How to Wear Highland Dress: Part One

This article first appeared in Piper Press magazine in 1999

Music Hall Standards of Highland Dress

9204313877_0788ed305e_oBy Bill Blacklaw, former Northern Meeting Dress and Deportment judge

IT IS paradoxical that, at a time when the wearing of Highland dress has reached new peaks of popularity as wedding apparel for  bridegrooms, best men and guests, as well as being regarded as suitable for supporters of national teams in a variety of sports, the standards of appearance and presentation have sunk to levels previously unimaginable except in the Music Halls of the late l9th and early 20th centuries.

I believe that this originates from two causes. The first was the decision by the Scout movement to make the wearing of the kilt in Scottish troops and groups optional at a time when Highland dress was undergoing one of its troughs in the popularity stakes. The second reason was the end of National Service and the antipathy towards anything with a military flavour. Thus thousands of young people never came in contact with Highland dress or discovered how comfortable it could be, or, indeed, how suitable it could be for a multitude of social occasions.

I can recall, not so many years ago, receiving requests along with wedding invitations to come to the event in Highland dress. Nowadays, thank goodness, such requests are no longer necessary. However, when one sees a large number of present-day kilt wearers, the picture makes one squirm – too long kilts, hose so high that one is not sure whether the wearer has knees or not, mixtures of day and evening wear, plaids (or rather what dress hire operators pass off as plaids) being worn, white hose as part of formal wear (or even with any form of Highland dress).

As someone who has been involved in judging dress and deportment competitions for several years, I should like to set out what I look for and take into account in doing so. Let’s start with the kilt. A lot of rubbish is spoken and written about the length, tartan, what should be worn with the kilt, etc., etc. Most of the erroneous information was disseminated by ill-informed (or unscrupulous) tailors and other tradesmen who just happened to profit from their ‘rules of Highland dress’. Even the history of the kilt is plagued with argument. Its original form, the breacan an feilidh, or belted plaid, is not disputed, and modern kilt wearers can be truly pleased that this cumbersome form of dress has long since disappeared.

Is this you, or your fellow band members?…if so, it's time for a re-think
Is this you, or your fellow band members?…if so, it’s time for a re-think

Detractors of Highland dress may claim that the feilidh beag, or little kilt, which we wear today, was invented by either an Army tailor or even an Englishman who had the idea of separating the upper part of the breacan an feilidh and producing the feilidh beag. There is,  however, historic proof of the existence of the little kilt as early as 1639 and to whoever brought it about I can only say a heartfelt ‘thank-you’ for initiating the comfortable garment we know today.

What should be the length of a kilt? If one goes purely by tradition, the kilt worn by the Highlanders of old was short – much shorter – than anything worn today.  The reason was simple.  If your work takes you out on the hill or moor in all weathers the last thing you want is a wet or, worse still, a frozen kilt lacerating your legs behind the knees.  I don’t suggest that this should influence the length of a modern kilt, but the old chestnut of the kilt touching the floor when you kneel down produces a garment not far short of a lady’s calf length skirt. My own personal preference is that the kilt should be cut to the TOP of the kneecap. If the hose are turned down, military fashion, at least THREE fingers’ breadths below the kneecap this gives a very pleasing and balanced appearance to the figure.

Which tartan? This is another question where the integrity of kiltmakers in the past comes into question. Look in any kiltmaker’s shop and you will find lists of the clans and their septs. Take these with a very large pinch of salt. The system of septs of a clan is not even Scottish. In the past when a Highlander wore a tartan which didn’t match with his name it was not because HIS name made him a sept of the clan whose tartan he was wearing, but probably because he had been accepted into the clan either through marriage, his possession of specialist skills, or for some other reason.

Nowadays the wearing of tartan is big business. (How often do you hear an overseas  tourist being assured by an assistant in a kiltmaker’s or tartan shop that ‘your name means that you are entitled to wear such-and – such a tartan’. When it comes to choosing a tartan the only factor which ENTITLES you to wear a certain tartan is your bearing the same name. There is, however, nothing to stop you choosing to wear any tartan you like (with one or two exceptions) so long as you don’t claim a right or entitlement to wear it.

I wear any of five tartans but I can claim entitlement only to two of them: the Military Gordon through my links to the Gordon Highlanders, and the Aberdeen University Quincentenial tartan as a graduate of that University. I wear the Burnett of Leys tartan because that is the uniform kilt of the band I play with, and the Stewart of Appin from my younger days when I did a lot of Scottish country, and Highland, dancing. We did quite a lot of television work and producers preferred tartans which showed up well on the screen. My other kilt, Campbell in old colours, I  received as a gift from a friend and I quite simply like the tartan.

How authentic are the tartans we wear today anyway? Unfortunately we have no comprehensive authenticated details. We know beyond any shadow of doubt that tartan was worn in the Highlands from writings as early as 1512, 1578 and 1582. What these tartans were, however, we have no idea. It must be admitted that many tartans owe their origin to the visit of George IV to Scotland in 1822 and the romanticism of Sir Walter Scott and his contemporaries.

The Vestiarium Scoticum, published by the Sobieski Stuart brothers in the early nineteenth century, is the only authority for many of our tartans. This work was claimed to be based on a sixteenth century document which was later (conveniently?) lost. Like the tales of septs and entitlement to a tartan of modern tailors and kiltmakers, it could well have been a magnificent con trick to stimulate business. Either the Sobieski Stuarts DID have access to a genuine early source (and then added a lot of hitherto unknown tartans for the gullible) or the entire work was a fabrication.

The author demonstrates how Highland dress should be worn
The author demonstrates how Highland dress should be worn

Having said all that, all these tartans from then have now nearly two hundred years of existence. If we consider also the vast number of new tartans which are being registered almost constantly, does it really matter HOW the tartans came into being? They all exist. So choose your tartan (by entitlement or choice) and wear it properly and with pride.

Before leaving the subject of the kilt, I mentioned earlier that there were one or two exceptions to choosing any tartan you wish. These are tartans which by their very name and connections should not be generally worn. Obvious examples are Royal Stewart, worn correctly, other than by royalty, only by pipers and members of certain Highland regiments and the Balmoral tartan, designed by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria and reserved exclusively for the Royal Family and their employees. Any reputable tailor, however, should be able to advise you  about tartans NOT to choose.

The Sporran

Nowadays there is such a variety of sporrans available that you see the most amazing range wherever you see Highland dress being worn. Indeed many are suitable for both day and evening wear. I would hesitate to lay down hard and fast rules on sporrans but would suggest a few simple guidelines. If you are wearing a day dress type jacket (tweed, barathea or coloured), I would stick to a leather sporran – plain or ornamented- it doesn’t matter. Evening dress sporrans of sealskin or fur (although frowned on by conservationists) are suitable with dark jackets of the silver-buttoned variety. Long hair sporrans are seen nowadays almost exclusively in military bands or bands wearing military-style No. l dress uniforms. In my opinion they should stay there. Whatever type you go for make sure it is neither too high nor too low. Be comfortable wearing it.

(Read Part 2 here…)

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