How to Wear a Kilt
Created | Updated Oct 11, 2019
A kilt is a garment closely associated with Scotland, worn mostly, but not exclusively, by men. Some say it is only truly The Kilt when worn by men. It is sometimes used for school uniforms, and forms part of the scout uniform in Scotland. It is made of a long piece of woollen cloth, densely pleated at the back, flat at the front, held in place with buckles at the waist. Opinions vary as to when the kilt first made an appearance, but it certainly existed in the 16th Century. It was, at one time, proscribed as a weapon of war, before enjoying a revival during Queen Victoria's reign.
What's Worn Under the Kilt?
Answer: Nothing, it's all in perfect working order!
Despite the long-running myth about going commando1 in a kilt, there is no dictat which requires this, and comfort, warmth and decency often prevail. This will not, however, stop people trying to photograph under your kilt when you are wearing one. Surely there must be a gap in the market for a pair of undies with a 'Get Lost'-style message on them!
How Long Do You Want It?
Answer: I want to keep it!
The kilt should fall to the middle of your kneecap, although the hardy souls in Aberdeen usually wear those just above the knee. More modern kilts can be shorter than this, and fashion kilts can be very, very, short indeed. Modern or fashion kilts do not restrict themselves to tartan, and can be made from cotton, denim or even leather. A dress or military kilt will be made of longer and heavier cloth than a day kilt. A custom-made kiltmaker will ask for measurement of your waist, hips and desired kilt-length: for the latter, kneel on the floor and measure from your waist to the ground. A proper custom made job will cost, at the time of writing, in the region of £500, plus all the necessary bits to go along with it, which can double the price.
What Do I Wear With It?
There are a number of accessories which a well-dressed kilt-wearer will sport, usually with some history or purpose behind them:
- Kilt Pin: this holds the front apron of the kilt closed, and so stops it blowing madly in a breeze. They're quite common in Scotland, breezes. The pin is like a very large safety pin, and may be decorated with heraldic symbols such as a Celtic cross or a thistle.
- Sporran: this is a sort of mini man-bag that is worn around the waist. Dress sporrans can be made of badger hair, while day sporrans tend to be leather, and may be patterned with Celtic knotwork designs. Since kilts don't have pockets, the sporran is the perfect place to keep your lottery tickets, money, cigarettes and all the other gubbins that usually congregates inside your pockets.
- A sgian dubh:2 a short dagger, worn inside the hose to show that the wearer means no harm3. Often it is topped with a jewel, as it is really a decorative item. Some establishments may prohibit the carrying of what is after all a knife, so check with the hotel or venue beforehand.
- Shirts: these can be a formal white dress shirt, for an evening doo, or a ghillie shirt - a smock laced at the neck - for casual daytime. Bow-ties are acceptable for evening dress, alternatively ties with a plain white shirt. A tartan tie is usually a mistake, and it is better to go for a plain colour that tones with your kilt. Ghillie shirts do not need a tie.
- Hose, to give the socks their proper name, should be knee-length and woollen. Cream hose are traditional with Scottish kilts, whilst black is more usual with Irish kilts. Black hose are also appropriate for funerals. Other colours are known as stockings, and may be in a colour that tones with your kilt, held in place with a garter. White socks are only seen in a pipe band.
- Flashes: little strips of the same tartan as your kilt - should be tucked into the top fold of your hose, facing outwards.
- Jacket: for formal occasions the jacket can be the Prince Charlie, a 'coatee' with short tails at the back, no buttons at the front, worn with a waistcoat (vest), a dress shirt and bow-tie. For occasions when a Prince Charlie would be too formal, the Argyle is more suitable, a single button/single-breasted jacket usually with decorative buttons at the cuff. For Irish kilts, the formal jacket is the Brian Boru, whilst the slightly longer Kilkenny is more suited to less formal affairs. Irish jackets are often a shade of green. Other fancier jackets include the Sherrifmuir or the Montrose, although these are mostly the domain of pipe bands and military dress wear. They are worn with a frilly ruffle at the neck.
- Shoes: these should be laced-up ghillie brogues for a formal affair, and the laces should go right up the hose and be tied at the back for a very formal do, while socks rolled down with chunky boots is the kilt-wearer's equivalent of 'smart casual'.
- Confidence: you will attract attention and questions, and while most of it will be friendly and good-natured, this does not make it an ideal garment for those of a shy and retiring disposition.
What's the Tartan?
A kilt-wearing groom was asked on his wedding day: 'What's the tartan?'
To which he replied: 'Och, she'll be in a white dress'.
A wide range of tartans exists, although the association of a specific colour and pattern arrangement (or sett) with specific clans only began about 200 years ago. Nevertheless, when choosing a tartan to wear, using your surname is a good place to start. If you have a Scottish surname, a tartan can readily be found, but many other surnames have a link to a specific clan and hence tartan. Most clans will have a day and a dress version of their tartan.
Royal Stewart, as the personal tartan of Queen Elizabeth II, may be worn by any of her subjects, as a mark of allegiance to the head of the clan. Balmoral tartan was created by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert around 1850; it is personal to the Royal family and kilts can only be worn by their members, or the Queen's Piper. Prince Charles favours a kilt of Lord of the Isles tartan.
Non-clan tartans are known as District tartans. Many of these have been created to represent geographical places - if you want a pretty colour or pattern, there are a number of designs which have been invented, particularly for the lucrative Scottish-American tourist trade. The Isle of Skye have created a tartan with soft hues of purple and green, echoing the misty heather-covered hills on the island.
Irish variants are usually a solid colour, often saffron or green. The Ulster-Scots connection has a long history, and a piece of tartan cloth discovered in a County Antrim peat bog in 1956 has been dated back to the 1590s - 1650s. Its design was used to create an Ulster tartan.
Where's the Party?
Most kilt-wearers - even in Scotland - keep their kilts for special events such as weddings, Christenings, Hogmanay, St Andrew's Day, Burns Night and rugby matches4. However, the wearing of the kilt as everyday garb is not unknown in the Highlands.
Storage and Transport
To keep the pleats in shape when being stored or in transit to the event, the kilt should be rolled, rather than hung, pleats facing inwards. Special 'kilt rolls' exist for this purpose, but the same effect can be achieved by putting the rolled-up kilt into the leg of a spare pair of tights.
Kilts feature in a number of songs and films. An old Victorian music-hall song, 'Donald Where's Yer Troosers?' tells of a young man journeying to London from Skye, and being teased because of his kilt. Carry On Up the Khyber features a regiment known as 'Devils in Skirts', whose reputation for going knickerless is an important morale booster and out-psyching the enemy manoeuvre. In the 1980s Spandau Ballet were known for wearing frilly shirts and kilts, although they stopped this practice after a while, goodness only knows why.