HEADLINE: Skirting an Issue First came the tunic; then the kilt; and now, with a new men's movement that doesn't care who wears the pants in their families, the J. Crew mini.
As Michael saunters through a Marina coffeehouse, a boothful of tourists stop their conversation. They look, look away, and look again. One man seems to want to say something but develops an uncertain smirk instead.
Michael is wearing a skirt. He's accustomed to stares. "My wife actually worries more about people's reactions than I do," he shrugs.
A growing number of men are reasserting their right to wear an article of clothing that has been socially off-limits to Western men for several centuries. No, it's not a drag thing. It's a grass-roots movement to change men's fashion. Got a problem with that? Sorry; they don't really care.
"I'm not going to be a wussbag, and I'm not going to change myself to suit someone else," says Michael. "That's just the way I am. Maybe I'm a little belligerent, but I don't appreciate people telling me what to do."
Michael (his wife asked that his real name not be used) is a 25-year-old doctor interning in S.F., and he's been wearing skirts for a little over a year. One of the main reasons he does so, he says, is that skirts are a lot more comfortable than pants. A number of skirted men mentioned this but were coy when asked to elaborate.
"Think about the difference between girls' bicycles and boys' bicycles," hinted one guy.
Another, however, was refreshingly blunt. "Testicles were meant to regulate their own temperature," explains Alxander (his spelling), also 25, an engineer at a large S.F.-based Web publication. "That's why boxers are better than briefs. This just takes it a step further. God's own air conditioning."
Since men's fashion currently runs to pinstripes and Dockers, though, it's likely a guy will only pursue this personal liberation if he's already an individualist who thrives on pushing the envelope. " 'Faggot!' is the most common thing that gets yelled out of car windows," says Sean Schur, a computer graphics engineer at Industrial Light and Magic.
Alxander takes attention like this in stride. "It's probably because they thought you had a nice ass, and it turns out you're a guy, so they're annoyed," he theorizes. "But I'm 6 foot 4, so they'd have to have thought I was an Amazon."
Most skirt-inclined guys favor long, loose drapes that convey a certain Old Testament panache. And though some of those partial to shorter skirts -- Michael's wardrobe includes a khaki J. Crew mini -- shave their legs, many don't.
"Screw that!" exclaims Jeremy Bornstein, yanking up his skirt to show off his hairy legs. "It's painful enough for me to shave my face."
Jeremy, a senior research scientist at Apple, confesses that he enjoys "tweaking uptight people," but notes that wearing a skirt has also made him acutely aware of the arbitrary way we codify gender. "It's just a garment," he says. "Inherently, it's meaningless."
"You can't really say a skirt is not a 'male garment,' " concurs Michael. "Besides, in a lot of African countries and in New Zealand and Tahiti, men still wear skirts." In fact alt.fashion, one of his favorite Internet discussion groups, was electrified recently when Bali's top male athletes donned sarongs for the Olympic opening parade.
Spend enough time on-line, and you're likely to meet skirts-for-men evangelist Bill Geurts. The 45-year-old father of four has been wearing skirts for a decade in Portland, Ore. Though he doesn't wear them to work, his colleagues have twigged; one of his cherished office knickknacks is a photo of himself sitting on the hood of his '65 Mustang. In the picture, he's wearing a tennis skirt.
"And by golly," he booms, "after a while people looked at it and said, 'Well! I'll be darned!' "
Skirts for men have become "a cause" for Bill, who's hoping he can organize his fellow skirt-wearers to revolutionize men's fashion. After all, he says, "It's a garment that's been available to us men in the past." He keeps in touch with fellow skirt-wearers in Sweden, New Zealand (where a posse of skirt-wearing men just formed a netball team), and across the United States.
Ultimately, whether skirts for men ever go completely mainstream is beside the point for most of these guys, who admit they're content with their status as fashion iconoclasts.
"My first thought is I don't care," says Jeremy. Besides, adds Sean, right now the skirt-wearing minority enjoys a certain advantage. "I'm not sure if I should be telling you this, but it's really a big turn-on for women -- at least the women I meet," he says. "Probably because it's a bold statement and a gutsy thing to do."
Something does indeed appeal about a guy who's willing to risk being laughed at in order to express himself. Maybe it's a sartorial suggestion of the openheartedness of romance -- who knows?
Of course, the argument can be conceded based on comfort, too.
"Get a guy in a loose silk or cotton skirt in 90-degree heat and a breeze, and they're sold for life," says Alxander. And if anyone's still hesitant, he suggests an even more forthright marketing strategy: "Tell guys it's for their penis, and they'll listen to you."
Why Do Men Wear Dresses? (And Why Do Some Women Get So Upset About It?)
Few activities seem to attract more venom and contempt than crossdressing.
One newspaper writer who found out that her ex-husband was a crossdresser described him as a `pervert' and dumped a pile of her own old clothes on his mother's doorstep to make her point.
What inspires this level of anger among so many women? Fear, I suppose. But fear of what? Fear of the competition for the underwear drawer? Fear that he might be gay? Fear that he'll stretch everything and ruin her tights? Fear that the neighbours will find out?
Dressing up in the sort of clothes usually worn by women is one of the most harmless activities imaginable and yet it is also one of the most socially misunderstood.
Lots of men dress up - as freemasons, soldiers or special constables - and transvestism is just a fun variation on the dressing up theme but our society has developed in such a way that what we choose to wear does, to a very large extent, define what we are, who we are and what others think of us.
The judge wears a gown and a wig. The priest wears a gown. The bishop wears a particularly fine gown. Kings wear robes and crowns. Hotel porters, car park attendants, railway staff, airline stewardesses and people in a thousand other different types of employment wear clothes that help identify them. Plumbers wear overalls. Doctors wear white coats. Nurses wear uniforms.
As our society becomes more and more complex so the uniforms become increasingly important. We define people by whether they have `white collar' or `blue collar' jobs.
Men who crossdress are throwing an enormous spanner into the works of this finely balanced piece of social machinery. It is, perhaps, hardly surprising that crossdressing produces so much confusion, bewilderment and resentment and so many pejorative remarks.
Despite the popularity of transvestism hardly anything is known about this `hobby' - other than the fact that a lot of men do it. (Lots of women crossdress too but transvestism among women is socially accepted. Millions of women regularly wear trousers and suits.).
The idea of men in clothes usually worn by women may sound like a joke. But it isn't. Putting on female clothes is, for thousands of men, the best way to deal with stress and escape from the responsibilities of being a man. `If I didn't crossdress,' one man told me, `I'd be dead. I had high blood pressure which pills couldn't control. Wearing feminine clothing brought my blood pressure under control.'
Precise figures are difficult to obtain but my research shows that in an average week 100,000 in every 1,000,000 men dress - for some of the time - in something soft, silky or frilly. Often they just wear a camisole and panties underneath their male clothes.
Most crossdressers live in constant fear of being found out. Around a quarter of male transvestites have never dared share their secret with their wives. That means that around the world millions of women are married to transvestites - and don't know it. In every million women there will be around 25,000 who are unknowingly married to (or living with) transvestites.
Transvestism crosses all social and professional barriers. Your best friend, your golf partner, your doctor, your boss or your husband could be a secret transvestite. The chances are high that someone you know well is a crossdresser.
Here are some facts I uncovered in a survey of 1014 British transvestites: (It is, I think, the biggest ever survey of crossdressers.)
* Well over three quarters of all transvestites regularly wear the sort of underwear worn by women under their male clothing. Many of the rest would do so if they weren't frightened of being found out by wives.
* Less than half of all transvestites go out of their homes fully dressed as women and most of these are honest enough to admit that they don't fool anyone. But for most this isn't important. They want to dress in the sort of clothes worn by women - not become women.
* Transvestism must be one of the most harmless hobbies. And yet nearly three quarters of male transvestites admit that they live in constant fear of being found out by prejudiced relatives, neighbours or employers. One man who wrote to me to help with my survey drove to a nearby town to post his anonymous letter. Many say they don't understand why women can wear male clothing - but men can't wear female clothes.
* Some wives are scornful and dismissive. Others are patronising and refuse to try and understand. Time and time again I have read pitiful letters from transvestites whose wives `allow' them to dress for one hour a week - as long as they do it in secret.
* Three quarters of all transvestites' partners know that the man in their lives dress in women's clothing. But a quarter of partners do not know.
* There is good reason for the secrecy since most wives or girlfriends who know about their partner's cross dressing disapprove. They miss a lot of fun by being so selfish, narrow minded and disapproving.
* Happily, just over a third of wives and girlfriends actively help their men dress as women by helping with make up and clothes. Many women admit they get a sexual turn on from seeing their male partner in silky, feminine clothes. It is common for transvestites whose partners do approve to have sex while dressed as a woman.
* The vast majority of transvestites are heterosexual.
* The average transvestite spends 12 hours a week dressed as a woman - but would like to spend 70 hours a week (rather more than half the `waking' week) dressed in feminine clothes.
* A growing number of men have discovered that putting on stockings and a frock is the quickest way to escape from the stressful responsibilities of being a man. I have little doubt that more men would live longer if transvestism was more widely accepted.
I believe that transvestism is one of the least harmful of all hobbies and one that no man should feel ashamed of. It is, I believe, a perfectly acceptable way for any man to escape from the day to day stresses of being a man in a stressful world. It's fun and clearly gives a lot of men a great deal of pleasure and it is difficult to think of any activity which is less likely to do harm to anyone.
Men who dress in womens' clothes bring out a normal, healthy part of their own femininity, broaden their outlook on life and enjoy a temporary respite from the responsibilities and demands of being male.
I'm always sad to read of the number of women who do not accept their husband's crossdressing. Time after time I have opened letters from men whose wives have treated them horrendously badly.
I think it is appalling that any woman should have the nerve to say to her partner: `Oh, well if you must then I suppose you must - but you can only do it for an hour a week and you must make sure that the curtains are drawn and that I'm well out of the house and by the way I don't want to see any sign of your silly women's clothing and so on when I get back.'
No woman would, I hope, dare say anything like this to a man who took up golf or model making.
I think it is sad that transvestism should be regarded as so much more horrendous than anything else - though I believe that deep seated and completely false prejudices are probably at the root of it all.
Many women probably assume that most transvestites are either homosexual or else candidates for sex change surgery.
But, on the whole, there is a huge difference between transvestites and transsexuals. Transsexuals are like golfers - they lose their balls. Transvestites are keen to keep theirs.
My survey has made it absolutely clear that the vast majority of transvestites are heterosexual and happy to be men. (Curiously, crossdressing is so misunderstood and commonly reviled that some women would doubtless prefer it if they found out that their husband was gay or wanted to change sex.)
The full results of my survey into crossdressing appear in my book `Men in Dresses' which appears in full on this website.
Copyright Vernon Coleman 2004