“Musette” ensemble from John Paul Gaultier’s “Ze Parisienne” haute couture spring-summer collection of 2002. Beaded sailor-striped sweater, black stretch wool pantskirt. © Patrice Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier (Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum) A design from Jean Paul Gaultier’s “Raw and Refined” men’s ready-to-wear spring-summer collection of 1994, as seen at his thirtieth anniversary retrospective runway show, October 2006. (Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum) St├ęphane Sednaoui (French, b. 1963). Special Gaultier Exposure Magazine, 1988. Jean-Paul Gaultier’s “Rock Stars” men’s ready-to-wear fall-winter collection of 1987–88. Model: Tanel Bedrossiantz. © 1988, St├ęphane Sednaoui. (Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum) Ellen Von Unwerth (German, b. 1954). Survivors (Laetitia Casta, Vladimir McCary, Jenny Shimizu), 1998. Digital photo. © Ellen Von Unwerth. Jean Paul Gaultier’s “Tattoos” women’s spring-summer ready-to-wear collection of 1994. (Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum) A pinstripe suit at the Gaultier exhibit (Photo courtesy of SHARONAGOTT) A Vivienne Westwood men's dancing outfit, AW 2000 (Photo courtesy of nicolecolecole) Kanye West in Givenchy (Photo courtesy of Ian T. McFarland) A$AP Rocky in Ann Demeulemeester on 106 & Park (Photo courtesy of John Ricard/BET) KTZ SS14 collection KTZ SS14 collection KTZ SS14 collection Hood by Air SS14 collection Luar Zepol FW13 collection Luar Zepol FW13 collection Jeremy Scott SS13 collection Jeremy Scott SS13 collection   KTZ fringe skirt with leggings in black

A History of the Man-Skirt

BY Alice Hines | Wed. November 6, 2013 | 12:00 AM | A la Mode
Among the treasures on display at the new Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum is a myriad of man-skirts: knee-length kilts, silky scarf-tunics, “pantskirts” with sailor buttons. Gaultier is credited with being the first modern designer to send skirts for men down the runway in 1984, an event which sent the fashion world into uproar. ''It is the most important thing to happen in fashion in the past 20 years!'' Daniel Hechter, a French designer, told the New York Times that year. “I remember when it was scandal for women to wear pants.”

But on a recent Saturday at the Gaultier exhibit, visitors seemed more ruffled by Madonna cone bras and vinyl dominatrix suits than man-skirts, if the level of camera-phone frenzy was any indication. All of this made me ponder: how scandalous are skirts for men really these days? With Kanye West and A$AP Rocky regularly rocking skirt-like bottoms and a slew of new designers experimenting with the garments, has the power of man-skirts to shock and transgress become a thing of the past?

For Gaultier, putting a man in a skirt is about blurring gender roles. “Men, as well as women, can want couture designs; they can also desire luxurious clothes made by hand,” reads a Gaultier quote on one of the museum’s plaques. “I don’t believe that fabrics have a gender, any more than certain garments do,” states another. Dozens of other designers share Gaultier’s perspective that skirts make men's fashion fun and experimental: Vivienne Westwood, Dries Van Noten, and Walter van Beirendonck have all featured versions, and of course there’s Marc Jacobs, who wears them himself. (“I wear now mostly Prada pencil skirts,” he told CNN.)

Outside the world of fashion, though, man-skirts have remained a bit of an oddity. In 2003, when the Met's Costume Institute showcased an exposition on the topic, a New York Times reporter spent a day walking around Brooklyn in a Gaultier number. After being mocked by several teenage girls, he concluded that the Met's "so-called new masculinity was all just academic theory..." Indeed, those few man-skirt brands outside of the high fashion universe take great care to emphasize old-school manliness––think shirtless dudes in kilts doing construction projects––as if to convince potential buyers they’ll look more like Mel Gibson in Braveheart than Marc Jacobs.

Lately, though, the man-skirt stigma seems to be waning. Oodles of new designers, many of them carried by Opening Ceremony, are experimenting with skirts that appeal to young straight dudes and hip-hop artists as much as gender bending fashion figures. For men's SS13, Jeremy Scott designed an arabic scarf-esque skirt, while streetwear labels Hood by Air and KTZ have done tunics and robes for the past few seasons. And of course, there's the Givenchy leather skirt which arguably sparked the trend, famously sported by Kanye West.

Unlike their counterparts in the 80s and 90s, the new generation of man-skirts can be hard to spot among the tunics, drop-crotch pants, and baggy shorts also popular with guys these days. When David Beckham wore a Gaultier sarong in 1998, there was little argument over what it was. Meanwhile, when A$AP Rocky appeared on TV last winter wearing a longish Ann Demeulemeester shirt, the blogosphere erupted in debate over whether or not it was a dress. A$AP used the opportunity to voice his opinion that you should “express yourself, wear what you want [and]... be the person that starts the trend.” 

If the A$AP dress debacle shows anything, it's that men's clothing is more diversified than ever before, with no longer just pants and shorts to choose from but a host of skirts, leggings, shirts, and everything in between. Man-skirts are perhaps no longer as transgressive as they were in 1984, but it's because they blend in better than ever in the wardrobe of the modern dude. Which––whether you're macho or girly, gay or straight––seems to be getting freer and more experimental by the season. So even if man-skirts no longer stick out at a museum exhibit, that’s something Gaultier would celebrate.

"The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier" runs through February 23 at the Brooklyn Museum.