Manly men, without pants

New York museum's exhibit, `Men in Skirts,' shows a little leg, but never say `drag'

November 16, 2003|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At the recent opening of Bravehearts: Men in Skirts a fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute in New York City, Andrew Bolton was holding forth on how alluring men can be when they wear something other than trousers.

"The male leg is a sign of sexual prowess and strength," said Bolton, who is a curator of Men in Skirts which first appeared at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and author of an accompanying book with the same title (Harry N. Abrams, 2003.) "Think of the gladiators," he continued. "In ancient Rome, part of how men showed their strength was their display of a well-turned calf."

Hmmmm. If that's the case, to whom exactly were those Romans showing off their great gams - other gladiators, or the lions? The ease with which one's mind turns to such questions is part of the problem besetting this show, which is both scholarly and deeply silly. Men in Skirts purports to deconstruct the myth that skirts are an exclusively female garment. As it makes abundantly clear, for most of recorded history, men have not worn pants, a sartorial invention that only became truly popular at the end of the 19th century. Yet, in displaying "non-bifurcated garments" from men's wardrobes around the world and throughout time, the exhibit makes no distinction between dresses, frock coats, tunics, togas, kimonos, kilts, caftans or, for that matter, your husband's ratty old bathrobe. All are misnamed, simply, as "skirts."

By doing so, obviously the exhibit is trying to lather up a bit of controversy. "This show is not about drag," Bolton insisted, a bit huffily. Yet, it courts that impression at every turn.

Courage in the breeze

Even the title, with its pun on the 1995 Mel-Gibson-in-a-kilt movie, hints that a man who wears anything but pants does so at considerable risk to life (and limb) and must have an exceedingly brave heart. This might be news to quite a few of the original wearers of those costumes on display. Did that Charioteer of Delphi in 5th century BC Greece need particular courage to wear his pleated floor length tunic called a chiton? Doubtful. Or, was Henry VIII self-consciously aware that the voluminous breeches he wore might "give the illusion of an actual skirted garment" as the printed notes suggest? Probably not.

Such distinctions, however, are altogether swept away by the show's haphazard lack of chronology. Men's frock coats from the 1730s are displayed next to a nearly identical design by Alexander McQueen, London's current enfant terrible of fashion, which was worn by David Bowie on the cover of his 1997 album Earthling. Keanu Reeves robes from the Matrix movie trilogy are paired with the black cassock or soutane worn by Roman Catholic priests in the 19th century.

Blurred, too, is any line between real life and theater, since a suspicious number of the more outrM-i garments shown in "Men in Skirts" - such as a bra and mini-skirt worn by the musician Adrien Young to the 2003 Grammy Awards - were designed for actors or other people in show business. Thus, while it took some nerve for Leigh Bailey (whose life story is about to open on Broadway in the Rosie O'Donnell-produced musical Taboo,) to wear some of his outlandish costumes out to London discos in the early 1980s, it doesn't take nearly as much moxie for a Papua, New Guinea man to slip into a grass skirt.

It just takes confidence

The most instructive part of the show is its section on kilts. The look of thickly soled shoes, a pleated skirt made of tartan plaid (this being one of the very few vibrantly colored patterns of cloth most Western men feel comfortable wearing), with a hemline that nearly meets the top of heavy wool socks is unquestionably manly. Nowadays, though, does a kilt need to be worn with a set of bagpipes? Bolton suggested it might actually be more of a question of attitude.

"If you feel confident in what you're wearing, you won't attract attention. Look at the soccer star David Beckham. He was photographed wearing a sarong a few years ago, and it started a tremendous trend for men in the U.K.," he said. "For a man to successfully wear a skirt, it's about how he accessorizes, and what he wears with it. Worn correctly, it can be extremely masculine."

Such is assuredly the case with one of the models, who paired what looks like a satin mattress pad (actually, a Jean-Paul Gaultier design from 1985-86) with perhaps the best accessory of all, a flawlessly fearsome physique.

If all this worries you - the possibility that your son will start swanning about in a prom dress, or that your daughter might become a skirt-chaser - relax. Chances that either of these things will happen are unlikely.

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