Fashion and LifeStyle

The History of the Kilt – From Highland Dress To Fashionable Attire

The History of the Kilt – From Highland Dress To Fashionable Attire

What does a Scotsman wear under his kilt? That’s the big question that everyone wants to know when they see someone wearing this traditional Scottish garment. If he’s a true Scotsman, he won’t be wearing anything!

But there is so much more to know about kilts. Their origins date back hundreds of years, and they were even illegal for a few decades. And somehow, they became fashionable pieces of clothing for both men and women worldwide.

Intrigued to learn more about Scottish kilts? This guide will give you an extensive tour of the fascinating history of the kilt!

The Etymology of the Word Kilt

“Kilt” is a Scots Gaelic word meaning “to tuck up the clothes around the body.” Like many Scots words, it likely has Scandinavian origins. It resembles the Old Norse word kjalta which means “fold of a gathered skirt.”

In the 17th century, the Gaelic words breacan feile meaning “belted plaid,” also became a common term for kilts.

Kilts in the 17th and 18th Centuries

The earliest mention of a kilt in recorded history stems back to a publication titled Lift of Red Hugh O’Donnell in 1594. Yes, that means Braveheart (1995) should not have depicted William Wallace wearing a kilt. They weren’t invented when the real Wallace was alive in the 13th century!

By the 15th century, wool was a lot cheaper to buy, and cloaks were getting bigger and longer. To make them more practical, the fighting armies in the Scottish highlands tied a belt around their cloak and invented The Great Kilt. They created the pleats at the back of the kilt using a belt.

The Great Kilt draped over one shoulder and hung down around the knees. The heavy fabric kept the Highlanders warm in the damp and cold Scottish weather. The top part of the kilt could keep muskets dry, and they could use the whole fabric as a camping blanket.

Cut to the 1720s; an English Quaker called Thomas Rawlinson thought The Great Kilt was far too heavy. He designed a new version (The Small Kilt) which consisted of two pieces of garments with the pleats already sewn into the design of the skirt. The top part of the kilt was a simple scarf worn across the body.

They were an instant hit and became the new men’s style of kilt in both the highlands and more rural parts of the lowlands.

Banning of Kilts in the Dress Act of 1746

The last (failed) Jacobite uprising in the Scottish Highlands occurred in 1746. After that, King George II outlawed anything to do with Highland culture, including the Gaelic language and kilts. He wanted to oppress the Scottish people so they wouldn’t rebel again.

King George II introduced the Dress Act in parliament in the same year. It meant that everyone except Highland military regiments could not wear a kilt. This ban stayed in effect for 35 years.

Some Highlanders still wore the kilt as a form of protest, but the British government punished them. First-time offenders got six months imprisonment. Second-time offenders got seven years of transportation i.e., sent to a colony of the British Empire.

Revival of the Kilt in the 19th Century

After the British Crown lifted the ban, it soon became a symbol for the whole of Scotland and not only the Highlands. Highland societies encouraged everyone to wear kilts when King George IV visited Scotland in 1822. By this time, kilts for men had their Clan tartan fabric.

Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901, loved Scottish dress. This increased the popularity of the kilt even more.

Kilts as Highland Regiment Military Uniform

Military regiments in the Highlands have been wearing kilts since 1624. But it wasn’t until 1739 that they had their own tartan to distinguish them from other Highlanders. This was necessary when the Dress Act was in place.

While many regiments phased out the kilt as part of their standard uniform, it’s still part of some full-dress uniforms today. Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Royal Regiment of Scotland are two of many regiments that still wear them.

Kilts as a Counterculture Fashion Statement

Throughout the 20th century, tartan fabric and kilts were staples in the wardrobes of British royalty and the upper middle class. In the 1970s, punks started ripping up these tartan fabrics. They wore kilts with their heavy leather boots and spiky jewelry.

British designer Vivienne Westwood incorporated both into her punk-inspired collections. Wearing kilts in this way was an anti-establishment style choice.

Today, tartan fabric and kilts are still both staples of punk women’s and men’s fashion and conservative styles of dress.

The Status and Wearing of Kilts Today

Kilts are not, of course, casualwear for Scottish men. They wear modern utility kilts, like those from Kiltman Kilts, for special occasions. These include Scottish ceremonial events (like the Highland Games) or weddings.

Scottish men wear kilts with kilt hose (white knee-height socks) that they turn down at the knee. These socks often have garters at the knee and decorations around the ankles. They also wear a sporran which is a small pouch hanging at the waist in front of the kilt.

Men can wear their kilt with a traditional ghillie shirt. This is a loose-fitting white shirt held at the collar with leather rope. Or, they can wear a standard collar shirt with a black jacket.

Kilts Are a Symbol of Pride and Rebellion

For the past 400 years, the kilt has become a symbol of Scottish pride and independence. But it’s also a symbol of anti-establishment rebellion.

So when you next watch Outlander, see a bagpiper playing, or a punk walking by, you will know the history and the reason why they wear a kilt!

Are you fascinated by the history of other cultures? Browse our lifestyle articles to learn more.

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