The Tactical Kilt Dialectic

The idea that tough men can't wear skirts is an oppression that goes back beyond recorded history to the animal kingdom itself.

The scene: a man running through a remote desert landscape. The obstacle: a prickly cactus. His task: to jump over it.

So begins a video released by the company 5.11 Tactical, purveyor of rugged gloves, clothes, packs, and other gear designed to get law-enforcement and military types through the roughest of scrapes. Except in this situation, the man’s tactical garment threatens to result in a very rough scrape, indeed: He is wearing a knee-length, khaki-colored kilt.

With a whoosh, our protagonist, who is actually former 5.11 product developer Dave Rhoden, clears the succulent and narrowly avoids a vasectomy-by-shrub. (Thanks in part, perhaps, to the black bicycle shorts he has on underneath, a glimpse of which the viewer catches as he lands.) The rest of the spot unfurls like an ode to masculinity: Rhoden and his co-star, Dropkick Murphys bagpipe player Scruffy Wallace, shoot cannons in kilts, rappel down buildings in kilts, blow up cars in kilts, and jump out of airplanes in kilts—that time with blurring pixels taking the place of latex shorts. At the end, Rhoden warns the viewer not to try “any of this at home.” And yet, “if you have the chops to wear a kilt and make a video, we would love to see it.” In other words: Top this.

The video perfectly encapsulates the ostentatious, yet still very niche, rise of the Male Unbifurcated Garment. Once sported mainly only by Prince Charles during his Highland vacations and by the most gregarious theater guy during senior prom, man-skirts can now be spotted at Crossfit gyms, hacker conferences, and other refuges of the unusual and the manly. With just a few yards of fabric, the kilt projects many of the qualities the modern man aspires to: self-assuredness, individuality, and, in more ways than one, freedom.

“On one level, you’re showing some vulnerability, but you’re confident enough to wear something different,” says Tom Davin, CEO of the Southern California-based 5.11 Tactical. Davin recently attended a Crossfit “throwdown” wearing a kilt, and he outmatched several rivals. “A few people said, ‘It’s bad enough you kicked our butt in our workout, but you were wearing a kilt.’”

What started it all was another of the company’s kilt videos. In early 2012, Davin though it might be fun to pull an April Fool’s prank. After batting around a few ideas (tactical golf bag?), he and his designers landed on creating a tactical kilt. They had a sample made at a small sewing shop in Modesto. The April Fool’s video looked more like a low-budget infomercial: It starred a slender, kilt-clad man who, after some light parkour, strolled through some regular-guy tasks like answering a phone and going to a bar. A voice-over touts pockets that are positioned at the same level as on the company’s tactical pants—“for consistency in training.”

“People who wear kilts, kiltsmen, tend to be pretty serious about their kilts,” Davin says. “We had to walk a fine line about making a kilt that’s tongue in cheek and not offending people who like or wear kilts.”

As Davin remembers it, the company’s Twitter and Facebook accounts “blew up” the following morning. Some men didn’t get the joke and were confused when they attempted to place an order for a product that didn’t exist. Others got the gag but wanted one, regardless.

Davin scrambled to take pre-orders, and more than 2,000 flowed in. The kilts didn’t ship until the following September. Since then, the company has sold about 8,000 kilts at $60 a pop.

The kilts, Davin says, are big in the Tough Mudder community (because mobility), and in warm climates (because ventilation), and in the kettlebell community (because kettlebells).

I asked what “tactical” means, and Davin said it’s just “gear that helps me perform and be ready for any kind of a mission.” The kilts come in a variety of colors, including a camouflage that looks like trees, a camouflage that looks like rocks, and a tan hue called “Coyote.” It has plenty of pockets, metal loops for hooking things into, and a waterfall of pleats down the back.

Regarding the sub-kilt attire, Davin says he will leave that question “to the individual operator.” Despite rumors about kilt-wearers, the Scottish Tartans Authority warns that going kilt-commando is actually "childish and unhygienic.” 5.11 sells boxer-briefs for the modest kiltsman, though presumably this will result in reduced airflow.

If one had to write a Ph.D. dissertation on the appeal of kilts among modern men, the literature review would likely include: the movie Braveheart; a willingness to turn a blind eye toward everything Mel Gibson has done since Braveheart; the resurgence of artisanal activities like pickling and woodworking; the enduring allure of the Scottish people, itself potentially propelled by the Outlander book series; and the Syfy series Tin Man, in which kilts are worn by some of the peasant characters. Perhaps the Goth and cross-dressing cultures played a role, too, though to a casual observer it would appear that Davin and his crew have little else in common with those groups.

For true mastery of the subject, one would have to investigate the noble, yet ultimately futile, battle of Dean Peterson, a mail carrier who fought for the right of postal workers to wear kilts in 2008; or the perfect, yet terrifying, bone structure of Kyle MacLachlan.

Also worth mentioning is the psychological phenomenon of enclothed cognition, in which certain wearable talismans—a lab coat, or a pair of Lululemon pants, or a garment traditionally associated with a fearsome and proud people of the North—can help us overcome insecurities and perform better.

One could also read Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men and consider how, as women have become by some measures the majority of college students and workers, and have even edged their way into front-line military combat and onto the blood-soaked floors of world-renowned pig butcheries, that there’s no longer anything special about “wearing the pants.” So why wear them?

(One is no doubt also familiar with the mancession, manscaping, manopause, and the mancold, among other manomena.)

Perhaps kilts follow the same arc as lumbersexuals, which, as Willa Brown wrote for our site recently, arose because “the ‘traditional’ role of the man as the primary provider is now firmly out of reach for most Americans. Which is why it seems particularly apt that (mostly) white, young, urban, middle-class men have once again picked up a symbol invented in the early 20th century by men very much like themselves, a symbol that has long been gathering dust.”

And guess which symbol is even more manly than a wood axe?

Or maybe, one needs to bring it down a notch, because if one’s readers had wanted a crash course in the Gendered Anthropology of Clothing, they would have taken it back at Rutgers. After all, people everywhere do inscrutable things together as groups, as evidenced by Black Friday or Super Bowl Sunday or the chanting at the end of yoga classes. Banding together, especially while still standing out, is fun and feels good and feeds our shared sense of humanity.

“The minute someone says, ‘I’m going to wear my kilt to the Tough Mudder, or the Crossfit throwdown, or to the office on Friday,’” Davin says, “it’s, ‘If you wear your kilt, I’ll wear mine, and then we’ll both be badasses.’”