In August, a 32-year-old man named Nils Pickert put on a skirt. It wasn’t what he would normally choose to wear—but he did it out of solidarity for his 5-year-old son, who preferred to wear women’s clothes.
Pickert wrote about the experience for a German feminist magazine called Emma later that month. The article, titled “Manchmal müssen Väter eben Vorbilder sein!” or “Sometimes Fathers Just Have to be Role Models!” was accompanied by a photo of him holding hands with his son, with his son in a red dress and Pickert in a matching skirt.
Six days later, his story was translated into English by a Tumblr user and re-shared all over the Internet. Pickert became an overnight sensation.
And just as quickly, there was an outpouring of extreme reaction. Gawker coined him the “Father of the Year,” while one YouTube user said: “You’re an Idiot—Nils Pickert and Your Dress-Wearing Son. BuzzFeed referred to Pickert’s skirt as a “superhero cape,” while The International Digital Times questioned whether Pickert’s decision was “weird” and “disturbing” or “warming” and “endearing.”
But for all of the attacks launched at Pickert, the father’s support for his son touched a nerve. Yahoo wrote that “If a child is attacked for being different, don’t leave them hanging. Be different with them.” Wrote one commenter on The Huffington Post, “Sometimes making a fool of one’s self is the greatest act of love. It certainly can be the most difficult. Mr. Pickert, you’re setting the bar pretty darn high. I salute you.”
When Pickert and his family first lived in Berlin, his young son looked up to his older sister and naturally inherited her skirts and dresses, which he loved wearing. No one seemed to care too much in the cosmopolitan city, but after moving to a much more conservative town in south Germany, the other children in his kindergarten class teased him for his outfits, so he stopped wearing them. A couple of weeks later, he asked his father to join him for “Skirt and Dress Day,” and so he did.
“Skirt and Dress Day is what me and my son like to call it, when we get all skirted up—just the two of us,” Pickert told The Daily Beast by email. “If a child points at me or him (it’s me most of the time) and asks why we are wearing skirts, we ask back: ‘It is Skirt and Dress Day, didn’t you know?’ For many children this seems to work.” He continued: “[My son] just asked me to join him like joining him for a round of soccer or painting or listening to stories. Clearly he needed me being an active part in his decision to wear skirts and dresses. So why shouldn’t I? It’s not that much to ask for.”
Since Pickert showed support for his son, people have reacted strangely on the street, too. But Pickert, who works as a writer in Germany, claims these comments don’t have much impact on him or his son. “I know that some people, especially men, feel threatened by the fact that I persistently refuse to act and behave like they want me to do,” he says. “It’s not that I force them, but I refuse to let them force me to live like them.”
The day that Pickert discovered his story went viral, he just happened to be on vacation and fortunately had enough time to figure out what to do with the unexpected publicity. “I couldn’t care more about my boy being a happy, self-assured, compassionate person. I couldn’t care less about the choices he makes on the way to becoming that person—as long as they cause no harm to himself or others,” he wrote on The Huffington Post.
Looking back on it now, Pickert says his actions have had a positive effect. Since Pickert began wearing skirts, he says, other children have stopped mocking his son. As for his newfound fame—with outlets such as CNN and BBC asking for interviews—Pickert is simply trying to make the best of all the unexpected publicity: “I am trying to write as much as I can and to publish it everywhere it fits. I am not much of a frontline person. I didn’t plan this buzz, it just happened to me.”
Although Pickert borrows clothes from his female friends whenever his son requests it (“or when it’s really hot out”), he says he isn’t necessarily into cross-dressing himself. And though it isn’t as if he dresses up everyday, Pickert does have his own personal preferences: “Dresses are difficult to wear because of my broader male chest,” he says. “I dislike that most skirts have no pockets. I need pockets.”