The social acceptability of men wearing skirts is by no means a nascent subject, but has has anything really changed since the Industrial Revolution? In 1984, the New York Times ran this piece regarding a Paris fashion show featuring men in skirts that was, according to French designer David Hechter, “the most important thing to happen in fashion in the past 20 years!” Hechter was one of the first designers to break fashion norms previously “when it was scandal for women to wear pants.” Rodney Martin puts a sharper point on it: “It makes me feel free. It’s a statement by which I can say I am free to do whatever I want. It does cause hostility on the streets, though. Sometimes I keep my coat closed over my skirt so no one will see it. And I do have to sit differently. But it’s not about being a woman.”
SKIRTS FOR MEN? YES AND NO
By John Duka
Oct. 27, 1984
No one is yet certain whether it actually represented a significant breakthrough in fashion history or whether it merely provided comic relief from the boredom of the Paris spring collections which just came to a close. Nevertheless, the 1984 Paris showings, as well as those in London the previous week, will go down in the collective fashion memory as the time when men were first seen wearing skirts on the major runways of Europe.
The phenomenon, as it was called, appeared primarily in collections of young designers who create clothing for both men and women: the Body Map show in London, the Jean-Paul Gaultier show in Paris.
But even at Chanel, which does not make men’s clothes and does not have a young designer, a man appeared in a Chanel suit. He did not, however, wear a skirt. He wore, for the sake of propriety, side-button pants.
For some, the wearing of skirts by men became an important issue.
“It is the most important thing to happen in fashion in the past 20 years!” announced Daniel Hechter, the French designer, at a dinner he gave one night in his apartment on Avenue Foch. “I remember when it was scandal for women to wear pants,” he declared. Mr. Hechter was one of the first to design pants for women.
The Gaultier show caused the most controversy. Some of the male models wore plaid skirts and open-toed platform basketball sneakers. Other outfits pushed the phenomenon to its limits, with men wearing sarongs and tank tops or see-through harem pants.
The show prompted the Times’s fashion critic, Bernadine Morris, to pose a question. “If it’s all right for women to wear fully-tailored clothing, why isn’t it all right for men to wear skirts?” said Mrs. Morris at the St. Laurent show. She was wearing a man-tailored Calvin Klein suit, and she answered her own question, more or less: “Because women are not trying to pass as men. Whereas many times men wearing skirts are trying to pass as women. The answer is somewhere in there.”
But Jean-Paul Gaultier did not agree. “Wearing a skirt doesn’t mean you’re not masculine,” explained Mr. Gaultier. “Masculinity doesn’t come from clothes. It comes from something inside you. Men and women can wear the same clothes and still be men and women. It’s fun.”
Opinions, however, varied widely among those who attended the showings. Ellin Saltzman, the vice president of Saks Fifth Avenue, was on her way to the Yves Saint Laurent show, when she was asked about the phenomenon. She was wearing trousers, high heeled shoes, a royal purple jacket with frog closings and a black scarf. “Skirts on men?” she said. “Very good. My husband Rennie says they’re very comfortable.”
“I think they’re irrelevant,” said Kal Ruttenstein, the vice president of Bloomingdale’s, who wore a gray suit.
“Skirts on men will be too much work,” said Gene Pressman, the young vice president of Barney’s. “We will have to shave our legs.”
“I think they’re, um, I don’t know,” said Selma Weiser, the owner of Charivari, at first attempting to skirt the issue. “No, wait a minute,” she said. “They’re revolting. No, I hate the word ‘revolting.’ Skirts for men are disgusting.”
“My son Jon did buy four skirts for the store, though,” she continued. “He said it was just for publicity and for fun. Of course, we do sell women’s clothes to men. We saw a line for women in Italy which we’re going to adapt for men. We’ll just have to lengthen the sleeves and take off some of the detail.”
To set the record straight, the first documented instance of the phenomenon occurred during the first fashion show of Stephen Sprouse, the young American designer, in April, 1983, in which one male model wore a black denim mini-skirt over black denim jeans. By July of this year, the notion that men might look good from the knees down spread like an epidemic throughout Europe, where, during the showings of the men’s summer collections, skirts, sarongs and transparent shirts and pants were worn by male models on the runways.
In the Yohji Yamamoto men’s show, men wore yellow and purple organza shirts over white shirts, or long coats with no trousers underneath and tie shoes with socks.
“I just wanted to play,” said Mr. Yamamoto. “Joking sometimes gives us a real future. The most difficult thing to get away from is the jacket. So when you fight against menswear, you have to fight with jackets. Still it’s nice to wear that jacket.”
Because the fashion editors of the leading women’s fashion magazines were not present at the men’s fashion shows in July, some had to wait until last week for their first glimpse of the phenomenon.
“I’ve always thought men in skirts have a great chic, I really have,” said Polly Mellen, the fashion editor of Vogue. “I think of my father wrapping a towel around himself, or I see him standing in his monogrammed night shirt when we were little kiddies going off to school. That was really chic. Men have always worn skirts through history. But is it time to revive them now?” Mrs. Mellen paused, and flexed her famous chin. Finally, “No,” she said, “not now.”
Indeed, men have worn skirts throughout history — kilts in Scotland, chitons in ancient Greece. But where did the new phenomenon come from? Some say it came from the streets, the birthplace of many fashion trends. “The whole thing came from the streets,” said Issey Miyake over tea and chocolate cake one afternoon in Paris.
“Boys have been wearing skirts for some time now,” he explained. “My three assistants wear mini skirts. They come to work on their motorcycles wearing mini skirts. The French saw the idea on the streets and have done it in better fabrics and now everyone says ‘Ah!’ Men have been buying my women’s coats for years.”
But what about the men who actually have worn skirts? What do they say about the phenomenon?
“It makes me feel free,” said Rodney Martin who is English and was wearing a long white tube skirt one night at Bains Douches, an exciting Paris club.
“It’s a statement by which I can say I am free to do whatever I want. It does cause hostility on the streets, though. Sometimes I keep my coat closed over my skirt so no one will see it. And I do have to sit differently. But it’s not about being a woman.”
Perhaps the comment that best summed up the controversy came from Bernie Ozer, vice president of the American Merchandising Corporation, as he was leaving the Girbaud show. He was wearing a violet paisley tie, a yellow vest, a royal blue shirt, dark trousers and a hat.
“Did you see that loveliness?” he said, indicating the show he had just left. “What? Men in skirts? I’ve been wearing them for years. I told you already. I take the sheets off my bed in hotels and wrap them around me when the waiter comes in.”