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Dress Reversal

A show that has legs—lots of them—looks at what the changing nature of men’s clothing can reveal about the guys who wear it.

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Feeling Kilty: An ensemble from Belgian designer Walter Van Beirendonck's Aestheticterrorists line, on view at the Met.  

To a Roman, trousers were barbaric. They concealed a man’s legs, considered shapely pillars of strength and virility. If President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld were Roman leaders with designs upon the Mideast, for example, they might want to dress in skirts. Some of the most masculine images of our own time display a dressy kind of brawn, such as the kilted Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Those who aspire to manly wisdom may also avoid pants. Ecclesiastical leaders from the pope to the mullahs prefer robes. So does a wizard like Gandalf. Of course, girly boys and Oh, my God! queens appreciate a nice skirt, as do clubby twentysomethings who hope to shock someone somewhere. Men in skirts can, in other words, represent the full sexual and philosophical spectrum, and historically, the skirt belongs to both sexes. Jeans are not a matter of genes.

In Bravehearts: Men in Skirts, Andrew Bolton, the associate curator at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, highlights the varied cultural messages sent by men who wear “non-bifurcated garments.” (A gowned professor must have invented the phrase.) Although Bolton surveys the history of such clothing—togas, kimonos, sarongs, caftans, kilts, and so on—the show focuses mainly on contemporary designers and fashion houses inspired by gender-bending ideas. Perhaps the most widely acknowledged pioneer of the modern male skirt is Jean Paul Gaultier, who is also a sponsor of the exhibit. (He does not seem, however, to have been given exaggerated attention.) Among the designers in the show are Dries van Noten, Vivienne Westwood, and Rudi Gernreich. The show also presents the clothing of various subcultures, from the dresslike garments affected by Boy George to the baggy trouser-dresses worn by teenagers who relish hip-hop. It may be that the most interesting work based upon gender in the past few decades has come not from card-carrying artists—who have created such numbingly earnest and tendentious work on this theme—but from fashion designers and obnoxious club kids. Some garments in the show are resplendent postmodern fantasies about a romantic past or faraway cultures. John Galliano, for example, has created a dazzling vision of a Roman gladiator, whose helmet is a fountain of golden lines.

According to Bolton, a “great masculine renunciation” began in the seventeenth century that reduced the variety of clothing available to men—in effect, plucking the feathers from the peacock. Women during the last two centuries became more aggressive than men in borrowing elements of fashion from the opposite sex, in part because women were seeking the substance as well as the style of power. It represented something important if a woman sometimes wore the pants. Among men, non-bifurcated garments were usually regarded as a somewhat exotic reflection of a refined sensibility. A literary man of the eighteenth century would wear an Indian-inspired banyan, for example, which conveyed an impression of timeless learning and a gentlemanly freedom from mental and physical constraints. In contrast to more reserved garments like the banyan, the kilt became a symbol of a rough-hewn paradise. A man in a kilt, one knew, liked his pint of beer and could whack the heads off sheep and peasants with a broadsword. It wasn’t until the 1960s, however, that more informal social and cultural attitudes led to a much wider array of options for men.

Even so, men have remained conservative—and it’s doubtful they will give up their pants anytime soon. For that to happen, most men would have to want for themselves a social power that women possess (as women once sought the right to wear pants). But men don’t ordinarily aspire to the world of women, and so the style will likely remain an expression mainly of subcultures. Still, men-in-skirts remains a useful modern fantasy. It’s nothing more, or less, than a form of provocative cultural play between the quarreling sexes. In this realm, an air of playfulness—and wit—should always be encouraged. At the opening of “Bravehearts,” there were more men than women in beautiful skirts, which just goes to show that the only thing more vain than a woman is a man.


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