I navigate through a sea of sun day shoppers, senses pummelled by glitzy mall lights and the roar of consumer desires. I'm here to find a skirt, but all I see across the vast horizon are kilts and still more kilts. The casual kilt in pink corduroy. The punk kilt in red plaid with a big zipper. The tweed kilt for my imminent meeting with the Queen. Standing in a fitting room in my sport socks and prissy micro-mini-kilt, I suddenly feel embarrassed and indecent. This skirt makes me look not simply ugly, but somehow pornographic. Why, I wonder, is anyone wearing this?
Fashionistas try telling me it's part of this season's homage to tradition and pedigree. And while the kilt has long signalled private-school elitism, it's also an irrefutable sign of this year's punk revival, where a little anti-establishment and anti-capitalist rage has been glossed up and marketed to exploit the popularity of cutesy pop punkers like Avril Lavigne.
Franco Rocchi, Le Chateau's VP of sales and marketing, admits he made the kilt a part of the clothing chain's collection to pay homage to the anti-schoolgirl super-star. "It's like taking a symbol of prestige and wearing it upside down," he tells me. "It's the attitude you give it. The kilt is a vehicle. Taken by itself, it's just a skirt."
Perhaps, but at startling, crotch- grazing heights, this year's kilt has moved from the realm of subversion to plain old perversion.
The schoolgirl has become a staple of fetish imagery, falling into the broader category of uniform fantasies along with the maid, nurse and cheerleader. Who would have thought wool and plaid could fire up so many libidos? But studies show that men fantasize about articles of clothing two and a half times more than women. And uniforms specifically fuel fantasies of domination and submission. Ironically, Queen Victoria's decision to dress her sons in the Scottish skirts 150 years ago launched a fashion fad that would one day figure in a multi-billion-dollar porn industry.
"Anything can be fetishized," says Valerie Steele, cultural historian and author of Fetish: Fashion, Sex And Power, who believes the growing popularity of fetish fashion in the mainstream stems from the charisma of deviance. "The school uniform that is so hideously asexual, concealing and unattractive, by virtue of the fact that it is worn by young women can acquire fetishistic appeal," adds Steele.
Just look at Japan, where "buru-sera" (schoolgirl fetish) takes kilt-loving to a whole new level. At Tokyo sex clubs clients can molest uniformed girls who stand grasping handles hanging from the ceiling, to the stimulated sounds of a subway train. For an additional fee, a client can rip a girl's pants off. And the big spender can take those panties home. It's no surprise, then, that a 2001 study found that 72 per cent of teenage girls in Japan have been groped on their way to school.
But even here at home, there is something clammy and downright pedophilic about grown women dressing like girls. "Of course, that's part of the appeal," explains Deborah Fulsang, fashion editor at the Globe and Mail. "Everyone wants to look young these days - young and nubile, and good in a short skirt."
But feminists aren't so sure the trend is all that benign. Denise Campbell, past president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, explains, "On one hand, there is the sexualization of young girls. On the other, we are encouraging older women to look more innocent, playful and childlike. Behind that is a subtle refusal to take grown women seriously - to see them as strong, outspoken, independent, sassy, serious and in charge of their lives."
U of T semiotics professor Marcel Danesi, author of Forever Young: The 'Teen-Aging' Of Modern Culture, sees the kilt as a dramatic expression of what he calls the forever young syndrome. He says, "(Our) tendency to blur the distinction between young and old in all aspects of lifestyle is unique in human history." Modern society's fascination with adolescence, says Danesi, tips us off to a deeper social malaise and signals our collective refusal to grow up.
Regardless of how theorists interpret the kilt, fashion mags keep singing its praises and women keep snatching up the saucy skirts from malls and boutiques across the country. And according to Canada's largest school uniform supplier, RJ McCarthy, schoolgirls are now excited about wearing them every day.
No surprise, says Campbell, that "people don't shop with analysis." Considering the time women spend fretting over how we look, we give surprisingly little consideration to what our appearance says and does.
However, Steele warns that we could all be over-analyzing things just a tad. "The temptation is to take fashion more seriously than it deserves. People want simple answers, but reality is so much more complex and contextualized."
Back in the fitting room, the siren's call to consumption has passed, and my feverish need for this season's skirt fades. I slip into the neutral territory of my trusty jeans and leave the kilt crumpled on the floor.