The un-bifurcated garment

Thoughts about kilts and skirts and the possibilities of the un-bifurcated male garment

UN-BIFURCATION: SKIRTS VS. KILTS

I think few people would deny that a skirt is an essentially feminine garment. I speak here, not simply of an un-bifurcated wrap, but specifically of a skirt. A slightly smaller group would also assert that a kilt is—for the most part—a masculine garment, and those with any knowledge of the culture that gave rise to the kilt would deem it to be essentially masculine. The differences between a skirt and a kilt have to do with the manner of construction, the materials used, and the way in which it is worn. In looking at all of these factors you could say that a kilt is a very specific subset of skirt, at least in very general terms, and is, by the nature of these differences, made masculine.

Culturally and historically, around the world, there have been a large variety of draped, wrapped, hung and otherwise un-bifurcated garments, worn by both men and women. They are easier to make, and in many environments and climates, more comfortable to wear. Using the world as our example, and the millennia as our scope, we could find precedent for anything, but for the purpose of these thoughts let us restrict ourselves to “western” culture of the last century or so.

In the milieu we have now settled upon there are very few examples of men wearing something other than pants, and both that come immediately to mind center around the aforementioned kilt. The first is the Scottish kilt, worn by people of Scottish heritage or inclination, typically in the socially acceptable environments of Scottish cultural events (games). The second is the utility kilt, of which the most prevalent example is the Utilikilt®. Our field of enquiry being established, let’s examine these two garments in somewhat finer detail.

THE SCOTTISH KILT

The traditional Scottish kilt is a garment that evolved in various stages over centuries, starting from a simple draped and pleated length of fabric, and growing into a finely tailored and formalized item of dress. In its origin it was a fundamentally primitive thing, deriving from a lack of more complex manufacturing methods. It was also very much a part of the climate in which it was first worn, nicely adapted for cold, wet weather. Over time these early kilts developed, becoming more strongly defined, and more tightly circumscribed. This development was closely associated with the formalization of tartans as a means to display clan and familial relationships, leading to the generally accepted idea of kilts being plaid. Fairly late in the life-cycle of the Scottish kilt we found ourselves with several new developments including the “small” kilt (lacking the large amount of fabric thrown over the shoulder) and sewn in pleats.

With the general move toward modernism and the homogenization of western culture it would have been easy for the Scottish kilt to disappear entirely. The reason that it did not, largely has to do with the proclivity of cultural minorities—in this case the Scottish minority within the larger and more dominant culture of Great Britain—for hanging on to the trappings of their culture, with great tenacity. This brings the Scottish kilt into the modern day, as a garment worn in a variety of formal circumstances, and during gatherings of like-minded enthusiasts of Scottish heritage, throughout the English influenced world.

As a brief note, while the Scottish kilt remains formally a wool garment, made of between five and eight yards of woven fabric, there have been a number of off-shoots. These mainly include lighter weight models which use cotton, polyester, and even nylon. One of the main venues for these kilts are the athletic competitions held at Scottish games, where five yards of wool would all too often lead to heat stroke.

THE UTILITY KILT

The utility kilt is an American innovation based upon the idea of taking the kilt, stripping away cultural trappings of the Scottish garment, and bringing in a variety of utilitarian features including lighter weight, more durable fabrics, different pleating systems, and pockets. Designed to emphasize comfort and versatility, these modern kilts appeal to folks who value individuality and self expression. There are several makers of utility kilts, but easily the best known are made by a Seattle company named Utilikilts®.

In common with the Scottish kilt, Utilikilts® are designed as a male garment. Believe it or not this isn’t just a matter of saying who should or should not wear something. In case you haven’t noticed, the male body is shaped a little differently from the female body, which leads to the necessity of actually tailoring clothing to fit one or the other. This is not to say that women do not wear Utilikilts®, but in doing so they are donning masculine attire and accept the compromises that this entails (women also wear traditional kilts in certain situations, but in those are actually feminine garments, tailored for the female form).

It would be easy to say that Utilikilts® are simply an adaptation of the Scottish kilt, but this is no more accurate than saying that a modern car is an adaptation of a horse-drawn wagon or carriage. Yes, the ancestry is there, but evolution has lead to divergent development, to the point where the two are far more like cousins than parent and child. Some would say that Utilikilts® are kilts made practical, while others would say that they are cargo shorts made cooler and more comfortable. Both views are correct, but fail to take into account the larger reality of Utilikilts® being something that goes beyond the mere mechanics of its construction or history.

WHITHER UN-BIFURCATED GARMENTS?

So it’s 2011 and the state of the kilt is thus: variations on the traditional Scottish kilt and assorted utility kilts occupy their own niches. Will they increase their reach? Will they become more wide-spread? Perhaps. Time will tell. For now, let’s speculate on a little bit wilder idea.

The endurance of kilts has shown that there are enough men out there who are willing to live, let us say, undivided lives. How far could this go? Kilts are knee-length items, but would men would be willing to go longer (let’s not worry about shorter)? Just as there are significant differences between skirts and kilts I’m not talking about wearing a dress. Nor, for that matter, am I talking about lengthening the Scottish kilt. For better or worse the traditional kilt is, well, traditional. It is what it is. If we’re going to talk about other possibilities I think it would need to stem from the world of utility kilts. If a company, say Utilikilts®, were to create a kilt that hung to the floor, would men be willing to wear it?

I believe that this question reaches right back to the beginning of this essay: the underlying femininity of the skirt and masculinity of the kilt. If we define the kilt in narrow terms then it can never be anything but knee-length, but then, it also couldn’t have sewn in pleats, pockets, or be made from any fabric but wool. Having thrown out many of the assumptions of what makes a kilt, could we go further? I can imagine something like Utilikilts® Survival model, with all it’s pockets and styling, that falls to the floor. Personally, I think it could work.

I’m reminded of a fashion show that I crewed during either my Junior or Senior year at college. One of the student designers worked with male models and put them in ankle-length skirts. If I remember correctly (it was twelve years ago, after all) the general style was high fashion, so we’re talking many of the same fabrics that you would see suits and other items of dress clothing made of. Ignoring the corsets and make-up, the style of her presentation was masculine. She wasn’t just cross dressing the models because she could, she was experimenting with an idea. I have no idea what grade she got, nor did I think much of her work until lately (if you had seen the designer who came to the stage after her you would understand why).

Looking back now, it’s not hard to see why her ideas didn’t become widespread at the time, but this is before Utilikilts® and a majorly masculine push into the world of un-bifurcated garments. So could the skirt become more masculine or the kilt grow longer? I don’t know. Frankly, I think it’s not too likely. There are certainly factors in favor of this new trend: an increasingly global world, brings exposure to other cultures and styles; attitudes grow broader and people more willing to express individuality. On the other hand there’s societal entropy, which slows any change to the speed of geological epochs. All I can say is that if Utilikilts® ever decided to come out with an ankle-length Survival I’d be first in line to buy it.

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