Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Men In Kilts

Over at Street Prophets, Andrew Ternay (known around Yearly Kos as simply "The Kilt Guy") explains why he's left trousers behind to join the growing and studly world of Manly Men In Skirts.

Back in the late summer of 2000, Mr. R and I were visiting the Fremont Street Flea Market in Seattle. It's a big, formal deal now; but at the time, it was just a funky little Sunday morning street market full of unexpected treasures. As we were drifting toward the exit, my husband found me and dragged me away from a textile seller hawking hand-marbled silk yardage (I'm dangerous in fabric stores, too). "You've got to see this," he insisted, eagerly leading me by the hand over to me to a skinny young man selling kilts out of the back of his battered white pickup truck.

Neither of us had seen anything like them. These were made of canvas in classic colors -- khaki, black, russet -- very techno-medieval and just way hot. The kid had been in business for all of two months, making each one himself by hand on an old industrial sewing machine he'd bought and taught himself to use. He called his product the Utilikilt . They were about $175 each -- steep enough to eat up the trip budget, but we knew without a doubt that we were in the presence of fashion greatness, and would kick ourselves forever if we walked away without one. Mr. R snapped on a black one, shucked off his jeans, got 50 business cards to hand out to the hordes that we knew would follow, and wore it out of the fair. He was hooked.

That was the beginning of My Husband, the Kilt-Wearer. He's acquired others over the years -- Utilikilts, cheaper Amerikilts with spiffy clip-on sporrans, and the whole nine yards of Ancient Henderson greatkilt that he pleats up with a big belt for state occasions -- though they don't get nearly as much use as Andrew's appear to. Mr. R is a big guy, over six feet with a barrel chest and thickly muscled legs that evoke the primeval sensuality of the twisted trunks of ancient and sturdy trees. In a kilt, those legs are on ostentatious display, unignorable, and almost too pretty to look at. Even old ladies sort of drift along behind him, watching him walk.

Andrew, apparently, followed a similar path:

Utilikilts make casual kilts which are not tartan (technically they are manskirts). After much fretting and worrying, I bought one and it turned out to be very comfortable. But I only wore it to places where I already knew people and would not face ridicule - essentially not wearing it much at all.

Despite this, I still got caught wearing a kilt while pumping gas, in the grocery store, or at a restaurant and something happened that messed with my plans to be innocuous and invisible. Invariably people would strike up a conversation about the kilt. Almost all of them were friendly. It is hard to be a recluse in a kilt....

Slowly, the kilts have helped me emerge from my shell. I now own three Utilikilts and one real Scottish kilt in the National Millennium tartan. Some of the nicest compliments I have gotten came at Yearly Kos. Specifically, Christy Hardin Smith of Firedoglake who greets me as "Andy, the cool kilt guy." It's quite a charge to have one of your idols acknowledge you in that way.

Unbelievable as it may sound, I never really thought of the sexual implications of kilts when I stared wearing them. I'm just not too swift when it comes to female/male or male/female flirtation. So I was first shocked, then embarrassed and finally entertained by the way women react to my kilts. The reactions of gay men to my kilts really took me aback. I still am somewhat at a loss on the rare occasion gay men approach me, but now I can sincerely thank them for the compliment...
Sexual implications? You mean like the fact when Mr. R's in a kilt, it's him -- not me -- who gets his ass grabbed whenever we're alone in elevators?

Um. Sorry...that's probably TMI. Let's get gack to Andy...
Not all reactions are positive. I think some men get very insecure when they see another man in a kilt; at least one got really verbally aggressive with me over the issue. I also get what my wife calls The Old Man Glare.

The other drawback to wearing a kilt comes from people who assume the wearer cannot be a very serious person. In that sense, wearing my kilts at YK probably hurt any chance at landing a job with some progressive organization. As one potential employer put it: Andy, you are a smart guy and a hard worker but nobody takes you seriously in a kilt. I vacillate over this reaction: should I just try to fit in? Wear pants except for rare occasions like Halloween parties and Scottish festivals? Or just be myself? I'm simply not sure about this. I do not wear a kilt at my current job ever.
One of the cool things about living in Canada -- especially western Canada, whose first European settlers were Scots Presbyterian agents recruited by the Hudson Bay Company to run their most remote trading posts -- is that it's not uncommon to see men of all ages in kilts. (HBC valued highland Scots for their honesty, self-sufficiency, thrift, and sobriety -- Dudley DoRight was actually an accurate caricature of an original BC type -- and Vancouver is still a Scots town to this day as a result.) It's especially festive around Remembrance Day, when Her Majesty's old soldiers put on their regimental dress, sashay downtown with pleats swinging, and party like it's 1917.

The presence of a man in a kilt always raises The Question. (Mr. R's been threatening to make T-shirt for kilt wear that says simply: "Go ahead and ask. You know you want to.") This website -- not safe for work! -- memorably illustrates the traditional answer. Andy would blush several shades of purple if we asked him about his habits under his habit, so let's not. As for Mr. R: let's just say he's a traditional gentleman in most respects, and leave it right there.

As Andy hints, one of the coolest things about wearing a kilt is tweaking the too-tightly-wound psychosexual strings of pecksniffing sorts who make it their business to disapprove. (True to fundy form, this guy's facts are as twisted as his gender issues. It's wrong for menz to wear gurlz stuff...well -- sputter, wheeze -- just because it IS!) And then there are those whose understanding is well-meaning but, er, rather imperfect -- as Andy's favorite kilt-wearing moments illustrate:
-- From a carful of teenage boys: Nice quilt!

-- Guy in Home Depot line: You must be very proud of your Italian heritage.

-- From a very dear friend who is a lesbian: Wow. I almost want you.

-- In an elevator from man I did not know: Are you gay? Me: No. Scans me slowly from head to toe, then: Are you sure?

-- At a party a woman I did not know asked me if she could look and see what I had on under my kilt. I told her sure, if she absolutely had to, completely confident that she would not do so. My confidence was misplaced. At least she had the grace to tell everyone that I brought my own caber to the party.
Over the seven years since the Utilikilt started it all, kilts are well on their way to becoming an North American men's classic. They're not for every man, nor for all occasions -- but I can't see a man in a kilt without smiling, and thinking he's probably got something interesting going on. More to the point: I've never seen a man in a kilt behave like a jerk. Could it be that jerks are just too insecure to risk it -- and the guys who go for kilts are more self-directed, and therefore tend to care less about what the crowd thinks? Could kilts, in fact, be a decent fashion-based bullshit detector where men are concerned?

We can hash that out in the comments, while contemplating the divine excellence of that perfectly-shaped posterior in the photo above. Oh, for a man in a kilt when the breeze is high...

Update: Evidently, this darling lad is not ham enough for some of y'all. So here's another helping:

Ewan McGregor. Finer Scots ham you canna get anywhere. Whisht yourself, now.