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Thursday, August 8, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Utilikilts: What are you looking at?

Seattle Times staff reporter

Maybe I look like Ed Wood Jr. on the set of "Glen or Glenda?"

Perhaps you've noticed men like me — and they're hard not to notice — walking around in modern-looking kilts. Camouflage, khaki, no tartan, no bagpipes, and they're not skirts ... really.

Are we being infiltrated by McTerrorists or Scottish yuppies? Turns out they're wearing "Utilikilts," from a small Seattle company of the same name. In the spirit of consumer reporting, I'm taking one for a test drive. This one's a breeze.

The store on 15th Avenue West is hard not to notice, too, with "UTILIKILT" painted in enormous shouting letters. About 20 percent of the business — roughly 500 kilts a month — is walk-in. The rest is largely mail-order through a cheeky Web site (www.utilikilts.com).

Inside, the enthusiastic clerk tells me to add two inches to my normal pants size for a Utilikilt. There's a self-esteem builder, right off the bat. Must remember never to ask: Does my butt look big in this?

The only two types in my size: camouflage and black. I pick black. How Seattle. The "original standard" design in cotton twill for $110. Easier to accessorize with, too. The clerk persuades me to throw down another $30 for a wide belt that matches.

I ask, "So, do you wear underpants with them?" This question will haunt me later.

"Nooo! You gotta let the boys go free," the clerk says, sounding a little like Mickey Rourke in "Barfly."

Standing amid all these kilts, the irony hits me like a gust of cold air: I have lived in Scotland and never worn one. The only people I ever saw wearing them there were: a) elderly Scottish men at formal functions, and b) posing young American guys.

Does this make me a poser? Would I wear Utilikente or Utililederhosen? These two yards of pleated fabric contain a multitude of identity issues: being who you are, pretending to be who you're not, and maybe deciding who you want to be. It's worth pointing out that their maker, Steven Villegas, is a white American guy known to sport dreadlocks.

"Welcome to freedom," the clerk says, as I step out into the warm air.

And it feels great. But since when didn't it feel great not to wear pants?

Must remember: Avoid sidewalk grates that will make me look like the transvestite star of "The Seven Year Itch."

'See for yourself'

The first reaction sets the tone. My girlfriend says it looks cute, then reminds me not to shut my "dress" in the car door.

Another chilling blast of irony: I had made a few semi-joking suggestions that she dress up like a Catholic schoolgirl in the past. Now I look like one. Nice karma.

Next stop: the post office. Might as well start getting used to the thing. My wraparound shades should let me inconspicuously check people out as they're checking me out. Just a couple of sly sidelong glances while I'm picking up my mail, though.

The next day at work is a different story. Although the Utiliclerk told me the black kilt would go with anything, I forego a white dress shirt and power tie in favor of a plain blue T-shirt.

Naturally, someone wants to know if I'm wearing underpants. Someone else says I need the right kind of heels to go with it. And why does it need a zipper?

I can't answer the zipper question. But after about a dozen underpants inquiries, the question gets tiresome. I snap, "See for yourself. Pretend it's an old-fashioned camera, and stick your head right under there for the flash."

Yeah, yeah, I expected the "skirt" remarks, but I notice I've begun to John Wayne it up as I walk to the cafeteria for coffee. A former cross-dresser there tells me he wouldn't wear one of these things. Bad sign. But then he says he wants a photo.

I walk near the walls going upstairs now, realizing that I always automatically look when there's a female skirt view up above. Forced to confront my own lechery and insecurity, and it's not even noon. I wonder if my butt looks big.

Kilt Day Three: The Utiliclerk had sent me off with a little stack of Utilikilt business cards. They always include the cards because of all the curious people they say will ask where to get one. Time to test that. A stroll through Capitol Hill? I'd probably be among the more conservative sights there.

How about lunch in bustling Westlake Center? A man selling "Real Change" papers outside the door laughs at me. There's $140 plus tax well spent.

It triggers a memory: Out of boredom at the age of 10, I wrap my head in an Ace bandage and top it off with sunglasses and a preposterously large straw hat, then nonchalantly stroll into the golf course clubhouse near my home to order a Coke.

People in the big food court don't react much different from the golfers. A number of surreptitious stares and double-takes, a few blatant gawks, and some outright laughter and pointing. Do I have a No-Pest Strip hanging out of this thing? I take a good long time wandering among the food counters, but the opportunity to dispense a Utilicard never arises.

On to Pike Place Market. More tourists there, maybe some Midwesterners. But it's the same story, less laughter.

Walking to a movie screening at Pacific Place — ah, this feels nice in the heat — I remember something else: It's the early '70s, and the hippest, coolest super-hero of a dad in my neighborhood has an earring. Nearly unheard-of at the time. He doesn't golf much, but he likes walking into the clubhouse for a drink too. When stodgy old-timers there sneeringly ask him, "What are you wearing that earring for?" he says with a twinkle, "Because I'm man enough to kick anyone's ass who doesn't like it." They back away grumbling.

I don't feel that tough, though. Sure, I saw "Braveheart," but it would be hard to take myself seriously in a brawl with this thing twirling like a petunia in full bloom.

The promoter at the door of the theater has spoken with me many times, but now she asks what organization I'm with. Huh? She hasn't looked at my face. Only when I put my name on her sign-in sheet does recognition kick in.

The draft in the theater is chilly. But at least I can sprawl out in the darkness without giving anyone an up-skirt view.

'A whole movement of men'

After three days, I 'fess up to the Utilikilt folks that I'm writing a story. Villegas' life and business partner, Megan Haas, is the spokeswoman. She calls him "a maverick, a visionary, and all-around cool cat."

On a hot day in 1997, Villegas was working on his motorcycle in a stifling garage, and he simply wanted some air-conditioning. He couldn't find a kilt to buy, so he made one.

"This isn't about being Scottish. It's about the function," Haas explains. Also, plaid doesn't line up well with their patented pleating design. Those individually sewn pleats, by the way, are so labor-intensive that Haas claims the pricey kilts don't yield a big profit.

In spring 2000, Villegas became a familiar, in-your-face sight at the Sunday Fremont Market, extolling the virtues of kilthood to any passer-by he could snare. That's when he snared Haas.

Since then, they've gone from just themselves to 14 workers. A Seattle Weekly blurb led to a CNN piece on TV and lots of inquiries. It also led to a discovery: "We had no idea there was a whole movement of men that was into wearing skirts for the idea of comfort and not the idea of cross-dressing. Let me tell you, brother, it's huge. All these men have been waiting for someone to design a masculine skirt, and no one was doing it."

Haas says the average man who becomes part of the "Utiliclan" is "older in general, 45 and up — men who have been around the block, who are comfortable with themselves, comfortable with their sexuality."

But if a man wears a skirt, regardless of the reason, isn't that by definition cross-dressing? Maybe not. Maybe Ed Wood just liked angora. And I'm comfortable enough with my sexuality to listen to "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and sip an iced mocha — but I draw the line at whipped cream on the drink.

Whatever the statement one of these things makes about who you are, it's an unavoidably, intentionally conspicuous one. Comfy as they are, you don't wear a Utilikilt to go incognito. And the constant self-consciousness of it, for me that's the only drag.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com.

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