During the holiday season, it's a plaid, plaid, plaid, plaid world. As a safely nondenominational way to express winter holiday zeal, tartan festoons everything from elf jumpers to cookie tins. But this year I have a newfound respect for the power of plaid. Armed with a tartan, a man can be a fierce kilted warrior straight out of "Braveheart." Without it, he comes across as a husky middle-school librarian with a 5 o'clock shadow.
I know this because, for several hours on a recent November night, I skirted the issue. And let me tell you, there's nothing cool or remotely Mel Gibsonesque about a balding, overweight 38-year-old man strutting down Wilshire Boulevard in a gray wool skirt.
OK, technically it was a kilt. It wrapped around the front, buckled on the side and had deep pleats in the back. It had a macho-looking kilt pin shaped like a lightning bolt, and the garment required a manly eight yards of cloth the way a traditional kilt should. But without a tartan pattern telegraphing its Scottish pedigree, let's face it: I was wearing a skirt.
My reaction apparently is common. "You have to accept the kilt as a skirt," says Howie Nicholsby, the 25-year-old creator and designer of 21st Century Kilts, a Scotland-based company, and a third-generation kilt-maker.
Nicholsby says this with confidence. Equal parts Vin Diesel and Adam Sandler, the sturdy Scot breezes into the room wearing an Army fatigue jacket, black boots, scrunched-down black socks, a T-shirt and a denim kilt that falls just below the knee. He's been pants-free for the last five years. On him, a kilt looks natural.
I'd sought out Nicholsby to outfit me for a "Dressed to Kilt" party and fashion show held last month at the Wiltern Theater to benefit the Friends of Scotland, a nonprofit group whose purpose is to "advance contemporary Scottish interests in the U.S." It seems the predominant "Scottish interest" is convincing American men that the kilt is a viable--and sexy--wardrobe option.
To my surprise, Nicholsby had a kilt and matching jacket to fit my outsized frame. The clothes had been commissioned by a famous longhaired, kilt-wearing British architect named Roderick Gradidge, who had the misfortune of passing away before he could claim the ensemble. Unfortunately for me, this dead man didn't wear plaid. The entire outfit was made from lightweight, gray worsted wool.
When I stepped out of the fitting room, you could have heard a kilt pin drop. While I'd hoped to look like a whiskey label fellow (and would have settled for the bagpiping behemoth from the Austin Powers movies), what I saw looking back at me was Mrs. Doubtfire.
But after checking out some of the other pleated creations by Nicholsby and his team, I realized I could have done worse. Nicholsby pulled a pink transparent kilt from a trunk, followed by one in glittery silver PVC. "I got bored with tartans," he explained. Pointing to a blue spandex number with the words "21st Century Kilts" shaped into a red-and-yellow Superman logo, Nicholsby said, "I'd like to get that one on Eminem."
After joining his family's kilt-making business, Nicholsby says, "I had no idea I was going to start a separate range, but I had a feeling that there could be more to kilt wearing than just tartan. People could wear camouflage, denim, all sorts of different things." It can't hurt his cause that the venerable Scottish garment has recently been on the hips and lips of popular culture. Last month, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art tackled the kilt's societal implications with an exhibit titled "Bravehearts: Men in Skirts." Days after the show opened, Vin Diesel wore a black leather 21st Century Kilt to the MTV Europe Music Awards in Edinburgh.
Closer to home, Hollywood has been toying with the trend, starting with last fall's movie "Formula 51," whose tag line was: "Nice wheels. Dirty deals. And one mean mother in a kilt." Not only did actor Samuel L. Jackson sport the skirt throughout the film, but he strutted down the red carpet wearing one at the film's premiere. More recently in "Intolerable Cruelty," a kilt-clad George Clooney says "I do" to Catherine Zeta-Jones.None of this mattered to my fashion-writer wife, who looked at the Scottish me with an expression of palpable horror."You're not going out in that," she said. After much wheedling, and a promise to pretend that I didn't know her once we were out in public, she relented on the condition that I swap the gray jacket and vest for a blue tweed jacket from my own closet. "To draw attention away from that," she said, waving a hand at my lower torso.
When Nicholsby saw me at the event, he clapped me heartily on the shoulder and asked, "What happened to the rest of the outfit?" When I explained, he adjusted my kilt, pulled my socks down a little and said, "Well, it's all about being comfortable then, isn't it?"
It is all about being comfortable, which is why I spent the evening self-consciously dodging the draft, perched on a bar stool with my legs crossed. After the event, I immediately went home to change into a trusty pair of two-leggers. It was time to get out of the skirt and into the Scotch.
But for the more confident Angeleno, emboldened and ready to trade in his trousers, there has never been a better time. Tartans traditionally represent clan or familial affiliation, but if your lineage is Scot-free, an official Los Angeles tartan designed by Lochcarron of Scotland was unveiled at the Dressed to Kilt event. Nicholsby and company have just added L.A. as a regular stop on their bespoke kilt circuit, and their next visit is scheduled for early February. Be prepared to wait six to eight weeks for the finished product. If you're looking for a traditional kilt a bit quicker and closer to home, Bonbright Woolens in Woodland Hills can custom-make one in about three weeks.
While a guy may not have to look like Samuel L. Jackson or Vin Diesel to carry off the kilt look, it helps. And if I ever leave the house with eight yards of wool wrapped around my midriff again, you can bet your bagpipes it's going to be a tartan.
Bonbright Woolens, Woodland Hills, (818) 716-0963; 21st Century Kilts, www.21stcenturykilts.co.uk, from the U.S. call (800) 566-1467; Locharron of Scotland, www.lochcarron.com, from the U.S. call (603) 356-3369.