in Milan, Paris, London, New York and Pitti Uomo. (You will be entirely unsurprised to learn that the Men’s Collections are where menswear designers show their new collections.) On rare occasions, a designer of both men’s and womenswear will show both at the same time (like Yohji Yamamoto) but for the most part “fashion week” – as with fashion in general – is dominated by womenswear.

This column doesn’t really have anything to do with the Men’s Collections, but they got me thinking about menswear. I love menswear: I love talking to men about what clothes they like wearing and especially when they’re into wearing skirts (that’s right: Marc Jacobs, represent.)

Designer Marc Jacobs often wears skirts (and, dare I say it, looks v. cool while so doing.) Christine Jun/ www.wonderlandmagazine.com

Heck, I even like wearing men’s clothes myself – men’s hats, jumpers, shirts – I even have a gorgeous vintage cravat that, frankly, looks entirely ridiculous on me but it is such a beautiful shape and fabrication I can’t let it go.

Which got me thinking: Western women have been wearing pants for decades now without it being socially stigmatising … so why hasn’t it gone the other way? Why is the sight of a Western man in a skirt still so rare? Especially in Australia, where temperatures at the moment are skimming between uncomfortably sweaty and unbearably hot, it would make much more sense for men to don a light skirt and feel cool while they look cool (see what I did there?).

It actually wasn’t until the early 19th century that Western men stopped mixing bloomers, skirts and long shirts with their wardrobe of breeches and stockings, and adopted slim trousers as standard masculine attire . The French Revolution precipitated the change as the opulent and colourful styles of the previous century were shed in favour of simpler, plainer clothing that symbolically reflected the abolition of class difference in France.

“Elijah Boardman” by Ralph Earl, showing the dominant men’s fashion in the wake of the French Revolution. Ralph Earl/ Wikimedia Commons

For men, this meant adopting the full-length trousers that had previously been worn by the working class (rather than the pantaloons and stockings of those high-kicking, cake eating First and Second Estaters!)

Trousers then became fashionable throughout Europe, a trend that was reinforced by practicality during the Industrial Revolution, as they offered workers more bodily protection.

Since that time, trousers have gone through many iterations – from breeches to pressed trews to bootleg jeans to shudder tracksuit pants – but never again has mainstream Western society readmitted the skirt.*

Of course, skirt-type garments are still a daily part of men’s wardrobes the world over. Fijian men wear a sulu vakataga, a length of material that is wrapped around the waist that falls between the knee and ankle.

Two Fijian men wearing sulu vakataga. From Seattle to Suva (fromseattletosuva.wordpress.com)

These sulus are distinct from womens’ sulus, an expression of Fijian ethnic and masculine identity. In fact, it is not unusual for Fijian men to wear a sulu vakataga with a Western-style jacket, collared shirt and tie for formal occasions.

Men in many other Pacific regions wear a similar garment – the kikepa in Hawaii, the pareo in Tahiti, the sarong in Indonesia, the lavalava in Samoa.

Likewise, dhotis (a linear piece of fabric wrapped around the waist) and lungis (fabric stitched into a tube and knotted) are everyday wear in many countries in and around the Indian subcontinent including India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka as well as Burma, Malaysia and Singapore.

These are all countries with hot climates in which a lightweight, comfortable skirt makes sense. And also, fortunately for the men who live there, wearing a skirt-type garment isn’t socially coded as feminine.

Luisa Capetillo wearing men’s clothing, circa 1919. Wikipedia (photographer unknown)

So why can’t Western men get in on the skirt-wearing action? It is still a powerful social taboo, but more so that when women started wearing pants during the 20th century? After all, the first Puerto Rican woman to wear trousers in public, Luisa Capetillo, was imprisoned for her conduct.

I’m fully prepared for you to disagree with me on this one, but the coding of skirts as feminine is a fairly recent development in the history of human clothing. I’m hoping that this century is the one in which Western men can re-embrace the skirt and all the striding, breezy, elegant glory it has to offer them.

*Except for the kilt, which is the singular exception! But you knew that already. As it’s traditionally worn by men and boys with Celtic and Gaelic heritage, it is not customary from men without this national identity to wear them … although North American men are giving it a good go with the Utilikilt! (My personal favourite is the “Survival” in Basil Twill. I think it would look really cool with a plain white or grey tee, or a starched white collared shirt, though I doubt whether a garment, even a snappy men’s kilt, can really be considered a “way of life”. Maybe if you buy one you can let us all know.)

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