Since The Penny Arcade Expo, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with Utilikilts — the skirts for men made up in Seattle that have such a large presence among fans at gaming events. While at PAX, I went around interviewing guys wearing these kilts, asking them: why did they buy them, what do they like about wearing then, what do they wear under them. I recently put together a piece for Wired on the topic, so I got to talk to Mr. Utilikilts himself, Steven Villegas, who told me he’s sold more than 100,000 skirts since he opened shop eight years ago. That’s a lot of dorks — gamers of otherwise — to be wearing the heavy-duty equivalent of a school girl’s uniform. When asked if his customers ever had qualms over breaking gender expectations though, Villegas said no way: his target audience already couldn’t care less what the world at large thought of them. Gender expectations be damned!
The trouble is though, I just don’t think that’s true. If you check out the Utilikilts website, you’ll see its approach to gender is loud and clear: manly, manly, manly. No skirt-wearing, effeminate sissies here. Just outdoorsy, tool-loving men. As for the literally hundreds of gamers who wore Utilikilts to PAX, I can’t say they sported as much muscle definition as the guys on the site — but still, as tends to be the case in the video game community, they were guys’ guys. They wore hiking boots and made adorably sleazy comments to me about their underwear (or lack thereof). They wore skirts, but they weren’t girlie.
That’s the thing that really fascinates me about Utilikilts, at least as they interact with gaming. We gamers, as a community, tend to be a heteronormative bunch. We get uncomfortable around gay people and we assert our manhood by raping the corpses of our pixelated opponents. We hate it when people question what it means when we play using beautiful female avatars. Our community is overwhelmingly male, and because society thinks we’re unproductive dorks, our self-esteem is crap, which turns us intolerant fast. So how is it we’re okay with wearing skirts? If I had to guess, I’d say Utilikilts:
1) have been adopted by a very particular subset of the gaming community, one that leans more toward table-top gaming than hardcore video games and therefore has a slightly different, more tolerant character
2) allow male gamers to push gender expectations in the safest way possible — that is, within a testosterone-filled, pro-boy environment in which wearing a kilt is actually consider more manly than wearing pants
3) nonetheless give aforementioned male gamers a possibly subconscious release for their feminine side.
Mr. Utilikilts can spin it any way he wants, but there’s something transgressive about putting a bunch of hot-blooded men in skirts with — more often than not, it seems — no undies on. There’s no way that kind of behavior would be acceptable en masse among gamers unless somebody gave it a macho coating and made it a palatable part of fandom. So thank you, Utilikilts, for letting boys be… well, girls. They may never admit it, but I think they needed it.