When I went away to college at the age of 18, I was suddenly 2 ½ hours away from home and surrounded by people roughly my own age of every race, orientation, and idiosyncrasy. I was so desperate to find my own “style” that I copied everyone else looking for it. I pierced my ears. I tried red hair and blue hair and bleached blond hair. I wore eyeliner for two months, for God's sake. I started wearing camouflage pants … then rugby shirts … then workout "jams" ... then cargo shorts. And then for a semester, I made friends with this crazy guy in pottery class and I started mimicking him. So off and on for 15 weeks, I wore a kilt. My God … I wore a kilt … in public … in front of people. YIKES!!
By definition, the kilt is a knee-length garment that originated in the 16th century in the highlands of Scotland. Traditionally, kilts were worn by men and boys during formal occasions such as weddings and sporting events. But in the 1800s the garment gained more popularity in all of Scotland and surrounding Celtic nations. In Ireland, particularly, a solid kilt … called a “cilt” … came into general fashion around 1900. Likewise, kilts became popular in Wales, Normandy, and parts of Spain and Portugal.
Today, in Scotland, kilts are still primarily considered formal dress … kind of like the American tuxedo. They are also popular attire for dances, pipe band competitions, parades, and celebrations like the Highland Games. Certain military groups with a Scottish heritage occasionally utilize ceremonial kilts as well; these groups include regiments of the British Army, certain units of the military in Australia and New Zealand, and the pipe and drum bands of the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Air Force.
Both traditionally-styled and more contemporary kilts (also known as “modern kilts” or “utility kilts”) have been growing in the men’s garment industry in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. And while wool is still popular, fabrics such as leather, denim, corduroy, and cotton have been used to give kilts more versatility and to make them more affordable. Designs are available for formal and casual wear, utilizing traditional pleating and fasteners as well as velcro and pockets for tools and other items.
Kilts have been seen in ancient Egypt (pleated linen wraps known as “shendyts”) as well as Ireland and other Gaelic nations, but the Scottish kilt is very unique in its construction and adherence to centuries-old traditions. Kilts are made of twill-woven worsted wool. It’s a heavier fabric, but weavers and manufacturers create a variety of weights appropriate for various seasons and activities.
A traditional kilt is a very tailored garment, carefully matched to the wearer’s waist, hips, and height. It takes between 8 and 9 yards of fabric to construct a kilt that covers a man’s body from the waist down to the center of his knees. Starting from one side (usually the wearer’s left), kilt fabric is wrapped around the front and back of the body and across the front again to the opposite side. A system of fastening straps and buckles secures the waist. Kilts seldom have hems to avoid seeming bulky.
The overlapping layers in the front of a kilt are called "aprons" and they are flat. The single layer of fabric the covers the sides and back of the body is pleated with either knife pleats (simple folds) or more structured box pleats.
But for most people, choosing a kilt is all about the tartan. Tartan is sometimes called the sett, but basically it is the unique plaid design that is woven for kilt construction. Setts are created by the vertical and horizontal arrangement of specific thread counts of a structured sequence of colored fibers. A tartan or set code is maintained so that the pattern can be duplicated. Tartans can be created symmetrically (with the pattern being mirrored at a pivot point) or asymmetrically (where the pattern is just repeated over and over). Likewise, the tartan can be worked into the pleating so that either one dominant stripe of the pattern runs down each pleat (making the unpleated front appear different from the sides and back of the kilt), or the fabric can be folded in such a way that the same pattern is maintained throughout the garment.
Once a tartan pattern has been established, there are typically four color variations developed. An “ancient” treatment takes the color sequence and skews the colors to resemble the vegetable dyes used centuries ago. In this process, blues and greens become slightly lighter and reds have an orange tinge. In the “modern” variation, colors are very intense and bright. “Weathered” tartan attempts to create cloth that appears worn by the elements by adjusting greens into light browns, blues into grays, and reds into mulberry colors. And finally, a “muted” variation skews the tartan toward earth tones where greens are olive, blues look like slate, and reds take on a deep wine color.
For centuries, tartan patterns have been associated with clans and families, as well as geographic regions. Today, there are even tartans representing schools and universities, corporations, sporting clubs, special events, and even single individuals. And generic patterns are available to anyone.
Beginning in the 19th century, weaving companies began developing a formalized system for filing registered tartan patterns. Today most of these patterns are part of the international tartan index of the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA). The STA is a wonderful resource for many things Scottish, including tartan formulas, fabric samples, and more than 3,500 registered setts. And with the variations I mentioned previously, that means more than 14,000 separate registered patterns!!
In more contemporary settings, kilts are paired with sports jerseys, t-shirts, and flannel shirts, as well as sneakers and work boots. And the “going commando” thing is up to the individual.
POINT OF RANT: With my legs, a kilt should NEVER have become a part of my wardrobe!!