Of all the menswear garments ever invented, trousers are, let's face it, the least likely to fall into disuse. At the moment, certainly, when it comes to covering up one's legs, men in the Western world simply don't have any choice in the matter. It's bifurbication or nothing at all. While women can now stride or totter at will in either trousers or skirts, men are obliged by an iron-clad social convention to separate their legs or risk taunts of transvestism. The Scottish kilt is apparently the only exception to this rule, and even then it's an exceptional sight on the streets of Glasgow.
Men in skirts are a taboo. And as fashion designers in Milan this week send out menswear collections which will be hitting stores next winter, it's a timely reminder of the conservatism that dominates male dress, both in society at large and on the fashion runways. Many menswear designers are thriving on these limitations. Some will concentrate their creative efforts on quirky printed linings and eccentric colourways. Stealthier types, like Marc Jacobs, seek out ever-more lavish ways to make otherwise ordinary garments (a v-neck sweater, a pair of corduroy trousers) into the epitome of understated luxury by using high-grade cashmere and silk.
But there are a handful of menswear designers who are committed to questioning the very fundamentals of dress. The monopoly of trousers over skirted garments is a provocative challenge to any rigorous mind. Vivienne Westwood, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Giorgio Armani are among those irreverent enough to regularly present male skirts on the catwalk. Far from designing men's pencil skirts or masculine minis, however, they couch their skirted garments in references to Oriental sarongs, kaftans and kimonos. What can appear at first to be a rather forthright challenge to masculinity is then reconfigured as an adventure in free-spirited fashion tourism. From an anecdotal point of view, it seems that more men are happy to slouch around on a tropical beach wearing a sarong than would care to admit it - they can always blame their skirted appearance on too much sun and multiple banana daiquiris.
But the male skirt is not always such a gimmicky proposal, nor one that is so far removed from everyday life. Yohji Yamamoto designed the skirt photographed opposite. He is, of course, one of fashion's most thorough and challenging designers - yet his clothes are rarely so laden with concepts as to preclude normal wear. For his spring/summer 2004 collection, Yamamoto stuck to an almost exclusively skirted silhouette. His preference for monochromes, for elegant understatement and for presenting his clothes on older men and "real" people is well known and, in these respects, for his latest collection he adhered to his own traditions. But his new vision of skirted men did raise a few eyebrows. By the time the last model - an elderly Rastafarian gentleman with a cane, for the record - exited the runway, it became clear that Yamamoto wanted to make a genuine proposal for the male skirt. …