2014-02-13

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‘A Skirt Might Be Better?’

Sometimes, a skirt is more comfortable than shorts, but gender norms keep men from wearing them. Marcus Jahnke studies design and set out to create a skirt that men in the highly male-coded construction sector would wear.

’The work kilt is great,’ says Jan Andersson, CEO of the Swedish work wear company Blåkläder. ’Wearing it in this macho domain takes guts. I was in Gothenburg yesterday and ran into a bearded guy with loads of attitude who was wearing a kilt. He said he does get comments about it but doesn’t care because it’s so pleasant to work in.’

Blåkläder’s marketing coordinator Tomas Kristiansson could not help smiling when the design student Marcus Jahnke presented his idea of a kilt for tradesmen:

’But at the same time I was wondering, “What can it be used for?”’

’There was so much of Blåkläder in it; the tongue-in-cheek challenger. But at the same time I was wondering, “What can it be used for?”’

Blåkläder decided to produce a test collection primarily envisaged for PR material. An advertising agency produced a picture of a tough-looking guy with a big beard sternly posing in a dirty black kilt.

’That image laid the groundwork for the kilt,’ says Andersson. ’It created the image of a kilt wearer.’

The company was blown away by the reactions. The first 500 kilts sold out immediately.

’We realised that the kilt-wearer was for real,’ says Kristiansson. ’In 2006, the kilt was included in the standard range and is now available in a high visibility colour.’

Trademark That Thinks Outside the Box

Blåkläder is the second largest manufacturer of workwear in Sweden, after Fristads. Both companies produce functional, durable clothing. Kristiansson thinks that the kilt reinforces Blåkläder’s trademark as an innovative challenger that likes to think ’outside the box’.

The kilt breaks the conventions of what workwear should look like. At the same time, it is functional and does not get as warm as work shorts.

In terms of mass media, the work kilt has been an enormous success and in 2007 it was named Product of the Year by TEKO, the Swedish Textile and Clothing Industries’ Association.

‘Also, the whole craftsman thing with smart pockets and functional details was clearly male-coded.’

‘The media penetration is unparalleled,’ says Kristiansson. ‘It shows how quickly opinions about what workers should look like can be changed. From having been a crazy idea, suddenly there was a market.’

Marcus Jahnke designed the kilt in 2004 as part of his design studies at the School of Design and Crafts (HDK), University of Gothenburg. He is essentially a development engineer, and in fact worked in construction for a while.

‘I used a pair of work shorts when I was on paternity leave and needed pockets for nappies, bottles and so on,’ says Jahnke. ‘It was summer and very hot. I was thinking, “This is not good. Maybe a skirt would work better?”’

But he realised that a skirt is connected to many norms. Here was a functional need being hindered by norms of what men should wear. It was this very paradox that became his motivation. He soon took on the challenge to make a skirt-type garment that would be demanded by men in a strictly male-coded industry.

‘Making a kilt became a solution. Also, the whole craftsman thing with smart pockets and functional details was clearly male-coded.’

Tools Made the Kilt Masculine

The image of the tough-looking man was important too. Jahnke had envisaged a picture where lots of tools ’loaded’ the kilt with masculine attributes. Instead, the stern pose and shabby surroundings did the same job. The kilt was linked with a traditional, almost pre-industrial type of masculinity. There is even a hayfork in the picture. Any notion of male and female clothing norms being broken down seems very remote.

’As a designer, you’re occasionally forced to play on values in a way you normally wouldn’t.’ says Jahnke. ’The ends justify the means. It can be more important to make a small change that really gets done than to be so radical that you only reach those who are already convinced.’

The work kilt was one of the objects studied in the Gender and Design research project at the Centre for Consumer Science (CFK), Gothenburg University, funded under VINNOVA’s Gender Perspective on Innovation Systems and Equality call.

’It can be more important to make a small change that really gets done than to be so radical that you only reach those who are already convinced.’

’The kilt is ambiguous, which makes it interesting,’ says Magdalena Petersson McIntyre, a doctor of ethnology and one of the researchers in the Gender and Design project.

Male-coded Functionality

The advertising agency that produced the image of the stern-looking man packaged the kilt and made it intelligible, according to Petersson McIntyre.

’The fact that it’s a functional garment also linked the kilt with a heterosexual masculinity. Functionality is clearly male-coded.’

She also thinks it is interesting that Blåkläder had not anticipated such a success. The consumers helped create a value.

’One of the bases of the Gender and Design project is that there are goods with alternative gender stories that people want. By latching onto that demand, we can add a new dimension to equality work.’

Design objects both reflect and create gender. The project has pointed to the similarities between gender theory and design work. It is a question of seeing connections and noticing what for example a colour, a nail pocket or a flower means and how it can influence the consumer. In this context there is a hotbed for innovations. These are ideas that Marcus Jahnke brought with him into his new role as a doctoral student at HDK and the Business & Design Lab, where he is studying how design can lay the groundwork for innovation.

’When I started at HDK, I thought of innovations only in connection with new technology,’ says Jahnke. ’By the time I left, I had realised that we must integrate social aspects into the innovation concept in order for it to be complete. Design is good at starting from a user rather than a technical perspective. If you add an interest in values and norms that influence the user, plus the opportunities that arise when values and norms change, entirely new opportunities for innovation emerge.’

Ulrika Lorentzi
Edited: 24 Oct 2016
Published: 13 Feb 2014
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