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The Kilt and How to Wear it

The Kilt & How to Wear It (in 1901)!
©2005 Matthew A. C. Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS
published in the Scottish Banner, May 2005
More writings on Highland Dress can be found on his web site, www.albanach.org.

This month we will take a look at a delightful little book entitled The Kilt and How to Wear It, written by the Hon. Stuart Ruaidri Erskine, originally published in 1901. Kilt maker and kilt historian Bob Martin discovered this book in 1984 and in 1999 it was republished, with his annotations, by Scotpress. While the author makes a few historical errors, which Martin corrects, we are most interested in his opinion of how the kilt should be worn, something which is still debated today, a hundred years later.
The first thing people usually discuss is the appropriateness of wearing a particular tartan. The typical assumption is that clan tartans have existed from time immemorial and one ought to wear a proper clan tartan. Scholars today debunk this myth, asserting that it was over the course of the nineteenth century that tartans began to be affiliated with clans. Even in 1901 we find Erskine stating "that I believe the practice of clans wearing particular tartans to be of comparatively recent origin."
To this end, he quotes from a letter written by a Mr. Campbell of Islay dated October 3, 1882. "My old tailor, a Campbell... knew nothing of clan tartans; neither did my piper, Mure; neither do I." So if our ancestors had no clan tartans, what did they wear? Erskine writes, "Tartan... was simply a chequered or spotted material whose manufacture was peculiar to our people; and that, so far from being on all occasions careful to wear a particular pattern of their own, our forefathers were quite content to be clad in ‘tartan,' without troubling themselves about the ‘sett' or pattern thereof."
In other words, people wore generic tartan patterns, in colors and designs they found attractive, with no thought as to the "name" of the tartan. Erskine refers to these generic tartans as "hill checks." "I much regret," he writes, "that this pretty custom of wearing ‘hill checks' has fallen into disuse. Apart from sentimental reasons, it is a very agreeable pastime the designing of these tartans. I have designed not a few of them myself... I have tartans for hill wear and tartans for low country wear, and tartans for spring, summer, autumn and winter. With a little practice, very striking and beautiful combinations of colours can be formed; and if the designer is careful to follow nature, he may be sure his efforts will be crowned with success."
Now there is an idea! How many kilt wearers today have thought about designing their own personal tartan, rather than wearing one of some clan to which they have theoretical relation? For many, the supposed cost of having a tartan custom woven puts them off the idea, but did you know that some of the smaller mills will weave just enough tartan for a single kilt? And the cost is comparable to the stocked tartans of many mills? Ask your kilt maker!
And what of the kilt? Well, before he discusses the specifics of that garment, Erskine makes some remarks on dress in general which bear repeating. "The man of parts and character always takes care to invest his personality with a certain amount of individuality. Without descending to extremes, he allows the world unmistakably to see that he has as nice and peculiar a taste in dress as he has in pictures, books, or in respect of any other of those numerous things which contribute to our diversion and refinement."
If we take his advice and apply it to modern day Highland dress, what he is telling us is to avoid looking like a "cookie-cutter Scotsman," dressed like we just walked off the stage of a Brigadoon production. Be individual in your wardrobe. Avoid, also, the extreme of dressing down the kilt so much that you degrade the nobleness of the garment with sloppy accessories. The way you are dressed portrays a certain image to the world and you want that image to be one of good taste and refinement.
Does this mean you must only wear the kilt formally? No, not at all. Erskine writes, "The Highland dress is essentially a ‘free' dress - that is to say, a man's taste and circumstances must alone be permitted to decide when and where and how he should wear it... I presume to dictate to no man what he shall eat or drink or wherewithal he shall be clothed." So yes, wear the kilt casually - and often! - but when you do, wear it in good taste.
As for the kilt itself, Erskine advocates the wearing of "rough homespun or some tartan (hill-check)... agreeable in colour and design" for every day wear of the kilt. "Some quiet, unobtrusive tartan or homespun is far more suitable for country wear." For "games, county meetings of all kinds, and other similar extraordinary undertakings," he suggests the clan tartan be used. "The public knows (more or less) its clan tartans or liveries, whilst it knows little or nothing of tartan (i.e. hill check) in general; hence it is, reader, that on all occasions in which you may desire to appear branded or labeled as it were with the stamp of your origin, you will do well to discard your hill check."
Of the construction of the kilt, Erskine advises us to wear a kilt of a rough and heavy cloth, and avoid soft and light weight tartans. "The mission of the kilt is not to hang and pleat well after a certain dandified fashion, but to afford a substantial, convenient, and economical costume to the work-a-day Celt." He warns us against the "modern fashion" of having the kilt come below the knee. "In nearly all the older portraits the lower edge of the kilt... invariably shows the knees of the wearer... The knees are symbolic of strength and ought to be shown in a man."
Of interest to us in the modern age is his discussion on how the kilt should be pleated. Today, when a kilt maker asks this question, what he is asking is whether you want your kilt pleated to stripe or sett. But this is not what Erskine addresses. Rather he discusses whether your kilt should be knife pleated or box pleated, which he says is purely a matter of individual taste. Most kilt makers today do not even offer box pleating as an option, though this was once the norm. He also confesses to be fond of pleating to the sett - a style he says is rarely practiced but is becoming more popular. Little would he suspect that a hundred years later, this fashion would become common-place!
Erskine continues on to discuss the peculiarities of hose, garters, bonnets, doublets, and the like. But we have no space quote him on every aspect of our attire. The interested party is recommended to purchase the book. And so we will let our voice from the past have the last word on the matter. "The man who wears the kilt... differentiates himself from the surrounding peoples. The ease, grace, and elegance of his costume please and charm all unprejudiced beholders, whilst the individuality of the man, revealed in the various adjustments of his raiment, and in the buoyant freedom of his carriage, proclaim the man of action, the freeman, and the thinker."

 

 





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