I figure it's Beau Brummell's fault. Still.
He was an iconic gentleman in Regency England in the 1770s who is widely credited with introducing the modern man's suit-and-tie. There's even a statue of him on Jermyn Street in London, where any gentleman worth his trouser creases goes to check out the most refined examples of men's traditionally tailored clothing. It was Brummell who once famously stated that, for a man, to be well-dressed meant not to be noticed.
(Consider, before he came along, men were sidewalk peacocks who favoured knee breeches with stockings.)
That entrenched understated male style – the kilt-wearing of Robbie Burns Night next week notwithstanding – is why men in skirts just doesn't seem to be a trend that will ever take off, despite efforts by designers such as Marc Jacobs (who recently wore a transparent lace "dress" with white boxers underneath), Rick Owens, Riccardo Tisci and Yohji Yamamoto.
Which doesn't really make sense when you consider the upheaval that took place in men's lives in the latter half of the 20th century. They have been liberated from the straightjacket of the Provider Role, if you believe the arguments in books such as Hanna Rosin's The End of Men:And The Rise of Women . Stay-at-home dads have found their groove as men's domestic roles become more established. One would think that with such gender-swapping duties at play, men's magazines would feature spreads of men in gender-bending fashions – a dude, say, relaxing on a divan, eating bonbons in a sarong while the children napped. Being a kept (or at least an out-bread-won) man could be a whole new marketing niche – and fashion opportunity.
Guys have come a long way, baby. But you'd never know it based on what's acceptable for them to wear – in Western society, at least. Around the world, there are many cultures in which men wear some form of long robe: the dhoti in India, the kanzu in Africa. Ours isn't one of them.
Sure, casual wear is now ubiquitous. But one has only to look at the Twitter sensation caused by Kanye West at the 12-12-12 concert to support relief efforts for Sandy– stricken New York to understand the power – and the problem – of something outré like the man skirt. The hip-hop artist sported a black leather skirt when he took to the stage. The tweets on @KanyesSkirt, which popped up within hours of his appearance, were humorously sexual in nature for the most part, but not in a flattering way. Some suggested a battle with STDs was raging underneath.
It would seem that the man skirt is like women's cleavage-baring fashion, a garment that hints at sex, signifying the desire to flash one's naughty bits. It transmits a vibe of sexual readiness à la Hugh Hefner in his iconic bathrobe. There's no bothering with cumbersome belt buckles and zippered flys. The sexual equipment is close at hand. But the critical difference is that women are not criticized for promoting their sexuality. For us, that's the point of our clothing. What we wear is our sexual calling card.
Man skirts – also like daring cleavage – get instant attention, perfect for celebrities to wear as a look-at-me strategy. In 1998, when David Beckham went out to dinner in the south of France wearing a sarong, he was mercilessly ridiculed in the British press, but the event confirmed his status as a fashion icon. The man skirt is a garment that requires one heck of a lot of thought before being put on by the wearer. It is a deliberate and heavy-handed provocation, which also explains why it's seen on catwalks in men's fashion shows, more of a shock statement and experimentation in modern masculinity than a real-life clothing option.
When men on the street show evidence of thinking too much about what they put on and veer beyond acceptable fashion boundaries, they become suspect somehow. Their vanity can seem vulgar. One questions their sexual orientation. Those who don a cravat frequently might be thought of as putting on airs, as if they're aspiring to a higher social status. A bow tie can make a man appear too pleased with himself. It's a sartorial smile of smugness.
Over-the-top fashion choices can even call a man's work ethic into question. Earlier this month in London's Financial Times, in anticipation of international menswear shows, Charlie Porter explained that men are more interested in style than in fashion. Fashion seems too frivolous. "It's one of the reasons why men's wear is riddled with tension, about what can be worn, about what rules to follow," he wrote. FT fashion blogger Sophie Elgort reported in the piece that men "lower on the [corporate] totem pole feel they would look silly if they were wearing a pocket square or something out of the ordinary … a boss might think they should be in the office rather than spending time getting ready."
The cultural censure of men who are overly concerned with appearance is reflected in the perforative terms that have been used to describe them. A fop is a fashionable but foolish man, characterized in English literature and comic drama as someone who is incapable of meaningful conversation. Ditto the dandy.
Sadly, the best a style-conscious modern man can do – safely – is experiment with socks (or the lack of them), elbow patches and the cut of his suit.
So next week, if you see a man in a kilt during a Robbie Burns Night celebration, compliment him. He is wearing it partly out of pride, no doubt, as the kilt remains a defiant emblem of romanticized Scottish culture. (All items of Highland dress were banned by British Parliament from 1746 to 1782 in reaction to the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 – the idea being that if you ban the costume, you suppress the culture.)
But he also might be wearing it to have a little bit of acceptable fashion fun.