Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

[men in skirts] The state of the kilt

So, I wore a kilt the other day, for the first time in a while. It was my grey twill "Mocker" model (so named to take the piss out of "Dockers"), and I dressed it up with a tie and nice vest on the occasion of a pal's wedding in Ballard. I thought it looked pretty sharp, and so did Otis, but there was, of course, the inevitable Kilt Response at the reception.

Y'see, as much as I like wearing kilts merely as the fulfillment of a long-held fascination and because I actually find them comfortable, there is no getting around the fact that wearing a kilt is a Public Act that Makes a Statement. If Otis had worn a new or favorite dress for the wedding, she would have wanted to look good in it, but all the response she would expect would be something like "Wow, that's a great dress!" or "That sure looks good on you." I usually have no such luck when I wear a kilt to a function. Occasionally, someone will say merely "Hey, you look nice" or something like that, but almost across the board, I get some version of the Kilt Response.

The Response comes in a few varieties:

The Gay Bash Response: I actually don't get this one too often, but something about a kilt compels some people to make a (usually nasty) remark about the wearer's sexual orientation; by that I mean a comment that not only asserts homosexuality on my part but implies that it is a bad thing. I think there's a bit of the only-Nixon-could-go-to-China behind this response rarely being directed to me; for example, as a stocky, somewhat mean-looking director of security at Clark College, my kilt-wearing was met with a different response than perhaps someone with a less butch affect or position on campus would have met. Nonetheless, when it occurs, it is an unpleasant situation which impels me to assert myself into someone's face, and I'd rather avoid that. Sample: "What are you, some freakin' fag?"

The Gender Panic Response: This is offered when someone can't see an unbifurcated garment without immediately connecting it to the female sex, not realizing that gender-specific clothing is a social construct without any inherent reality and with many variations. In short, they think I'm cross-dressing. Now, cross-dressing for fun, entertainment, or politics is cool, but kilt-wearing is not cross-dressing: both the tartan kilt and the Utilikilt buy into the gender construct and are specifically designed as men's clothing. It gets a little tiring explaining this all the time. Sample: "Where are your nylons and high heels? No, I'm just kidding - nice skirt."

The "It's an Ethnic Thing" Response: Because kilts are most prominently associated with Scottish culture, and because being seen to "embrace diversity" is important to certain folks, I often get this response from well-meaning people who are trying to find a convenient box in which to put my kilt. Ignoring the complete lack of a tartan, the presumption is made that I am a Scot celebrating my heritage. Now, there's nothing wrong with being Scottish, but I'm not, so I either have to lie and say I am, or truthfully say that I am not and then deal with the confusion and loss on the other person's part as their carefully built pigeon-hole collapses. Sample: "That's such a nice - what do you call it -- kilt, right? Do you play the bagpipes?"

The "I'm as Hip as You" Response: Some people recognize the Utilikilt as a modern male garment, associate it with hipness and coolness, and want to share some of that perceived cachet by being "in on it" with the wearer. These people embrace my Making a Statement and make comments that associate themselves with it, not realizing that the very act of drawing attention to coolness diminishes it. Sample: "That's a Utilikilt, right? I think it's great that you wear whatever you want. I mean, who says men can't wear skirts?"

The Faux Utiliklan Response: Occasionally, I will run into another Utilikilt-wearer; usually all we do is nod and smile a little (although I did get knuckle props from a fellow in the Apple Store). But sometimes I run into a guy who has a Utilikilt, but isn't wearing it; in fact, someone gave it to him, he really only wore it once, and is actually too nervous or insecure to do it again, but still wants to be considered in the club. So, he goes on and on about it, without really saying much. Sample: "Well, y'know, you can't wear it every day, but they are sure are comfortable, right?"

The "What-do-you-wear-under-it" Response: Since one of the most common clichés associated with tartan kilts is the ribald truism that Scotsmen don't wear anything underneath, many people consider this topic an appropriate conversation starter. Occasionally, it comes across as playful and clever; more often, it is just crude and awkward, especially when proffered by drunken academics at a literature conference. Sample: "So, it is true what they say? Hmmmm?" (wink-wink, nudge-nudge)

Think of your favorite article of clothing: a pair of jeans, sweat pants, a jacket, whatever. Now imagine that if every time you wore it, you found yourself in a conversation stemming from one of these types of response. It changes the simple act of getting dressed into one fraught with consequence. It can wear a body out.

Of course, I exaggerate a little. Like most people, I move in pretty much the same circles most of the time. My friends don't even notice my kilts anymore (not even when I get a new one!), and even the students at school get over it after a few days, since I'm such a part of the scene there. But anyplace where I don't have an official position, or where I'll be meeting a significant number of new people, the likelihood of one of the Responses becomes greater and greater.

So, what to do? I like wearing the kilts, for a number of reasons, but I'm tired of justifying my clothing choices to strangers. I thought that Utilikilts were gaining enough in popularity that the novelty would wear off, but after a peak a season or two ago, I'm actually seeing fewer on the street than before. It looks like wearing a kilt will remain a Public Act that Makes a Statement for a while longer. And although the Utilikilts organization embraces this role with a vigorous militancy and I've never been averse to expressing myself, I'm getting just a bit weary of making this particular statement.

(I won't tell you which Responses I got at the reception.)

Next time: Some more reasons for indecision.

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