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Men in Kilts

A quest to figure out why since the turn of the 21st century, there’s been a marked increase in American men in tartan that cuts off at the knees

I haven’t worn a pair of pants in nearly two weeks. Instead, every morning for the last 13 days, I’ve strapped on a Wallace Tartan Sport Kilt — named after one of Scotland’s greatest national heroes — despite having zero Scottish blood in my veins. Rather, my interest in the unbifurcated life was born in a decidedly less brave-hearted realm — the International Bear Convergence in Palm Springs — where I stumbled upon a RAV4 in the parking lot with a license plate reading “KILTER,” the frame of which explains that “the driver is one who wears a kilt.”

When The Kilter emerges from the vehicle — James Jernigan, a well-built 57-year-old software developer from nearby Cathedral City — he’s actually wearing a thong (it’s a gay bear pool party, after all), but I nonetheless inquire about the vanity plate. Turns out it’s referencing his 20-plus kilts at home, which in the sweltering Palm Springs summer months are pretty much all he wears. Still, I wonder aloud why a middle-aged gay man who works at Bank of America owns two dozen kilts.

“Two words,” he explains matter-of-factly. “Hangin’ free.”

Or regimented, as Scots refer to the practice of commando kilting.

A brief Scottish cultural history lesson: The kilt was originally a course brown and green woolen blanket, dyed using natural vegetable oils, explains Douglas Robertson, a professor of social sciences at the University of Stirling in Scotland. Its significance dates back hundreds of years, adds Alyssa Hamilton with the Kilt Society in Edinburgh. Originating in the Highlands, Hamilton says the “Great Kilt” was a practical garment whose upper half could be worn as a cloak, draped over the shoulder; as a hood, draped over the head; or even as a blanket at bedtime. The kilts we see today are essentially the bottom half of that Great Kilt.

I ask Robertson if Americans should be wary of appropriating such a beloved Scottish garment, but he shakes it off. “Tartan is ubiquitous and universal,” he answers. “While the kilt is indeed part of Scottish identity, it’s for everyone to wear. So Americans are more than welcome to strap one on.” Many other cultures have as well. For instance, school girls throughout Spain have traditionally worn tartan dresses; Indian regiments in the Raj wore kilts and played the bagpipes; Japanese fashion has long embraced the kilt; and tartan bondage trousers were core to the identity of many London punks.

But again, for Jernigan, the key to kilting is no undies. After all, he says wearing underwear beneath the bottom half of a Great Kilt would essentially transform it into a skirt, since the only distinction between kilts and skirts are that kilts are pleated in the back. Plus, as everyone knows, a “True Scotsman” wouldn’t be caught dead wearing boxer briefs under his kilt. And so, as a self-proclaimed recreational nudist, Jernigan prefers to complement his nighttime kilt with only shoes and socks and patronize establishments that permit shirtlessness. “That way, it almost feels like I’m wearing nothing at all,” he says with a grin. “It’s really hard to put pants back on after tasting that level of freedom.”

He’s not the only American to have reached this conclusion either — he’s not even the only senior IT specialist. Mikeal St. Ayre, a 50-year-old self-identifying “bi/pansexual” in Lowell, Massachusetts, wears a kilt “seven days a week, 365 days a year, except if I happen to be doing Mad Max cosplay.” The biggest benefit to kilting in his estimation is the lack of wear-and-tear on his wardrobe and nether regions, noting a lifetime of frustration with pants that ride up the crotch and split at the knees. “That doesn’t happen with a kilt,” he assures me.

Since the turn of the 21st century both St. Ayre and Jernigan have noticed a marked increase in kilted American men, albeit for varying reasons, which they mainly attribute to a growing acceptance of nontraditional clothing; the embrace of gender nonconformity; and most significantly, the accessible price point of offerings from the likes of Sport Kilt, Utilikilts and cheap imports from Pakistan, the latter of which can be found for as little as $100 for a box of 10.

As a result, Kevin Thompson — a 43-year-old author of Kiltology Volume 1: Words of Wisdom for the Kilted Universe and Kiltology Volume 2: A Few Drams Later, a combined 700-page collection of years’ worth of daily posts about kilts — believes there’s “no doubt” we’re approaching peak kilt in America today. “Just look back 15 years to when I started wearing a kilt,” he suggests. “You’d be hard-pressed to find it in popular culture outside of Scottish celebrities. Now the lead singer from Korn wears a kilt. Snoop Dogg’s in a kilt. Most fashion shows will invariably include some version of a kilt. And on the red carpet, odds are someone’s gonna try to do something kilt-related to garner attention.”

In 2007, Thompson sought to garner some communal attention by forming the Brotherhood of the Kilt, “an organization dedicated to the kilt and the people who wear it,” hoping to build a community of men (and a few women) who provide and receive support from likeminded individuals. Twelve years later, he appears to have succeeded: The Facebook group has more than 5,000 members — and an additional couple thousand on the website — both of which Thompson proudly notes have “grown significantly in recent months.”

Still, when wearing a kilt in public, he warns, “You’re going to be asked things like, ‘Do you know Bob McDonald (or someone else’s name). He lives 80 miles from you. Do you hang out on a regular basis? I heard he has a kilt.’ That happens fairly often. Generally, the answer is no. But it does give you a little insight so you can say, ‘Hey, wait a minute! There’s another guy in a kilt that I haven’t met in the area?!’”

To help my legs breathe a little, Jernigan encourages me to order a $50 starter kilt from Sport Kilt, which arrives in a tartan-designed box emblazoned with the words, “BRAVERY INCLUDED.”

Sport Kilt — the first company to make casual kilts in America — is the brainchild of James Ansite, a former competitive cyclist who founded the brand in 1996 after hand-sewing his first kilt with his father on a ping-pong table in their Seal Beach, California, garage. When I reach the 40-year-old on the phone, he applauds my Wallace Tartan purchase. “It takes guts to wear a kilt so kudos to you,” he commends, recalling how as a rebellious teen, he enviously watched Axl Rose wear a kilt on stage in the late 1980s. “It was something totally out of the ordinary, but I figured people wear kilts all the time in Scotland, so why can’t I?” Likewise, he remembers trying one on for the first time and realizing, “So this is why women wear skirts…”

His friends also thought it was cool and asked him to make a few more, which he did. Thanks to his cycling connections, Sport Kilt was featured in a racing catalog and quickly became a top-selling item, leading to a partnership with the Highland Games, the primitive Scottish athletic competition featuring events like caber toss, tug o’ war and the hammer throw.

It was a perfect match, since Highland athletes are typically required to compete in kilts, which traditionally cost more than $500. Ansite, however, offered his for the low, low price of $69 in return for a well-placed booth near the beer garden. “[The partnership] actually helped grow the sport tremendously since it enabled people to purchase a kilt and not mind if they ruined it in the mud,” he says.

Things took off from there, expanding the popularity of kilts in America from cyclists and hammer throwers to marathoners, powerlifters, mixed martial artists and the general public. Before long, other American kilt companies formed, including USA Kilts, one of which I rented as the best man at a wedding a couple of years ago, and Utilikilt, a range of tartan-free offerings with much-needed pockets.

I just didn’t like plaid,” says Steven “Krash” Villegas, Utilikilt’s 51-year-old founder who was dying from the heat while busking in Barcelona in 2000 when a thought popped into his head: I wish I was wearing a kilt right now. And so, when he returned to his native Seattle, he designed a kilt based on his military fatigues and added a zipper. “It was pretty cool, like jeans on top that just opened and pleated. I incorporated an anatomical snap design that made sense, and it caught on like wildfire.”

By 2007, though, things were burning a bit too hot for Villegas, so he downsized his staff, production and distribution. “The clothing business is treacherous water laden with sharks and slave labor,” he says. “I had a feeling some global wholesale conglomerate would swoop in and try to modernize it and ruin what attracted free-spirited men looking for something different that not everyone had the balls to wear.”

Some balls, like those belonging to Byron Hunt — a 42-year-old painter and cultural anthropologist in San Diego — were so big that he couldn’t wear anything but kilts. Tartan-clad since 2007, Hunt tells me he’s always found pants to be uncomfortable due to his massive testicles. “[Pants] pinch me and cut off circulation when I sit down,” he explains, adding that on long road trips, “one nut would inevitable go to sleep.”

Needless to say, Hunt found the kilt to be liberating. (Or as St. Ayre tells me, “It constricts neither bag nor pipes.”) Identifying an ideal brand ambassador, Villegas enlisted Hunt — and others like him — to lead grassroot sales efforts, spreading the tartan gospel nationwide. “I’ve sold hundreds and hundreds of those things at Coachella, Comic-Con and South by Southwest,” Hunt says. “A lot of unpleasant conditions are caused by having things packed too tightly down there. I’m sure some guys are too embarrassed to admit to having the same problem I do, but I think it’s more common than we realize.”

As for my own kilt-clad nuts, while I’m not sexually attracted to the X chromosome, it’s certainly taken a greater interest in me over the past two weeks — a development that I wholly credit to the tartan wrapped around my waist. Several female coworkers I’d never even spoken to before approached me and asked — in the middle of the workplace — if I was wearing underwear. That has more to do with the attitude that goes along with the kilt (#bigkiltenergy?) than the garment itself, explains romance novelist Katie MacAlister, author of Men in Kilts, who admits to me that the sight of a man in a kilt is “guaranteed to turn my knees into pudding.”

While I mostly found it amusing — perhaps due to the confusing relationship gay men and straight women have when it comes to sexual harassment — Thomas has run out of patience with the female interest in what he’s wearing underneath his kilt. “Imagine if I turned the question back on her and said, ‘What are you wearing underneath your skirt right now?’ I’d get slapped at the very least — and rightly so.”

And yet, it doesn’t stop there. “They say things like, ‘Well, look at what you’re wearing. You should expect it,’” Thomas continues. “I’m like, ‘Okay, whatever. But I’m at Walmart with my kids right now trying to buy bread and milk. Leave me alone.” Especially when out at the bar, Hunt hears a variation on the same theme: “So, what do you have on under there?”

“I tell them the truth,” he says.

“Socks and shoes.”