It’s 12 noon on a Saturday and I’m wearing a skirt on the 36 bus to Victoria with my wife. The eyes of two schoolboys in football strips widen and they briefly smirk but their attention quickly moves on. The driver didn’t react when I touched in. The young Muslim woman I sat beside seemed unfased by my bare knees.
An hour later I’m walking along the Chelsea Embankment and three workmen do a quick double take at my swishing calves, but their surprise turns — I swear — to admiration. My skirt passes unremarked at the Savour Festival in the Chelsea Hospital, and later draws high praise from my fellow guests at a 70th birthday party in a Hammersmith pub basement. “You look beautiful,” says a woman I’ve never met, and a retired CEO looks frankly jealous. In this test of London’s tolerance for non-conventional menswear, my city has done me proud: a few people are enthusiastic but most of them simply don’t notice.
I’m wearing my skirt to see if gender norms in clothing have finally crumbled. Whether Western European men can finally, as it were, drop their trousers and shorts and embrace a freeing garment without bifurcated legs. Or rather, re-embrace it — gowns and togas were common for men until the 14th and 15th century, when tailoring was invented, as the V&A’s current Masculinities exhibition fabulously illustrates. Skirted tunics were common for many years after.
In the 16th century kilts (from the Norse word kjelt, meaning pleated) were worn full lengh. They became knee-length and tartan in the 17th century and were briefly banned by King George II in the 18th. Across Asia and the Middle East we’ve had djellabas, kimonos, sulus and ghos. The formal dress of the Greek Army still includes a short, pleated version of the Balkan fustanella skirt. I’ve worn a knee-length kurta tunic in India, an ankle-length longyi in Myanmar and a sarong in Spain in the 90s (which, to be fair, provoked a fair amount of David Beckham-related derision).
But right now, I’m wearing a skirt because Brad Pitt caused a sensation when he turned up in one — asymmetrical, black linen, accessorized with a matching jacket and pink shirt — at the Berlin premiere of his film Bullet Train. “We’re all going to die so let’s mess it up,” he said later of his sartorial bombshell. Quite. Well said, Brad. But I feel honour bound to point out that I’m a centimetre taller and two years younger than you, and I was three years ahead of you when it came to wearing a male skirt. Back in 2019 I fulfilled a long-held ambition and bought a pleated, plain black, cotton-twill, kilt-style skirt — closer in cut to the Givenchy skirt that A$AP Rocky sported in New York last week than Brad’s floaty number.
I’d always secretly fancied the idea of the male skirts that were a feature of Jean Paul Gaultier’s collections from 1985 onwards, and the kilts he modelled on Channel 4’s Eurotrash from 1993. My yearning became overt when a bearded Ewan McGregor attended the 1999 Evening Standard Theatre Awards in a chunky polo, heavy boots, and a slimming, straight black skirt.
He looked very handsome and very masculine: this was a world away from the daring, pioneering androgyny of Mick Jagger’s puff-sleeved white minidress at the Rolling Stones’ Hyde Park concert in 1969, or David Bowie in a peach and blue velvet frock on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World in 1970. I mean no disrespect to the trans community, or to drag queens, when I say that I had no interest in looking like a woman, or in pushing some sort of arbitrary concept of gender. I wanted to look like a man in a smart skirt.
I ordered mine online from a company called Majestic though the design seems to be a standard one made by several firms. It’s fairly butch — a little bit punk, a little bit goth-industrial. It has military style patch pockets, rivet-like press studs and buckled strap fastenings. There are sturdy loops that suit a heavy leather belt. The broad, flat, cummerbund-like waistband is flattering to my middle-aged waistline and the above-the-knee hem shows off calves which, thanks to years of cycling, are one of my best — or perhaps, least worst — physical features. It’s remarkably freeing to wear out and about, surprisingly warm in cold weather, and I soon mastered the new complications of the previously instinctive act of sitting down. (If you ask me if anything is worn under my skirt, I’d say: no, it’s all in perfect working order. Sorry.)
Anyway, initially I only wore it for special occasions like Christmas and New Year. It went particularly well with a white shirt, Paul Smith silk scarf, a vintage Daks tweed jacket and a pair of second-hand Gucci boots bought from Hornets in Kensington (I’d never buy anything like that new). Though it also worked with a leather jacket and walking boots, or trainers and a t-shirt. Brad’s skirtageddon prompted me to wear it all day, everyday, for a long weekend — to the newsagent, on the Tube, to lunch with my 85-year-old mum — and it barely caused a ripple.
But as I say, mine and Brad’s and A$AP Rocky’s skirts were on the masculine side, made from natural materials (cotton, linen, leather), soberly black and without patterning. The world may be ready for men in that kind of skirt, but I wasn’t sure if things had got any easier for men who embraced the flouncier end of the spectrum. Jaden Smith and Billy Porter have both worn gorgeous, colourful and/or voluminous skirts at various red-carpet events to make a statement about the pigeonholing of gender or sexuality. Harry Styles was widely admired for wearing Gucci dresses, a Victorian-style crinoline by Harris Reed, and skirts by Wales Bonner and Comme de Garcons in British Vogue’s December 2020 issue. But then, he’s Harry Styles. He’s two centimetres taller than me. And he was later accused of queerbaiting — appropriating the aesthetics of gay culture while remaining ostensibly straight.
How would I fare on the streets of the capital in something more wispy or colourful? The Standard’s fashion department kindly kitted me out with a full-length Rick Owens pencil skirt with a flared hem from Selfridges.com which proved so clingily diaphanous I risked arrest for indecent exposure if I wore it outside. Very slimming and comfortable, though.
More fitting for everyday wear was a Charles Jeffrey riff on a tartan kilt. I wore it on the bus, to the pub,in the office and in Kensington Gardens, where locals and tourists failed to bat an eyelid.
So it’s official, lads: skirts are in. My only qualm was that the mid-calf length of the Rick Owens garment made me look a bit… frumpy. Later, cycling through Soho (back in shorts — it was a breezy day) I clocked a young man in a black miniskirt under a longer black jacket. Maybe I’ll give that a go while my thighs still look ok.
But I don’t think I’m ready for a dress. A frock’s definitely out of the question.