What Defines a Kilt?
WHAT DEFINES A KILT?
©2005 Matthew A. C. Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS
published in The Scottish Banner, December 2005
More writings on Highland Dress can be found on his web site, www.albanach.org.
How do you define the kilt? As a kilt maker, kilt wearer, and a kilt historian, you'd suppose this would be an easy question. But when you get down to the details, the kilt is really rather hard to define.
This has become an issue recently due to several factors. First, there have been issues raised in Scotland regarding inexpensive, foreign made kilts (mostly coming out of Asia) being imported and sold to tourists as "Scottish Highland kilts." Kilt makers in Scotland are naturally concerned that visitors to their country are being sold a product under false pretenses. Secondly, many "contemporary kilts" have been introduced to the market both within and without Scotland. Some of these cause people to wonder if these new modes of dress are really kilts at all. So how does one define a kilt?
It sounds like it should be a simple proposition, but it gets complicated when you begin to look at some of the factors that might be considered. To begin with, does a kilt have to be tartan? This is perhaps what first springs to mind, as many people automatically associate one with the other. Certainly most kilts throughout history have been tartan. But what of the solid hodden grey kilts worn by the London Scottish? Would anyone dare suggest to these soldiers that they are not wearing "true kilts?" I didn't think so.
Irish pipe bands have often worn solid saffron or emerald green. And there is ample historic precedent. Not only did John Brown have his portrait pained in a solid black kilt, we have a portrait of the chief of the Campbells of Lochawe wearing a solid red feilidh-mhor in 1635! Kilts most definitely do not have to be tartan.
Some would say a kilt has to be made from at least eight yards of cloth. This simply cannot be a defining factor. To begin with, not all men are created equal. This gentleman may require nine yards, while the next needs only seven. But even more important is the historical fact that kilts typically had around four yards of cloth throughout most of their history. It was only during the course of the nineteenth century that more cloth was added, until we have the (nominally) eight yard kilt of today. No one would claim that these earlier, historic kilts were not "true" kilts. On top of that, many of the top kilt makers in the world today are offering kilts made from four yards of cloth.
So then, does a kilt have to be pleated in a certain style? Again, we look at the historical record. The earliest kilts, the feilidh-mhor and the feilidh-beag, were not carefully pleated so much as randomly gathered. But if we limit ourselves to the tailored kilt, the earliest ones (beginning in the 1790s) were box pleated. By the end of the nineteenth century, knife pleating was the norm. In between, one finds examples of other styles, including kilts that combine knife and box pleating. There are even early portraits of men in kilts with pleats continuing around the front.
Does a kilt have to be made from wool? While wool is the traditional material for a kilt, and many (myself included) would say it is the best material for a kilt, I know very good kilt makers who have made kilts from other cloths. So long as it will hold a pleat and have a masculine hang, I see no reason why a kilt, by definition, has to be wool.
Should a kilt have to be made in Scotland in order to be a "true" kilt? While there may be a certain amount of sentimentality in owning a "Scottish-made kilt" there are very good kilt makers in North America, Australia and other parts of the world who make kilts of the same quality as any you would find in Scotland. And remember that there are poorly trained kilt makers in Scotland, as well as masters. So what geographic location the kilt happens to have been made in can hardly be the defining factor.
Should a kilt be hand tailored? I would say yes, a good kilt should be hand tailored. But we are not discussing what makes a good kilt. We are discussing what makes a kilt, period. And many of the top Highland Dress suppliers today are offering less expensive kilt options that use machine stitching. Are these as good as hand stitched kilts? No. Are they kilts nonetheless? Certainly. It would be elitist to suggest otherwise.
And this brings me to my final point. Most of the people seeking to strictly define the kilt do so for the purposes of setting the "authentic" kilts apart from those of less quality. But rather than saying one is a real kilt and the other is not, we should simply say one is a kilt of the highest quality and the other is poorly made. There can be good and bad kilts. Some trousers are of better construction than others. This does not mean the lower quality garments are not really trousers!
Thinking in this manner, we can put forth certain elements to look for in a good, quality kilt. I would suggest that a good kilt should be hand stitched, made to measure, from the highest quality woolen cloth. I wouldn't attempt to get more restrictive than this. A well constructed four-yard box pleated kilt in a solid color Harris Tweed is just as authentic and traditional as a well made eight-yard knife pleated kilt from worsted wool tartan cloth.
A machine-stitched, polyester, off-the-peg kilt is still a kilt. It's just not a very good one! I think we should stop attempting to declare what is and is not a kilt, and satisfy ourselves with judging quality, like we do with any other purchase we make. A good kilt will wear well, serve for formal and casual use, and be something your grandchildren will treasure. You may have to pay more for quality, but in the end the most frugal thing is to spend your money on something that will last. Invest in tradition, and you won't have any regrets!