Of late I’ve been thinking about the elements of my personal style and where they come from. Why do I like wearing grey so much? I hated the color brown when I was a child, but now I love it and wear it all the time. We are all influenced by a variety of things as we grow. At some point we all choose a style or styles to make our own. For some of us it comes as part of our chosen field or environment. A lawyer will own more suits than an electrician. For others visual style comes along with interests or hobbies. People into punk music seem to need far more zippers and buckles on their clothing than the rest of us. Some folks never get over dressing in the frat uniform of khaki trousers and navy blue blazers.
I was inspired to think about all of this as I was looking though some old photos of myself, which I was inspired to do because of recent exposure to a garment-associated sub-cultural community (more on that later). As I flipped through those pictures of long ago me I was reminded of choices I made at one point or another, visual styles I chose to associate myself with.
Another inspiration came from some planning I was doing, with regards to sartorial elements I’d like to add to one of my current, personal styles. Yes, men do sometimes plan their outfits, or at least some men do. Probably many more could benefit from doing so.
I could sit here, writing away about my style as it exists now, ignoring everything that fed into it over time. Conversely, I could try to trace every trend and choice—chronologically—dating back to the first time I chose to don one color over another. Naturally, having said that I could do those things I’ll attempt neither. Instead, what I’d like to do is reach back into my past and select a few moments from all of my closets to look at, as well as some of the things I like now. Let us begin.
Bright colors and lots of airbrushed eagles
It’s certainly true for me, as it is for most of us, that I exercised no personal style agency for a number of years at the beginning of my time in this world. I was clad and accoutered according to the wishes, choices, and financial means of my parents. Like any little boy I was perfectly happy to wear shorts and t-shirts and socks just like my dad did. The options I found in my closet and dresser drawers were not of my choosing, or at least not much. I mean, I’d be given a choice of option A or option B, but A and B were still being held in my mother’s hands, there in the clothing section of K-mart. Compounding that was my parochial school, which meant that five days a week, nine months out of the year, I wore the school uniform.
As I grew, though, I started to have a little more choice in what I could wear. The first time this really came out strongly was about the same time I started with Boy Scouts, probably around age thirteen. At that point in my life I was in love with the visual aesthetic of Harley-Davidson and American motorcycle culture.
I adored all those bright colors, American flags, eagles and wolves, and chrome, chrome, chrome! A black t-shirt with an eagle screaming over a shining V-twin engine, stars and stripes flying, was my ideal of high fashion. Fortunately for me, then as now, these kind of t-shirts were readily available at the aforementioned K-marts and similar. Pair one of those with some ripped denim shorts, and a H-D bandana knotted about my head and I was ready to face the world! This all matched up with one of my earliest, non-family nicknames—“Harley”—bestowed on me by one of the scout leaders in Troop 427.
Unrelated to the biker cultural elements I was able to pull some of this brightly painted style into my dress cloths through the discovery of really garishly fancy ties from the likes of Ralph Marlin.
So why did I like this stuff? There are a few reasons I can think of. For one thing I was a very patriotic child, so all of those flags and the strong elements of Americana were intensely appealing to me. This was reinforced by my involvement in Scouting, with it’s over-the-top emphasis on middle-American (white Christian) values. Another reason, though, was that I just loved the bright colors and intricate designs. The clothing chosen for me by my parents, often as not, was plainer than these designs. So I was both growing and rebelling.
These t-shirts persisted in my wardrobe into college, though they were gradually supplanted by a tectonic shift in personal style.
Let’s get Medieval
Some time during high school I started getting involved in Renaissance Faires and the Society for Creative Anachronism. These related pastimes lent themselves to adding a whole new aesthetic to my personal style palette. For those who aren’t familiar, here’s a brief primer.
The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) tries to be a very historically focused group, while still being lots of fun to participate in. Even though most of us use the short-hand phrase, “medieval reenactment”, there’s actually no reenacting going on as it’s properly understood. Civil war reenactors, for instance, reenact specific historical people and events. What the SCA does could better be called medieval recreation (or re-creation). The group began in Berkley in the ‘60s, if I remember correctly, which should tell you a lot about it! Within the SCA I took on the name Gwynn ap Llywellyn.
While SCA events are primarily focused inward, being created and run by members, for members, Renaissance Faires are mainly externally focused and exist largely for the enjoyment of the public (though there’s quite a culture within them of the artisans and performers who make the events come alive). USA Kilts did a good explainer video about the origins of Renaissance Faires, if you’ve got six minutes: https://youtu.be/zhoX2Aet9IU. For me, as a high schooler, along with a few other friends, my local Renaissance Faires provided a place to run around outside, dressed in homemade garb, listening to the music, eating great food, buying baubles, ogling girls, chasing girls, and once in a while catching the girls. It was lots of fun!
For all that I can write a couple paragraphs on the subject, I haven’t been involved with the SCA or to a Renaissance Faire since I moved to Washington. I don’t anticipate getting back to the SCA again, as being a member tends to eat your life and free time, but I’d really like to start attending an annual Faire again. I had planned to do so this year, but, 2020. The related thing that I’ve continued attending off and on over the years are Scottish Highland Games. I grew up going to one near my home town and have been to a couple in Washington a half a dozen times or more since moving out here. They aren’t historical the way the SCA is, or fantasy-based the way Renaissance Faires are, but they incorporate some of the same kinds of feelings, while also focusing on the modern and living nature of Scottish and Celtic diaspora culture.
Now that I’ve got the basic context set, let’s look at how this interest effected how I dressed.
To start out, I think I got involved in Renaissance Faires first, beginning in Bay Village, Ohio, if my rattletrap memory is to be believed. Since Renaissance Faires are attuned to the public I probably started out attending in normal clothes, or “mundane garb” as it would be styled. Shortly thereafter, getting involved in the SCA meant also learning to dress the part. Since my interest was in Celtic culture and history it was an easy fit for me to point myself in that direction, and being already skilled with a sewing machine I began by making some simple “T” tunics. A couple of these, paired with some baggy pants, and I was on my way! Of course I also added accessories over time, including belts, pouches, cloaks, and lots and lots of weapons. But the purpose of this essay isn’t to write about how I costumed in an isolated and limited setting.
Now of course I couldn’t walk around in normal, everyday life, dressed entirely in medieval garb—don’t be silly! I could only walk around in normal, everyday life, dressed partly in medieval garb. My tunics and later “poofy” shirts could be paired with jeans and, in colder weather, be worn over a long-sleeved t-shirt or turtleneck. Baggy, plaid pants were wearable in all kinds of situations. A wool cloak could easily be used in cooler temperatures instead of a regular jacket. And, of course, my favorite pair of black, knee-high, leather boots could be worn all the time and with everything.
At that time in my life it would be totally accurate to say that my idealized vision of myself was dressed in a mixture of modern American and medieval European elements. Of course I couldn’t afford to replace my entire wardrobe with such things, nor was I familiar with the idea of building a personal style around certain, limited items. For me eclecticism was the watchword and I dove into it wholeheartedly. In addition to those medieval elements I also had the usual complement of t-shirts and flannels, along with a not insignificant number of aloha shirts. And, early on, I was still wearing elements of that Harley-Davidson aesthetic I talked about before.
By the time I graduated from college I had largely put a lot of these medieval bits and pieces behind me, as far as everyday clothing went, and was about to enter a long period of pretty much dressing like everyone else. With one, exception.
Uh, why are you wearing a skirt, dude?
My first experience with putting on a kilt came around my sophomore year in college. That summer (1996) I had taken a length of remnant fabric I’d been holding on to for a while and set out to make myself a kilt. Let me be clear: I had no earthly idea what I was doing. I had read no books on the subject, talked to no one, and if you’re asking yourself why I didn’t look it up online then you obviously don’t remember the ‘90s. So where did this idea come from? Well it came from my SCA and Renaissance Faire involvement, of course. It also came out of the spring of 1995…
The scene: I’m sitting in a darkened movie theatre, sunken down in my seat, watching tensely as Tim Roth impales Liam Neeson with his small sword again, and again. All of a sudden Neeson grabs hold of Roth’s blade, and with a mighty swing of his basket hilted claymore he kills Roth in as gory a fashion as I could have hoped. I leapt to my feet, cheering! It’s April, 1995, and the movie is Rob Roy. A month later it is May, 1995, and Mel Gibson bellows, “freedom!”, his face painted blue. Braveheart. One movie made some gestures toward historical accuracy, while the other couldn’t have been more of a fantasy if Mel Gibson had had pointy ears and fairy wings. Nevertheless, both films showed strong, powerful men, striking a blow for freedom and getting the girl while wearing a skirt. At that moment I knew I’d have to put on a kilt myself. It was a moral imperative.
Oh, somewhere in there I also did Brigadoon with Sandstone Summer Theatre, so I got the chance to try on a costume kilt.
Flash forward to 1996 and, believe it or not, I was successful at pleating that fabric and turning it into a kilt-like object. Sure, there were plenty of things wrong with it, but there were some other things right, thanks partly to having a fully equipped college theatre costume shop to do my work in (I’m looking at you, serger, you beautiful, beautiful machine). I wore that kilt as a costume piece for some shows I worked on, I wore it to SCA events, and I wore it to my college graduation ceremony. Someone asked me recently whatever became of it and all I could answer was that it was lost in the mists of time, along with the 28-inch waist it was made to fit.
After college, and as my wearing of medieval garb in everyday life waned, it seemed that my wearing of kilts would as well. But then, somehow, somewhere, I learned of a company in far off Seattle who had just begun making utility kilts that were intended to be worn every day! A little sleuthing found Utilikilts for me, and by the end of 2001 I had acquired my first Utilikilt. Compared to later designs it was on the crude side: it wasn’t hemmed, just zig-zag stitched, and there were no snaps on the waist band, just the six on the apron. Nonetheless the basic bones of the garment were there, and I thought I looked mighty fine in my postal blue Original (what is now called the Spartan)!
The next year I bought my second Utilikilt while on a visit to Seattle. This one was a briefly made model called the Painters’ Kilt. It was more or less what the Workmans’ is now, though made out of a somewhat lighter fabric and only available in undyed white. Within a decade of moving to Seattle in 2004 I had Originals in olive green and khaki, a Workmans’ in chocolate brown, and a Survival in sage green. I had also replaced my first, postal blue Original with a newer one, in the same color but that had a proper hem and the waistband snaps.
In the midst of that, or at least near to but not at its beginning, I also bought a traditional kilt made from eight yards of heavy weight wool tartan, woven in Scotland. I bought this kilt for my wedding, and over the years I would wear it maybe three or for times more. Looking back it would have made a lot more sense just to rent one, as I did for my father and groomsmen. Be that as it may, that kilt is still hanging in my bedroom as we speak, and it will reenter this narrative a little later on.
Continuing on from that beginning in 2001 until today I have continued wearing my Utilikilts, sometimes nearly all the time, and other times sporadically. Along the way I got healthier, lost a bunch of weight, and had to sell nearly all of my Utilikilts, hanging on only to the postal blue Original, and buying a new, chocolate brown Original. But more on that and what came after, later.
Let me show you how it’s done
In 2001, a year after my divorce, I was given the opportunity to travel to Hong Kong for five weeks to represent Apple at the opening of our first store in that part of China. Packed into my suitcase went a couple of my kilts, some aloha shirts, and one dress shirt and tie. I am not going to use this space to go into the authoritarian issues that I experienced with one of the visiting managers there, her bias against personal expression, or the saga of me having to buy a pair of dark jeans that I didn’t want. The only reason I’m bringing Hong Kong up is because, while on that trip, I had a chance to notice how good I looked when putting on a shirt and tie (especially compared to the uniformly casually dressed Apple retail types), and thought about how easy the look was to do well. When I came back home I decided to do something about that.
Being well-dressed had made me feel good, and I didn’t want to reserve that feeling for special occasions only. So I started doing some research, began reading articles on men’s style web sites like Dappered, and generally got myself educated as to the principles of being a well-dressed man. Along the way I zeroed in on some pieces that could combine with more casual trousers and jeans. I figured out that a nice dress shirt and a classically striped tie, along with a nice pair of brown leather shoes, could really work with a well-kept pair of jeans or cords. Throw a wool coat over all of this in cold weather. Add in keeping my hair cut and my facial hair trimmed, and I was set!
I started out with several broadcloth shirts in the basic, plain colors: white, blue, and pink. I liked the broadcloth because it was thin and light, and I tend to run hot. Since I’d be wearing this stuff under a t-shirt at work it was important to think in terms of keeping the necessary layering to the least insulative options possible. Later on I added some OCBD (oxford cloth, button down [collar] for the uninitiated) shirts in plain white, white and blue stripes, and white and navy gingham. Again, all really classic things. Broadcloth and OCBD dress shirts have been in fashion since before I was born and will still be after I’m dead and eaten by wild animals.
Prior to this, and as previously mentioned, I had amassed a collection of crazily colored and patterned ties. This wasn’t going to work with the more timeless and classy look I was creating, so I bought new—machine washable—ties in classic striped and paisley patterns. I stuck with ties that were neither too thin nor too wide, but that would tie a nice, chunky, half-Windsor knot.
The first pair of shoes I bought to go with this new look were medium brown, wingtip derbies. If you’re confused by “derby” you might think in terms of oxfords, which is kind of right, but really not. Oxfords and derbies are two different designs, and they really shouldn’t be used interchangeably. I’ve always liked the brogueing details of wingtips, feeling that they’ve got a really nice look which isn’t completely formal. Going with brown also helps things from getting too formal looking.
Since this time I’ve added a few more shoes and boots to my collection, as well as a couple more shirts, ties, and trousers. At this point my closet is well set to allow me to dress up five days a week if I choose to do so. I’ve also thrown a couple of vests, both tailored and sweater, into the mix. Whether it’s casual or dress I just always like how a vest compliments a look.
I kept up with this habit of dressing a bit nicer for work for several years, slowly tapering it down as I learned how to feel good about how I looked other ways. I still do pull out the stops, but it’s generally when I’m going out, getting together with friends, or attending an event. It’s funny how throwing on a nice shirt and tie really impresses people in Seattle.
Can you see me in a catalog?
There was a video I watched recently on YouTube, wherein a woman created a bunch of different themed outfits like “meadow-punk”, “bakery cute”, “piratecore”, and “knightcore”. I thought this was a fun way of saying it, so let me tell you about my adoption of LLBeancore as a personal style aesthetic.
Growing up closer to the east coast than the west, there was no higher cathedral of smart casual outdoors wear than the house built by Leon Leonwood Bean (yes, that’s what the L.L. stands for). All of my dad’s nice stuff, that I was not allowed to borrow, came from the pages of the L.L. Bean catalog. Looking through those glossy spreads at the handsome men and women, enjoying autumn in New England, was like gazing through the gates of a better world. It was a flannel shirted and duck booted Nirvana!
As I moved through life I always remembered those catalog images and held on to the idea that this look was out there, waiting for me to come home to it.
Around 2014 I got back into hiking and outdoor recreation in a big way. Before long I had chunks of my closet and dressers dedicated to high tech fabrics designed to be light weight and quick drying. As these activities became more and more central to my life, the style of the clothing designed for them crept into my daily life. At the same time I didn’t want to wear my actual hiking clothes on a day to day basis. For one thing this would lead to more frequent washings and shorten the lives of the technical fabrics. For another I’d end up looking just like every other jerk in Seattle. This is when my memory took me back to the idealized catalogs of my youth.
I had already adopted a habit of wearing properly fitting trousers and jeans, some of them from L.L. Bean, and smart casual leather boots and shoes, so I was part of the way there. Even the OCBD shirts, sans tie, could work too. I added some nice, flannel shirts in, as well as a couple of wool sweaters, non-puffy insulated vests, and I was all set! One trick to maintaining this look is keeping your clothes relatively fitted, as opposed to baggy, and never ripped or torn. Neat and clean, yet casual and relaxed, is the goal.
If any of this is starting to sound familiar to those of you reading along at home, it’s probably because this is still the general look I’m wearing today (2020). It’s definitely a cool weather look, relying as it does on layers, so it doesn’t work well in the summer, but that’s ok. Seattle summers are relatively mild and short, and before you know it we’ll be back to autumn and I can throw myself into glorious layers!
That will bring us back to do—I mean, kilts
Everything I’ve written about, up until this point, 3,725 words in, has been about trends that began in the past, and mostly have ended there as well. I threw out my last Harley-Davidson t-shirt a couple of years ago. I haven’t worn medieval garb in decades. I seldom dress up more than four or five times a year. Even my L.L. Bean homage may fade away or be replaced with something else. But what have I been doing continuously for almost twenty years? That’s right, I’ve been wearing kilts. And right now, at this moment, my kilting is poised to enter a new phase.
While talking about kilts a couple thousand words ago I never really got into why I wear them. Some of the circumstances of how I started, yes, but not why I went beyond treating them like a costume and made them part of my everyday style. Let’s talk about that now.
Most men who kilt on the regular (and yes, we turn the word “kilt” into all kinds of verbs and such: deal with it) cite some combination of three, broad reasons for doing so.
Most of the men who start wearing kilts do so because there is some connection in their family history to Scotland or Ireland. For some of us it’s so many generations back that it hardly matters. For others it’s a more immediate part of their past. Some appreciate the history of it even if they can’t claim much of a connection and simply want to associate with that. A few end up in professions (police and fire) or fraternal organizations (Masons) which have kilt wearing aspects whether it’s your personal heritage or not. I have no familial connection to Scotland, and only a faint one to Ireland, so the heritage aspect is minimal, but it is there nonetheless.
COMFORT & PRACTICALITY
Properly speaking this is a reason why men continue wearing kilts after they’ve already started. A man reluctant to put on a kilt in the first place is not likely to be swayed by being told how comfortable it is. It’s simply too far outside of our experience. But get started on this path and you quickly come to realize that there’s really no match for the comfort of a kilt, and in many ways it is an eminently practical garment. The Scots did not adopt it as their national dress because it was elaborate and uncomfortable. No, in the climate of Scotland a length of wool wrapped around your hips and shoulder is just the best thing you could ever have. I’m definitely one hundred percent on board the comfort & practicality train.
Seriously. What’s more badass than a man in a kilt? That’s right—nothing. Other men recognize you as an alpha predator. Women are awed by your confidence and virility. Ok, let’s pull back on the toxic masculinity. Truthfully, though, you won’t start wearing a kilt, much less continue doing so, without a great deal of confidence, and the wearing of the kilt reinforces and amplifies that confidence. Whether they would admit it or not, I think you’ll find that most kilted men also score somewhat higher than zero on the exhibitionist scale. We enjoy being seen in our kilts. We like “peacocking” to borrow a phrase from Rocky Roeger, owner of USA Kilts. For some of us this strays into the territory of enjoying throwing our personalities into sharp relief, and into the faces of those around us. We like the thought that we’re creating just a little bit of edginess or confusion or discomfort around ourselves. Yeah, all of this fits me to a T.
To those three categories of why kilt, I’ll add one other point. A kilt is an item of clothing which is very distinctive and can be present in many outfits and situations in ways that other signature items cannot. You can’t always wear a fancy hat. A distinctive pair of boots won’t fit every situation. That steampunk coat with the working pressure gauges and whistle isn’t always going to make sense. But a kilt, now, a kilt can be dressed up or down to fit almost any circumstance, and you always need some sort of lower body garment, so why not make it a kilt?
Before I move on to what I have to say next about kilting, let’s just recap where I’ve been. Over the last two decades I have owned as many as seven kilts at one time, all but one have been Utilikilts, and I’ve worn them as regularly as five or six days a week, seven or eight months out of the year. As of the midway point in 2020 I own three, including my wedding kilt, and wear one of them semi-regularly. Actually let me amend that sentence, I owned three… As of right now I own five kilts, and how and when I wear them is experiencing an evolution.
The fourth kilt that I bought is another utility style one, this time from a company named StumpTown Kilts. I find utility kilts to be hugely practical, which is why I wanted another one. I chose STK because they’ve designed their kilts with a handful of features that I thought looked pretty cool, including the ability to have your kilt expand and contract as your waistline does (Utilikilts has also now made this a feature of their kilts). I’ve had it for just a few days, have been wearing it every day, and am very happy so far. I think it is going to do very well for me and is likely to be one of my favorites.
The fifth kilt I bought is something very different. Back in 2014, when I started hiking a lot, I was doing much of that hiking in my Utilikilts. This came to an end after a couple of hikes wherein those heavy, cotton kilts proved to be less than practical. For the last year or so, though, I’ve been wanting to try kilted hiking again, and I thought I had found a good option from a company called Sport Kilt. I changed my mind about that when I got to looking at the Casual Kilt offered by USA Kilts. Unlike some of the other hiking options out there, it’s built in a traditional manner from woven, albeit synthetic, fabric. Despite being designed to be very light and simple it still has the appearance of a traditional kilt, which means you can dress it up with the usual accessories like hose, sporran, etc. Along with this casual kilt I bought the aforementioned accessories (and more), setting myself up for everyday, traditional kilting. And, as a bonus, these same accessories will translate over to my wedding kilt, making it practical to wear that more often. See, that’s another goal I have: stop treating my wedding kilt as some item of formal wear that needs to remain closeted except for Very Special Occasions™. I spent way too much on it not to get more wear out of it!
On top of all this I have plans for a sixth kilt as well, this one a five yard wool kilt, also from USA Kilts. Choosing a five yard option will mean a lighter kilt than my eight yard, and the fabric I’m looking at is medium weight (13 oz.) rather than heavy weight (16 oz.) like my wedding kilt. I’m hoping this will be a practical kilt for everyday wear, which is nonetheless also a really nice looking and stylish garment, especially when accessorized to the nines. It should also be a little cooler to wear in warm weather, which is one of the places where my wedding kilt really fails. That sucker is hot!
So that’s where things are going in the kilted world of Aaron.
5,025 words is more than I thought I’d be writing when I started this
Seriously, I thought I’d be done with this topic about 3,000 words back. Nevertheless I have covered the specific styles of dress that I intended to when I was thinking about writing this essay.
I hope that you, whoever you are, have enjoyed this tour through my personal history. It occurred to me, somewhere back there, that in writing about personal style I was also writing about myself in a deeper fashion. Yeah, I realize that’s not that big of a revelation, but it isn’t really what I intended. Along the way I got to explore elements of my life and history that I don’t always think about, which was fun for me and I hope will be interesting for you.
I also wrote a whole, separate, 1,400 word essay in the midst of writing this one. It’s even kind of related to one of the topics covered in here, so just to make it really explicit I’ll go ahead and stick a link to it, right here.
As it turns out, personal style is something I’ve thought a lot about during much of my adult life. I’ve raised the questions, “who am I?”, and, “who do I want to be?”, over and over again, answering differently each time. Even so, though the answers have been different in form, the substance of them has always led me to myself. We’re all growing and changing as we live, and the truth of who we are grows and changes with us. The cool thing, is that we seldom subtract from ourselves, we just add layers. Everything I’ve written about in here is a piece of who I am, added to the pieces that came before.
Today I’m kilted and L.L. Beaned…
but I’m also still adept at dressing up…
and I can rock a tunic and cloak like no one’s business…
and I still love bright and intricate designs…
and I continue referring back to the things I learned from my parents…
and I’ll always be that gawky kid who dresses for himself while worrying about what that says to other people…
And that’s my personal style.