Throughout the history of Western dress, women have borrowed elements of men's clothing. And yet the reverse has rarely been the case. Nowhere is this asymmetry more apparent than in the taboo surrounding men in skirts. This exhibition examines designers and individuals who have appropriated the skirt as a means of injecting novelty into male fashion, as a means of transgressing moral and social codes, and as a means of redefining an ideal masculinity. In an unprecedented survey of "men in skirts" in historical and crosscultural contexts, the exhibition features more than one hundred items, balancing items drawn from The Costume Institute's permanent collection with loans from cultural institutions and fashion houses in Europe and America.
Beginning with a visual and theoretical presentation of gender-specific clothing, the exhibition explores how certain groups and individuals have promoted the skirt for men as the "future" of menswear. For example, groups such as "hippies" have placed the wearing of skirts in a utopian society in which gender distinctions have been obviated and unisex clothing the norm. This idealized future and the novelty of the skirt form have inspired visionary designers such as Rudi Gernreich and Walter van Beirendonck. By promoting the skirt as an item of utopian wardrobe, these designers present the skirt as a hypothetical ideal.
The exhibition illustrates how skirts have exposed the male leg for display of male prowess throughout history. Skirts worn in ancient Greece and Rome projected the ideals of youth and virility, a form of hyper-masculinity that is also projected by the Scottish kilt. As the exhibition reveals, the kilt has proved to be one of the most potent, versatile, and enduring skirt forms. Designers like Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, and Dries van Noten have often looked to the kilt as a symbol of a natural, uninhibited masculinity. Their work reveals that the ability of the kilt to remain recognizable while responding to changing fashions and consumer demands has been instrumental in maintaining its popularity.
A survey of skirted garments worn in Asia, Africa, and Oceania reveals that there is no natural link between an item of clothing and masculinity and femininity, but instead an arbitrary set of culturally specific associations. The exhibition examines how designers have looked to these cultures for sources of both inspiration and legitimization. In particular, they have focused their "Orientalist gaze" on the Chinese robe, the Japanese kimono, the Indian lungi and jama, the South Asian sarong, and the Middle Eastern and North African caftan or djellaba.
Men who have wished to characterize themselves as resistant, rebellious, or simply contrarian have adopted skirted garments as a sign of their refusal to meet societal expectations. The exhibition concludes with the ways in which various youth and countercultural movements such as punk, grunge, and glam rock have adopted the skirt as a means of transgression and self-expression. Skirts worn by musical icons such as Boy George and Adrian Young of No Doubt are among the highlights of the exhibition.
Designers and fashion houses represented in the exhibition included Miguel Adrover, AmeriKilt, Giorgio Armani, John Bartlett, Ozwald Boateng, Bodymap, Leigh Bowery, Burberry, Roberto Cavalli, Christian Dior Haute Couture, Comme des Garçon, Dolce & Gabbana, Dries van Noten, John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Rudi Gernreich, Tom Ford for Gucci, Tommy Hilfiger, Juicy Couture, Donna Karan, Kenzo, Michiko Koshino, Sandra Kuratle for AMOK, Andrew McKenzie, Alexander McQueen, Moschino Couture, Philip Sallon, Paul Smith, Stuart Stockdale for Pringle of Scotland, Anna Sui, 21st Century Kilts, Utilikilts, Walter van Beirendonck, Vivienne Westwood, and Yohji Yamamoto.
The exhibition is sponsored by Jean Paul Gaultier.