Skirting: The Issue

Not everyone is cut out to wear skirts. Witness U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who traded in the less-than-flattering skirts she wore as first lady for a more streamlined, elegant look in pants.
Not everyone is cut out to wear skirts. Witness U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who traded in the less-than-flattering skirts she wore as first lady for a more streamlined, elegant look in pants. (By Julie Jacobson -- Associated Press)
By Robin Givhan
Friday, January 27, 2006

This week in New Jersey, a male high school senior won the right to wear a skirt to school. The Associated Press reported that Michael Coviello's skirt fight began when he was barred from wearing shorts. His school district prohibits shorts from Oct. 1 to April 15. But it seemed reasonable to Coviello that since girls could sport skirts and show their legs then boys should be allowed the same privileges.

So Coviello began wearing skirts -- including a kilt -- until he was sent home by his principal.

The American Civil Liberties Union intervened and brokered a compromise. School officials in Hasbrouck Heights did not budge on the shorts ban, but they agreed to allow Coviello his skirts.

This is a rather dubious victory.

While it is admirable that a student fought for and won a kind of gender parity, simply because a fellow has been afforded the right to wear a skirt does not necessarily mean that he should. This is not an issue of boys vs. girls. It's a matter of aesthetics.

Not everyone -- male or female -- belongs in a skirt. Consider Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. After eight years as first lady wearing innumerable skirt suits that did little to flatter her physique, she now wears pants almost exclusively. As a matter of personal style, this is a good thing. The senator looks more streamlined and elegant. And she has not been shy about acknowledging -- rather wryly -- how important her ubiquitous black pantsuit was during her election campaign. Laura Bush once noted that although some Americans prefer to see the first lady in a skirt or dress, she finds trousers far more practical on certain occasions, such as when visiting schools.

Certainly there are some men who look splendid in a skirt. Brad Pitt in "Troy" cut a striking figure with his muscular quads. He might want to consider working a kilt into his everyday new-daddy wardrobe.

Coviello is not a skirt kind of guy. In a photograph documenting his fashion victory, he wears a red plaid kilt with a black "And Justice for All" Metallica T-shirt. Because he is built more like a football player than a sprinter, the skirt dissects his body into unflattering sections. He would be better served if the skirt and T-shirt were in the same color family. Just a suggestion.

Coviello's adopted style calls to mind Axl Rose during his heyday with Guns N' Roses. Coviello is wearing the costume of disgruntled youth. Kurt Cobain may have preferred the baby-doll dress to make his point, but the skirt and T-shirt send a similar message of being disenchanted with the system.

Where Coviello's ensemble goes wrong, however, is with the scuffed New Balance sneakers. They take the tough, rebellious edge off the look and send it spiraling into the land of soft-serve suburbia.

While the wardrobe of skirts is sure to haunt Coviello at his 10th reunion, he deserves the eternal gratitude of the avant-garde designers in the fashion industry. For years they have been trying to encourage men to wear skirts, reminding them that in ancient times and in some non-Western cultures, a man in a skirt is an expression of strength and virility. Designers love the notion of men in kilts and sarongs because it gives them a whole new category of attire with which to tinker. They feign naive confusion about why most Western men refuse to embrace the notion. The reason, of course, is no great mystery: Men are afraid people will laugh.

It is tempting to chuckle at the image of Coviello in his skirt. And truth be told, there was a bit of tittering on our part. It is also tough to get riled up and indignant about students being denied the right to wear shorts to school once the temperature drops. Wouldn't they get cold anyway?

But Coviello makes a reasonable point. Schools should be fair. If girls can wear skirts, then so should boys. Fashion, however, is not fair. And in matters of style, being right is not the same as winning the argument.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company