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Issue 29 - Everything you need to know about...wearing the kilt

Scotland Magazine Issue 29
October 2006


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Everything you need to know about...wearing the kilt

In the first of a new series, Roddy Martine reveals how to look good in a kilt

The original form of Highland dress was a simple blanket, otherwise known as a plaid. A belt was placed on the ground and the plaid laid on top and folded lengthwise into pleats. The wearer would then stretch out on top of the plaid parallel to the pleats, fasten the belt, and fold the material around the waist. When standing, a pleated skirt would have been created with a mass of material above the waist which could then be draped around the shoulders and chest for covering. At night, this garment served for excellent cover when sleeping out-of-doors in the heather.

Some historians would have us believe that it was Thomas Rawlinson, an English ironmaster in Lochaber, who invented the “little kilt” or “philbeg” for his workers. This is simply the lower half of the belted plaid with the pleats stitched up. Another possible explanation is that the transition from full body to below the waist took place when the warp-weighted loom was replaced by the horizontal loom with its narrower width.

As a result, today’s kilt is created from eight yards of tartan cloth around the middle, just touching the middle of the wearer’s kneecap, when standing, and the ground, when kneeling. Of course, variations in human anatomy being what they are, this is not always possible.

Tartan cloth did not have particular clan significance before its revival in the 18th century, although patterns were identified from specific districts. We know this from Martin Martin’s book Descriptions of the Western Isles of Scotland, published in 1703.

Then came the Jacobite Uprising of 1745, after which the wearing of Highland dress and tartan, other than that worn by the Black Watch Regiment which had fought for the British Government, was banned by Act of Parliament until 1782.

In the following century, King George IV appeared at a great levee at Holyrood Palace wearing a voluminous Royal Stewart tartan kilt over pink tights, and his niece, Queen Victoria, made all things Highland fashionable when she and her husband purchased Balmoral Castle in 1852. Although originally an exclusively Highland practice, the wearing of the kilt thereafter became the national dress of Scotland.

Over the last decade, modern-style kilts in a variety of fabrics – tweed, leather and corduroy – have become fashionable with the younger generation. This was highlighted when, in support of a young Scottish designer, Scotland’s first minister Jack McConnell appeared in a pin-stripe kilt at a fashion event in Manhattan. In some ways this is an innovative throw-back to the kilt’s origins, and providing the garment is worn with respect and dignity, traditionalists should refrain from comment.

For formal day-wear, a plain, well-cut tweed jacket and waistcoat is considered appropriate, as is an open neck shirt or wool sweater. Plain wool socks for day-wear should always compliment a colour within the tartan pattern. For example, green for Campbell of Argyll or Maclaren tartan; red for Mackinnon or Cameron of Locheil. For evening wear, diced knitted socks, again complimenting the clan tartan, can still be obtained. It is inadvisable to wear white socks as they will always be associated with Highland dress hire shops.

Brogue shoes are recommended for day wear, silver buckled highly polished evening shoes for evening wear, and the sgian dubh (small knife) tucked into the top of the right sock is a voluntary decorative addition.

Sporrans come in many styles: leather for day wear; old sealskin, otter or rabbit for evening wear, and horsehair for military use. Most modern evening dress sporrans are, of course, made of fake fur.

The great advantage of a kilt is that it can be worn for leisure, less informal occasions, and as evening dress. It is also quite usual for matching tartan jackets and waistcoats to be worn for evening wear.

In the last century it was fashionable for tartan plaids to be fixed at the shoulder with silver and Cairngorm brooches, but this is rarely seen nowadays except in pipe bands.

However, silver belt buckles and jewelled silver dirks hung from the waist are still sometimes worn on dress occasions.

Should anything be worn under the kilt?

Well mannered ladies should never ask such a question and simply try to observe.