Sure, tie-dye T-shirts and Birkenstocks are perennial fashion staples at any warm-weather music festival. But recently, a bizarre trend has begun to take hold: men in kilts. And it's not just spreading on the feel-good fields of summer festivals — it's becoming a symbol of rebellion.
Kilt-rocking males were definitely out in force at this year's Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, with bare-chested biker types bopping to Blues Traveler and jovial frat boys grooving in the grass to moe.
"We sold 150 kilts," says Joe Hunt, 35, a vendor for Seattle-based Utilikilts, which set up shop at the festival. "The response was great."
Utilikilts, a twist on the traditional Scottish kilt, come with detachable pockets and are made from a lighter, machine-washable fabric than a wool kilt. They also come in an array of contemporary colors like charcoal, red, and camouflage, and are sold exclusively online at Utilikilts.com, and at large events like the upcoming Dragon*Con Sci-Fi convention in Atlanta.
"Here's a kilt that you can wear on a daily basis that's trying to get people away from the mindset that you have to wear pants every day," Hunt said. "It's about freedom and having a good time. It's about getting out there, enjoying yourself and feeling the breeze constantly."
While some kids laughed at the kilt booth, others embraced it. "We had a group of guys [at Bonnaroo], probably 15 to 16 years old, and they dared one of their friends to try on a kilt. And once he did, they were like, 'Wow.' Then some girls were like, 'Oh, that looks good,' and then walked out with a kilt each," Hunt said.
The price can be steep (the average kilt runs anywhere from $125-$700), but Hunt asserts that it's a solid investment.
"It's completely comfortable, and if you're in hot weather it's one of the best things you can wear," he said. "We're trying to get away from the whole 'You have to wear pants' thing. Every other culture has a dress for men, like kimonos in Japan and robes in other countries. There's no stigma attached to it."
And kilts have been sported recently by some brave hearts: Axl Rose, Korn's Jonathan Davis, David Byrne and Robbie Williams have all worn them while performing. Guy Ritchie and the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir both got married while wearing one; Ritchie's wife, Madonna, was apparently inspired enough to wear one on her 2004 tour. And Kiefer Sutherland wore a tartan kilt at his stepdaughter's wedding in Edinburgh.
"It's a very old thing, but it's taken off again," said Kelly Stewart, owner of USA Kilts, which specializes in more traditional, custom-made kilts and just supplied a batch for an upcoming episode of "Reno 911!" on Comedy Central and the new Dropkick Murphys video "Walk Away."
"It started with Madonna and her Reinvention Tour (see "Madonna Twirls Rifle, Lifts Up Her Kilt At Tour Opener")," Stewart continued. "Now, people are getting back in touch with their Celtic roots, especially in America — a lot of the younger kids are trying to get in touch with their roots."
But a lot of people are just wearing them to wear them. "We have Japanese customers, we have African-American customers, we have Latino customers, we have fraternity brothers," says Rocky Roeger, also of USA Kilts. "And then we have had kids that have saved their allowances for three months."
In some cases, comfort and culture have taken a backseat to good old-fashioned teen rebellion, which could also account for some of kilts' recent rise in popularity.
In April, a Minnesota teen was banned from a high school prom parade for wearing a kilt. And 18-year-old Missouri football player Nathan Warmack caused a media stir last year when he wore a red kilt to his school dance and wasn't allowed inside.
"He saved up his own money and spent $300-$500 and his principal called him a fool," Roeger said. "Scottish societies were up in arms." The school's staff eventually apologized to Warmack, and a radio station awarded him a free trip to Scotland.
"Once people get past the stigma that it's not a skirt, it's great," Hunt said. "There's nothing un-masculine about it. It's the exact opposite: When you see Sean Connery in a kilt, you don't think, 'Ha-ha.' We try to go out and have a good time and educate people about kilts without forcing people to buy them."
Kilts can be worn with hiking boots, sandals, Doc Martens or no shoes at all, and come in many different colors, patterns and sizes. And you don't need a Scottish background.
"The whole point is to make it your own," Hunt said. "However you feel comfortable. 'Do I not have to wear underwear with it?' That's your choice. There's no need to follow any rules."