Kiltmaker Howie Nicholsby reveals to Jane Bradley that he’s had a number of unpleasant encounters over the years, after relunctantly agreeing to allow a French model to apparently peek under his kilt during a PR stunt for the Mango clothing retailer.
Would you look under a man’s kilt without permission? While you, personally, may not, there are plenty who would. Indeed, it has long been a risk for kilt wearers that they can be subject to unsolicited peeking, questioning about what is worn underneath – or even groping.
Yet, while campaigners have long fought, quite rightly, for “up-skirting” to be banned, it has somehow been perfectly acceptable – nay welcome, even – for a woman to feel free to do whatever she likes when a man is wearing a kilt.
Earlier this week, I reported on a stooshie over an advert produced by clothing retailer Mango. In it, the model, Jeanne Dumas, apparently a Parisian ‘it girl’, embarks on a visit to Scotland wearing the brand’s garments. As well as a lot of scampering around in the Scottish countryside with a dog, she graces the streets of Edinburgh with her presence, only pausing on her whirlwind fashionista tour to peek cheekily up the kilt of a Scotsman, who happens to be standing handily on the street.
Broadcast on social media, the ad sparked outrage among people who complained that this action was “not appropriate”.
“Mango,” said one, “are you really condoning lifting up stranger’s skirts?! It’s not acceptable, whether it’s a lady’s skirt or a guy’s kilt.”
Another argued that it was akin to sexual harrassment. “So odd that in a world where we campaign against ‘upskirting’ and (rightly) consider having their skirt lifted to be sexual harassment, that a woman looking up a man’s kilt is shown as playful and jokey,” she said.
As I watched the ad, I realised I recognised the chap who was the victim of this violation. It was none other than legendary Edinburgh kiltmaker Howie Nicholsby, who has worn a kilt every day for the past 20 years.
I tried to contact Howie, who I assumed would laugh off the incident with a tongue-in-cheek comment – after all, he had not looked too traumatised on the video and had presumably given his consent to appear in the ad – but when I finally managed to have a chat with him after he returned from holiday, I found that he did, indeed, feel quite strongly about the practice.
In fact, it turned out, he had allowed Ms Dumas to lift his kilt, but under some duress. He told me that he had actually tried to explain to the film crew that he didn’t feel comfortable with her peeking under his kilt, but that the language barrier, combined with a lack of cultural understanding, meant he found it difficult to get across. And after a long day’s filming, Howie was too exhausted to argue.
“It was a pleasure to work with the Mango film crew, but they were foreign and they just didn’t get what I was saying about this,” he explains. “I tried to tell them that I wasn’t comfortable with it, that it was the equivalent of up-skirting, but they didn’t understand. It had been a long day and in the end, I just went with it. With hindsight, perhaps I shouldn’t have.”
Howie estimates he has experienced at least one incident a year over the past two decades of what I am going to refer to as “up-kilting” with which he has not been happy.
“There have been a lot of experiences, often late night in a bar, some in Scotland and some elsewhere,” he says. “There have been drunk 70-year-old women who probably should have known better and on occasion, even some men.”
One particularly unpleasant incident occurred in Newcastle, where a group of four women pinned him against the wall in a bar while he was on a stag night as their friend forced her hand up his kilt.
“I usually wear underpants, but on that occasion it was a stag do, so I was commando,” he remembers. “I’d used an old rugby trick of putting a fair bit of Vaseline down there to avoid chafing and when the woman grabbed me, she looked at me as if I was the one who was disgusting beacuse she’d got a handful of Vaseline. It was as if I’d assaulted her, when it was the other way around. I was standing there, thinking ‘Jesus Christ, how is this OK?’”
Up-skirting was made a specific offence in Scotland in 2010, which refers to operating equipment, such as a camera, under people’s clothing. A separate up-skirting bill is currently being passed south of the Border, which will, it has been claimed, specifically protect kilt-wearers, as well as women in skirts.
While groping of any kind is obviously unacceptable and could be classed as an offence under sexual assult laws, socially, a woman sticking her hand up a man’s kilt is often seen as a bit of a laugh. Unlike women in the same situation, men are expected to almost enjoy the experience, which Howie says is most definitely not the case.
“Of course, some guys are quite happy when it’s an attractive woman, but it has to be seen as under the same laws which protect women,” says Howie. “It has to be regarded in the same way as up-skirting.”
And he’s right. We can’t argue that men shouldn’t look up a woman’s skirt – which obviously they shouldn’t – while watching a major brand do exactly the same in reverse. Time to get on it, Mango.