I wore a skirt to work on Friday, okay? Laugh all you want. It was a kilt, to be precise, but I know that many of my fellow New Yorkers won’t bother with the distinction. Whatever. The kilt was breezy, even in the stale July heat. It was better than shorts. Way better than pants. So, as I said, mock me with abandon, but know that it won’t make a difference. Because I was the one who benefited from excellent air circulation, not to mention a stylish tartan.
The kilt-wearing experiment was my own quite public response to the anxiety about men wearing shorts in the workplace, which flares up in direct proportion to Manhattan temperatures. The Awl editor Choire Sicha, who had previously lectured that “Tom Ford says [shorts] are only for the beach or the tennis court,” admitted to wearing a pair last Monday, before the temperatures reached the upper bounds of the 90s.
I'm wearing shorts. #misandry— Choire Sicha (@Choire) July 15, 2013
Hamilton Nolan of Gawker took a more emphatic tone, urging, “Wear shorts all you want. Especially when it is hot.” The Atlantic Wire’s own Rebecca Greenfield, meanwhile, went for a sensible middle-of-the road approach: “The next few days will be so hot that you should really get over the whole too-cool for shorts thing and embrace bare calves over suffocating in full length pants.”
As a matter of fact, I do want my calves exposed. Ankles, too. Knees, even. But, being a rather inveterate snob, I can’t help but think of shorts as juvenile beachwear, the very name connoting a neutered garment – trousers circumcised, if you will. That’s why I chose the kilt, which was first worn in the Scottish Highlands in 16th century. While shorts are ahistorical and acultural, the kilt signifies an appreciation of the past. The dark blue and green pattern of the kilt I purchased belonged to the Black Watch, an elite Scottish regiment (which was the subject of an acclaimed 2006 play about British soldiers in Iraq by Gregory Burke). So, from a cultural perspective, a kilt was far easier to justify than, say, a pair of Abercrombie & Fitch cargo shorts, even if the former might look, upon first glance, like a women’s garment.
Which brings me to an important point: people will look. Some might outright stare. Snicker, comment, mock. But these are the wages of keeping cool. Besides, as I discovered on my day of the kilt, most New Yorkers have encountered enough varieties of strangeness to not pay too much mind to a man wearing what may or may not be a skirt. Once, on the corner of Spring and Lafayette, right outside The Wire’s offices, a gentleman asked me if I was Irish. I did not bother to correct his cultural misplacement. A little later that same day, two Midwestern-seeming youths said loudly, as I passed, that the people-watching in New York was “awesome.” If they were talking about me, then I was happy to oblige. But this was SoHo, where there were far more interesting characters than a guy in a black t-shirt tucked into a kilt, and I don’t want to be so vain as to presume I was the sole subject of their curiosity.
A skirt, in the end, is just a skirt. Besides, as far as kilts go, my own traditional Scottish number was far less controversial than Kanye West’s leather one. Nor am I the very first person to wear a loose-hanging conical garment around his waist in New York. The literary man-about-town Jon-Jon Goulian chronicled his childhood and emergence on New York's cultural scene in 2011's The Man in the Grey Flannel Skirt. He did not, however, want to discuss kilts, telling me last week, "there's only so much brain space I can spare for any one thing in my life, and dudes in skirts has taken up far more than its share." To which I say, fair enough. The man has paid his dues.
As far as my office mates – who did not know I would be arriving in a kilt – most of them did not care beyond expressing some mild curiosity.
“Did people say stuff on the subway to you?”
They did not. It was hot and early. Nobody cared.
“Does it have pockets?”
An internal pouch in the front, which was not all that useful, though it could fit both my wallet and iPhone. It is possible, however, to outfit your kilt with additional pockets.
“Aren’t you supposed to wear one of those fur bags?”
No. (And the bag is called a sporran, for what it's worth.) I was not playing dress-up-as-a-Highlander. Instead, I wanted to be comfortable at work without succumbing to the lowbrow short. Moreover, I had read that kilts are beneficial to men’s health, though the full benefits of kilts can only be obtained by not wearing underwear, which practice I abstained from for reasons of good taste.
I should caution, however, that before donning a kilt to work, men should check with their workplace about general sartorial guidelines. I, for one, first confirmed that Atlantic Media — The Wire's parent group — had no injunction against men wearing shorts or kilts. Some workplaces, however, could be more conservative in their dress codes. Yet, as a lawyer familiar with employment law told me, a man who was subject to disciplinary measures for wearing a kilt could potentially have grounds to file a complaint if he were “a person of Scottish descent and [he] routinely wore kilts as an expression of [his] Scottish heritage.” In addition, he suggested that any workplace that allowed women to wear skirts would have to allow men to wear kilts or potentially face a sex discrimination suit.
I am happy to report that I encountered no discrimination whatsoever on my day of wearing a kilt at The Wire's offices. Made by the Southern California company Sport Kilt, the kilt is woven from poly-acrylic fiber that feels like wool, but is much lighter. I certainly did not get hot walking around in viscous heat that approached triple digits; if anything, the office’s air conditioning actually chilled my legs – a strange sensation for your average trouser-wearing male.
Nevertheless, I encountered some skepticism from my male colleagues to the kilt as an everyday choice. While they were perfectly fine with my having donned one, they did not appear ready to follow my lead. The political reporter Philip Bump told me "Nope" when I asked him if he would ever consider wearing a kilt. Alexander Abad-Santos, a culture reporter, was curious but ultimately unconvinced: "I guess the only situation that might goad me into wearing a kilt is if it were very hot outside, and the kilt could give my sweaty thighs some kind of relief. But, aren't they made of wool? Isn't that warm? Yeah, no thanks." Others expressed similar reservations – though nothing more serious than that.
Nolan, the Gawker writer who urged people to swear shorts, also proved to be a skeptic when it came to kilts, telling me in an email, "I would say I am opposed unless the man is physically located in Scotland." That would, on the face of it, rule out both Manhattan and my beloved Brooklyn.
But others are starting to see the kilt as a potential summer option:
Suddenly it is cool like fall downtown and I'm loving it. Should have worn a suit and not that kilt I got during last week's heat wave.— Richard Hillier (@richardpaulhill) July 22, 2013
I realize that my kilt experiment won’t solve the shorts debate, which moved from the office cubicle to the church pew over the weekend. The kilt, rather, is a way to avoid that debate entirely – all while keeping cool and comfortable.
Photos: AP; Wikimedia Commons; Eric Levenson