There was a moment of sublime discombobulation at the Met’s Costume Institute party for its new exhibit, “Bravehearts: Men in Skirts,” the other night. Here was Boy George in spangled frock and clown makeup, done up exactly like Leigh Bowery, the notorious fashion designer/performance artist George plays in Taboo, the Broadway musical set to open this week. And there were George’s authentic New Romantic smocks and Leigh’s harlequin dress from the ’80s, enshrined in the Met’s austere showcases in a section of the exhibit called Subcultural Styles, which also includes Kurt Cobain’s grunge-babydoll dresses. (Alas Cobain, like Bowery, did not live to see his trangressive outfits honored by a museum.)
Boy George’s stroll through the exhibit was hardly the only attraction at this thorough—and thoroughly cool—exploration of the scandalous notion of boys wearing skirts (or “unbifurcated garments,” as the Met calls them). Because, face it: Though we seem capable of accepting all sorts of sartorial heresy, from flip-flops in church to sweat suits at funerals, a man who shows up in an unbifurcated garment retains the power to shock.
The inherent irrationality of sex-typing clothes (if a woman can show up in a tuxedo at the Oscars, why can’t a guy wear a Versace gown?) has given rise to predictions that the days of gender-specific dressing are numbered. The brilliant Rudi Gernreich, whose voluminous caftans are at the Met (he recommended that older people of either sex just cover everything up), predicted that by 2000, “women will wear pants and men will wear skirts interchangeably.” He added that “weather permitting, both sexes will go about bare-chested, though women will wear simple protective pasties.”
That pastie prophesy has not come to pass, but other revolutionary notions have been floated by forward-thinkers like Jean Paul Gaultier, who offers a man’s kilt made of mink, and David Bowie, represented by a full-skirted, shredded Alexander McQueen Union Jack jacket. (“I wanted to recontextualise Pete Townsend’s jacket of the ’60s,” Bowie said, “but then I got a bit carried away and thought it would look rather nice as a frock coat. Then Alex got even further carried away and cut up bits of it.”)
Of course one anticipates that a show called “Men in Skirts” will have plenty of caftans and kilts, but other displays defy expectation. A pair of hip-hop jeans on display are so wide they function as a de facto skirt (surely not the intention of a macho wearer), and there’s even a garment that represents the flip side of the exhibit: an achingly modest 1852 bloomer outfit worn by early feminists who braved derision and sometimes even assault for pulling a pair of puffy pants on under their dresses.
Apparently there are a lot of guys around town willing to put up with the occasional taunt as stoically as the most militant Bloomer girl. Though the souvenir shop at the Met is not stocking skirts at present, the same Gaultier striped black-and-gray wool kilt currently in the Costume Institute show is for sale at the Gaultier boutique on Madison Avenue for $1,300. A spokesperson for Gaultier says the shop has a steady stream of repeat customers who snatch up skirts the minute they’re in stock. “Customers wear them over pants—it’s an avant-garde look!” she tells us, adding that with all this metrosexual business buzzing around now, the store thinks it’ll sell even more.
But what if you’re a free-thinker who doesn’t want to spend $1,300 on a look, no matter how avant-garde it is? At Trash & Vaudeville (4 St. Marks Place), the head buyer, Jimmy, who has a halo of yellow curls and enough silver jewelry to sink the Andrea Doria, shows us a surprising number of skirts for men, almost all retailing at less than $100. For a fellow tough enough to swathe himself in heavy vinyl (a mercilessly uncomfortable fabric, no matter how butch you are), there’s a $68 maxi skirt groaning with chains; a similar look rendered in cotton and described by Jimmy as “a big seller” is $65. A floor-length kilt imported from England with kilt-style buckles up the side and a definite swashbuckling air is almost sold out, despite the fact that it’s $220. Really, we ask? Sold out? “Oh yeah,” says Jimmy. “We get a lot of guys who want skirts: music guys; goth guys; guys who do fetish; and, you know, just guy-guys.” Jimmy shows us a narrower skirt which has an extra piece of fabric in the back that he calls a bum flap. Jimmy thinks it’s a classic. “Now this one,” he says, fondling the flap, “is for guys who just want to put on a cool skirt.”