There was a time when the word "curator" conjured up an old bloke or bluestocking with an obsessive interest in a part of the world few people had heard of, and its bronze coins. Scythia, perhaps. Or Illyria. Somewhere at the Victoria and Albert Museum, there are probably still a few of those old buffers left, the sort of person whose life's work will be a learned treatise on Amalasuntha, the tragic queen of the Ostrogoths.
But now, as the V&A's new exhibition "Men in Skirts" reminds us, curators have come over all hip and are keen to share with us their pet ideas on contemporary society.
It all started in the 1980s, when the V&A appointed a kick-ass Thatcherite director who was determined to popularise the museum-going experience. Charges were introduced and a marketing campaign extolled the ace caff, which just happened to have a museum attached. Visitor numbers plunged. They are back up again after charges were removed, which is fortunate, because if you paid to see "Men in Skirts", you would behaving the same sort of hissy fit that most of its beskirted mannequins appear to be suffering. Talk about tragic queens.
"Men in Skirts" is devoted to one of the great philosophical questions of our time: why it is that western men have stubbornly refused to follow the lead of the rosa no stra, aka the fashion mafia, who have for years been banging on about how sexy we'd all look in a glorified twinset.
There's plenty of (pardon the pun) cod-political sanctimony about patriarchy, and about men's fear of being feminised in a male-dominated society. As if we care. There is less about anything practical -- which is appropriate, I suppose, in an exhibition devoted to the assumption that fashion gurus know best. My own theory, which is as well researched as anything in this exhibition -- it took me three minutes to think it up -- is that trousers have one up on skirts because they allow the suggestive hint of the genitals in a way that skirts never did. And men, whatever Andrew Bolton, the curator of the show, thinks, can be both butch and enjoy showing off their assets.
A man in a skirt, as each of these woeful displays obviously underlines, looks outwardly exactly the same in the crotch department as a woman. After all, if skirts were any good at showing off the male packet, then why is the mystery of a Scotsman's underwear, or lack of it, still so enduring? If a skirt could be invented that actually made a guy look as if he was packing the proverbial pistol, the way tight jeans do, then it might take off.
There is something to be said for a skirt. Being Scottish, I wear a kilt instead of a dress suit, and damned comfortable it is, too, especially because - and now the truth can at last be revealed - no underwear is worn. Indeed, my dad claims that when he was in the army, kit inspection involved walking over a mirror to ensure that this rule was being adhered to. I haven't had the heart to tell him what must have really been going on. "Oooh, Private Clark, would ye just walk over the mirror again? I need to check one more time!"
Apparently, the sperm count of men who wear kilts is up to one-third higher than for our tightly packed brethren. You see, if testicles were meant to be wrapped up, they'd have come in a lace-up pouch. But all this comfort is outweighed by the sheer practicality of trousers. Pissing in akilt is something that requires the dexterity of a martial art. Then there's the wind. When the British flag was lowered for the last time in Hong Kong by two Jocks, a gust blew up their kilts. The last thing the Chinese saw of Britain was two bare-assed soldiers. The regiment insisted it was an accident.
All these dull, practical questions are ignored by this exhibition. Instead, we are shown various get-ups - from catwalk creations and experiments apparently inspired by punk, and the New Romantics, through to fetish gear. Much is made of the opprobrium heaped on David Beckham' s sarong, as if that proved that wearing a skirt were a dangerously subversive act. By this account, Beckham's knicker activity was an act of revolutionary terrorism.
Unwittingly, however, the exhibition does eventually stumble upon an answer. The clothes are so risible that, by the end, it is clear that the reason no self-respecting western man, bar the superbutch Scot, would be seen dead wearing a skirt is because it has been promoted by the fashion industry. If anything is likely to put young men on their guard it is a self-evident conspiracy of mincers. Male fashion trends change when a group of cool dudes on the street or dance floor popularise something new or unexpected. Other men then take it up because they, too, want to look as hard or as cool as them. They also think, in their poor benighted way, that it might help them in the courtship stakes. The last person who's going to influence trends on the street is an uber-lipped sparkly catwalker whose take-home message is: "You too can look as camp and sad as me if you wear clothes like this."