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As Michael saunters through a Marina coffeehouse, a boothful of tourists stop their conversation. They look, look away, and look again. One man seems to want to say something but develops an uncertain smirk instead.
Michael is wearing a skirt. He's accustomed to stares. "My wife actually worries more about people's reactions than I do," he shrugs.
A growing number of men are reasserting their right to wear an article of clothing that has been socially off-limits to Western men for several centuries. No, it's not a drag thing. It's a grass-roots movement to change men's fashion. Got a problem with that? Sorry; they don't really care.
"I'm not going to be a wussbag, and I'm not going to change myself to suit someone else," says Michael. "That's just the way I am. Maybe I'm a little belligerent, but I don't appreciate people telling me what to do."
Michael (his wife asked that his real name not be used) is a 25-year-old doctor interning in S.F., and he's been wearing skirts for a little over a year. One of the main reasons he does so, he says, is that skirts are a lot more comfortable than pants. A number of skirted men mentioned this but were coy when asked to elaborate.
"Think about the difference between girls' bicycles and boys' bicycles," hinted one guy.
Another, however, was refreshingly blunt. "Testicles were meant to regulate their own temperature," explains Alxander (his spelling), also 25, an engineer at a large S.F.-based Web publication. "That's why boxers are better than briefs. This just takes it a step further. God's own air conditioning."
Since men's fashion currently runs to pinstripes and Dockers, though, it's likely a guy will only pursue this personal liberation if he's already an individualist who thrives on pushing the envelope. " 'Faggot!' is the most common thing that gets yelled out of car windows," says Sean Schur, a computer graphics engineer at Industrial Light and Magic.
Alxander takes attention like this in stride. "It's probably because they thought you had a nice ass, and it turns out you're a guy, so they're annoyed," he theorizes. "But I'm 6 foot 4, so they'd have to have thought I was an Amazon."
Most skirt-inclined guys favor long, loose drapes that convey a certain Old Testament panache. And though some of those partial to shorter skirts -- Michael's wardrobe includes a khaki J. Crew mini -- shave their legs, many don't.
"Screw that!" exclaims Jeremy Bornstein, yanking up his skirt to show off his hairy legs. "It's painful enough for me to shave my face."
Jeremy, a senior research scientist at Apple, confesses that he enjoys "tweaking uptight people," but notes that wearing a skirt has also made him acutely aware of the arbitrary way we codify gender. "It's just a garment," he says. "Inherently, it's meaningless."
"You can't really say a skirt is not a 'male garment,' " concurs Michael. "Besides, in a lot of African countries and in New Zealand and Tahiti, men still wear skirts." In fact alt.fashion, one of his favorite Internet dis-cussion groups, was electrified recently when Bali's top male athletes donned sarongs for the Olympic opening parade.
Spend enough time on-line, and you're likely to meet skirts-for-men evangelist Bill Geurts. The 45-year-old father of four has been wearing skirts for a decade in Portland, Ore. Though he doesn't wear them to work, his colleagues have twigged; one of his cherished office knickknacks is a photo of himself sitting on the hood of his '65 Mustang. In the picture, he's wearing a tennis skirt.
"And by golly," he booms, "after a while people looked at it and said, 'Well! I'll be darned!' "
Skirts for men have become "a cause" for Bill, who's hoping he can organize his fellow skirt-wearers to revolutionize men's fashion. After all, he says, "It's a garment that's been available to us men in the past." He keeps in touch with fellow skirt-wearers in Sweden, New Zealand (where a posse of skirt-wearing men just formed a netball team), and across the United States.
Ultimately, whether skirts for men ever go completely mainstream is beside the point for most of these guys, who admit they're content with their status as fashion iconoclasts.
"My first thought is I don't care," says Jeremy. Besides, adds Sean, right now the skirt-wearing minority enjoys a certain advantage. "I'm not sure if I should be telling you this, but it's really a big turn-on for women -- at least the women I meet," he says. "Probably because it's a bold statement and a gutsy thing to do."
Something does indeed appeal about a guy who's willing to risk being laughed at in order to express himself. Maybe it's a sartorial suggestion of the openheartedness of romance -- who knows?
Of course, the argument can be conceded based on comfort, too.
"Get a guy in a loose silk or cotton skirt in 90-degree heat and a breeze, and they're sold for life," says Alxander. And if anyone's still hesitant, he suggests an even more forthright marketing strategy: "Tell guys it's for their penis, and they'll listen to you.