Saturday afternoon. Centre of Glasgow. Pub near George Square. Three men are sitting at a table having a coffee, chatting away, catching up. On the fact of it, they look just like all the other groups of people sitting at tables passing the time of day. But then they stand up and you can see the difference. Steve, Alastair and Neil are men in skirts.

We head towards the door of the pub and out into the street and on the whole nothing dramatic happens. I notice the odd person giving the guys a sideways look, a subtle double-take, and as we head up to Buchanan Street, a woman stops to have a bit of a stare. I ask her what she thinks about men in skirts and she says it’s fine with her, not a problem. However, I notice that her husband has hurried on and crossed the street. No matter: Steve, Alastair and Neil are used to this.

We head up the street a bit and the youngest of the group, 38-year-old Neil Eckford, points out that most of the women we can see today are wearing trousers. This is a big issue for guys like Neil who wear skirts: women started wearing trousers years ago and no-one bats an eyelid. But for some reason we still have a problem with men doing the reverse and wearing skirts. We’re going to try to find out why.

The Herald: Alastair and Steve in Buchanan StreetAlastair and Steve in Buchanan Street (Image: Gordon Terris)

Further up the road, the oldest member of the group, 64-year-old Steve Kennedy, spots a kilt on a tailor’s dummy outside a shop and poses for a picture next to it. Steve is looking splendid today in long coat, neat tweed waistcoat, scarlet beret, and a knee-length black skirt, but the shop dummy in a kilt reminds him of one of the other questions we’re need to explore today: if kilts are OK for men, why on earth aren’t skirts?

There are lots of other issues that men who want to wear skirts have to deal with. The third member of the group, 56-year-old Alastair Johnston, tells me about the day his boss told him never to wear a skirt to his office again. All three men have also had serious issues of one kind or another with their relatives, strangers in the street, and sometimes the police. In recent years, the issue of transgenderism has also introduced a new complication into the debate. These three Scottish men, and others like them, want to change attitudes, but there is still, it seems, a long way to go.

We finish the photo-shoot on Buchanan Street and head to the pub again to talk the issues through and I start by asking the guys when they first realised that they might be interested in wearing skirts. Steve, who grew up in Aberdeen, goes first.

“My first realisation was when I was five years old,” he says. “Quite simply, it was envy. A girl I went to school with had a red velvet dress which she wore to a Christmas party and I would have mugged her for it. That was my first experience.

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“The first time I actually wore a skirt was when I surreptitiously borrowed clothes from my sisters – I would’ve been about seven or eight when I first tried it. By the time I was 10, I knew what I wanted but I also knew I couldn’t discuss it. It was a secret and I told no-one. Bear in mind, in those days, in the very late 1960s, there was no access to information as there is now online.”

Neil, who grew up in Bishopton, had a similar experience. There were skirts lying about the family home belonging to his mother and sisters and he would try them on when the family weren’t about. As for Alastair, he also remembers being drawn to skirts when he was little but realising too how taboo it was and suppressing the idea til he was in his 40s. This is a common experience for men who wear skirts: trying to forget about the idea until they no longer can.

So when did the men first wear skirts out in public and how did it go? Steve says it was in the late 1970s when he was in his 20s and at first he thought he had to disguise himself as a woman to get away with it in public. To be sure he wouldn’t bump into anyone he knew, he also travelled from his home in Aberdeen to Dundee. But on one occasion it did not end well.

“I was in the Overgate shopping centre in Dundee and there was a little girl with her grandma and the kid clocked I was a guy in a skirt and mentioned it to grandma who mentioned it to the police. The police came and talked to me and their exact words were, ‘We don’t want you to do anything stupid’. They assumed I would harm myself. I wasn’t doing anything illegal but it shook me.”

Later, there was a time when Steve was on Union Street in Aberdeen and a couple of young guys called him “nancy boy”; another man on the street once told him he should be setting a better example to the young generation. “The man told me that he considered me more dangerous than a driver going up a one-way street the wrong way,” says Steve. “Well, to my knowledge, I’ve never actually killed one.”

All the men say that it’s actually those closest to you that can be the biggest problem. Neil says his parents have struggled with the issue and still haven’t come round. “My parents tried to stop me and tried to get rid of the clothes,” he says. “And if I’m going to see my parents, wearing a skirt is a no-no.” His parents’ reaction also means Neil says no to appearing in The Herald’s photograph.

Alastair says his wife also struggled at first but that things have improved. “I didn’t have the nerve to raise it with my family at first,” he says. “We actually went on holiday and I packed a skirt and put it on one afternoon when the kids were down at the pool and the wife and I were in the flat; she wasn’t too pleased at first which is fair enough because I sprang it on her.”

He says she’s got used to it now though. “We talked about it, but it took a while,” he says. “The kids were much the same: they didn’t like it at first but chilled about it, and it doesn’t bother them. One of them said to me the other day, that the only time he had some bother was at secondary school when someone said to him, ‘Ah, your dad cuts about in a skirt’ and he said ‘So?’. Children can be horrible.”

The issue of wearing skirts has also created serious problems in Steve’s family. “My wife and I got married in 1981,” he says, “and I told her before I proposed what I wanted to do and on the face of it we were fine. But in reality, as things progressed, she’s never accepted it. He says they now live separate lives under the same roof and don’t talk about the subject of his clothes any more.

The Herald: Steve beside a kilted shop dummy Steve beside a kilted shop dummy (Image: Gordon Terris)

The issue has also led to an estrangement from one of his sisters. “I had five sisters, three surviving. One of them I don’t even know where she lives now because she moved house and declined for me to know where, on the basis of what I do. She is actually in her 80s so there’s a fair chance I might never talk to her again.”

Where Steve has experienced no problem at all is at his work in the civil service – they have accepted that he wears a skirt and are fine with it – although Alastair, who’s a tax consultant, did experience a problem. “The office I’m usually in have no problem,” he says. “But I did do it in another office, not the one I’m usually based in, and the partner had a word with me at the end of the day and said ‘Don’t do that again’.” As for Neil, he works for Tesco stacking the shelves and says he’s never worn a skirt there because it would be impractical.

It’s becoming obvious by this point in our conversation that it hasn’t been easy for any of these men and I ask them why they want to do it, and how they deal with the reaction. Neil says it’s about having choice: “Women wear trousers and no-one thinks anything of it,” he says. Alastair is a little more uncertain: “I don’t know,” he says, “I’ve thought about it and I can’t get the answer, honestly. I just like it. It’s fashion.” Steve is more definite: “Accept me as I am because I spent too long hiding it. This is me. And it’s been better mentally and psychologically for me. I’m a better person than I was 20 years ago.”

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I ask them if they think things are changing and whether society in general is becoming more accepting and in some ways they think it is. Celebrities like Harry Styles and Billy Porter for example have been seen in dresses and skirts and the guys think that’s a good thing and can change attitudes, although they also emphasise that a celebrity on the red carpet is very different to an ordinary guy on the street. They also say that, in the vast majority of cases, they go out and about and yes, there are stares and some comments and occasionally laughing, especially from schoolkids, but on the whole nothing much happens.

They do think some strange attitudes persist though. Neil, for example, is wearing a kilted skirt today but that’s still seen as different from a kilt. Steve also remembers someone pointing him out on a train as a “man in a skirt” even though the train was full of football fans wearing kilts. Alastair thinks the problem is that we have a different word for kilt. “It makes it easier to build a wall around it,” he says. “Language affects your thinking.” So what is the difference between a skirt and a kilt then? Steve has the answer. “About £700.”

All three men think there are other issues which complicate matters, the first of which is that some people assume there’s a sexual element to wearing a skirt and that it’s a kink or perverted. This may be why the man in the street told Steve he was “dangerous”; Neil has also been told by people that what he does “should be kept away from children”.

All three think the recent controversy in Scotland over transgenderism can also make it harder for people to get their heads round what’s going on. Alastair and Steve are both heterosexual and Neil is bisexual and at one point in his life did wonder if he wanted to transition, but they all think men wearing skirts and transgenderism are not necessarily related.

“It’s easier to rationalise it if you say I want to be a girl,” says Steve, “but I also knew by the time I was eight or nine years old that I didn’t want to be a girl. I knew what I wanted to wear. We also used to think that if you want to wear a skirt, you have to be feminine but that is not the case. I’m not challenging myself in the way that someone who’s transgender does, I’m challenging fashion. That’s what it comes back to.”

Neil says one of the other real issues is a lack of visibility of men in skirts: teachers, politicians, men in public roles. Alastair also says that when someone reacts to him in public, he often gets the impression that it’s genuinely the first man in a skirt they have ever seen. The other issue for him is the question of masculinity. “It’s a fragile concept and very easily broken,” he says. “Women can, and are, encouraged to do things that are not traditionally feminine and they’re praised for it. But men aren’t.”

All the men say the reality is complicated and that there are no straightforward answers, so I speak to the man who runs the Skirt Café, an online forum all three men are members of. Steve in particular says joining the forum was a turning point in his life. In 2011, he and other members of the group went out in Stirling wearing skirts and that was when Steve said to himself: to hell with this, this is what I’m doing for the rest of my life. In fact, the only time he wears trousers now is at a funeral, or when he is doing jury duty or something of that nature and doesn’t want to be the centre of attention.

The man who runs the Skirt Café, Carl R Friend, from New England, tells me a little more about the lessons he’s learned from the group. Carl himself has been wearing skirts routinely since 2002 and says that on the whole he’s received very little pushback. “My sheer size (I’m 6’4”) and demeanour may preclude anyone speaking out of turn,” he says.

“That’s not saying what goes on behind my back, but I seem to be well accepted in the community.”

Carl says the reasons men wear skirts are hard to pin down. Put 50 guys in a room, he says, and you’re likely to get 60 or 70 different answers but he does think it clusters around a few common points. First, choice. Second, comfort (skirts just tend to be more comfortable to some men than trousers). Then there’s style (some guys care how they look and tend to use style as a means of communication). Carl also thinks the aesthetics are important – a skirt, he says, offers a larger “tableau” for aesthetic display than trousers.

I ask him what kind of men join the forum and if sexuality is an issue. “There is a lot of ‘sensitivity’ and a larger-than-normal number of artists and musicians compared to society as a whole,” he says. “That facet might well be a driver of the desire to branch out from ‘conventional menswear’, but there’s no real consensus on the matter.”

As for sexuality, he says there’s a big range. “We’ve got gay guys, and we’ve got guys on the trans spectrum, but overall the mix seems to be hetero-normative guys, most of whom have wives or girlfriends who do not understand what drives ‘their men’. Needless to say, this causes much angst, and has the power to break up relationships – which is silly, because at the end of the day, the clothes come off.”

Like Steve and the others, Carl does think there are some small signs of a change in attitudes and it’s certainly unthinkable that the police would “have a word” with a man in a skirt in the way they did with Steve in the 1970s. It’s also surely a good sign that in all the time I’ve spent with Steve and the others, in the pub, in George Square, out on the street, there have been some second-looks, yes, but otherwise, it’s been no big deal.

Sitting having a coffee in the centre of Glasgow, though, all three men say there’s still quite a long way to go. Neil says that more and more people tell him that “men can dress the way they want” but if you ask them if they’d let their own son wear a skirt, the answer is still probably no. But maybe, thanks to guys like these, things will change in time. Maybe in years to come it will be no big deal. Maybe we’ll look at men in skirts on Buchanan Street, or anywhere else, like we look at women in trousers and think: so what?