« Did the Scots really invent the kilt? » Here is a question that might puzzle many people at the time of great successes on the part of the nationalist movement from Glasgow to Edinburgh or right up the Highlands. Yet this question is not totally unjustified since several other nations could claim authorship of this garment.
From the point of view of fashion designers, it is an interesting subject since one can root one’s style deep into local traditions and nonetheless be inspired by recent creations as well as modern or ancient fashion stemming from other cultural horizons.
Let us take for instance the case of Samantha McCoach. Graduating from Edinburgh University, she based her womenswear line on the kilt tradition which was mainly a masculine attire in the old days.
But she immersed herself in vivid modernity giving new shapes and colours to an article of clothing specific to the Scottish National heritage.
Some critics describe her style as punk, referring to the revolt of the youth in the 1970s, while others rather see in the wearing of the pleated skirt with Scottish colours some sort of ‘post-punk feminism’.
According to the anecdote, she called her brand Le kilt (in French) after the famous London nightclub in Bourne Avenue, Soho, opened in 1963 until the 1980s.
However, one must go back further in the past to grasp why her clothes are made with traditional textiles and methods.
In the course of media interviews, she keeps recalling how, as a young girl, she saw her grandmother sewing kilts and was so attracted to the colourful universe of tartans.
Just a reminder: the tartan belonging to the Celtic Commonwealth, is a woolen woven fabric with intertwined squares, the colours of which, mostly among the Scots, are related to tribes and clans. The tinge of colour in the pattern also provides an indication of the social position the owner finds himself in.
As such, adapting skirts which were rarely worn by women (except in the traditional dancing clubs from the 19th century onwards) Samantha has imagined womenswear items following the path of other famous Scottish designers to start with the fondly remembered Alexander McQueen.
Yet promoting an original heritage, she sketches and creates outfits that stress the minimalist and the understated aspect of the kilt, going as far as using on occasions a black tartan. “Simple, classical, uniform”, she answers when asked to define her style.
McCoach’s style is a striking contrast with Glaswegian Charles Jeffrey’s brand Loverboy, with his flamboyant Tartan sub-culture I shall touch on later in this article.
The kilt as interceltic link
So we see, our Scottish friends were not the only ones wearing the kilt from the ancient times until now. Even though for kilted actor Sean Connery, see the film Highlander, it has become a national symbol on the international scene just as much as the Loch Ness monster.
The whole Celtic world was concerned when it ruled over the largest part of Europe (between a thousand and three hundred years before Christ). Archeologists have found traces of the « skirt » either joint as one piece with a tunic shirt or under the modern shape, sometimes in leather or in textile such as linen which gave its name to the Irish Gaelic Léine.
Warriors used it as seen with the carved picture of a Celt in Slovenia, five centuries before Christ (as seen above).
So, all indications point towards the fact that men wore kilt before the Roman conquest in a Celtic world covering Eastern Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, Gaul and the British Isles.
Among them were the Galicians. In fact, until the 18th Century, the kilt was worn in Galicia and at least since the 3rd Century before Christ as discoveries by archeologists tell us. Not surprising that Galicia – from which scores of Breton people emigrated from insular Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries – has become nowadays a center of international fashion. But I shall deal with this some other time.
Interestingly, on the reverse route, mythology has it that the Celtic tribe known as the Brigantes can be found in the Dark Ages simultaneously in Ireland, at the threshold of Scotland and Wales. They originate from an emigration of Gaels who came from North-West Galicia and inherited their name from the totemic protection of Brighid – pronounce brid – the mother of all Celtic gods.
Those population moves have been ascertained by DNA tests. If they brought over their traditions as well as the Gaelic language, why not the kilt?
Others claimed to have been the best kilt-wearers: the Irish. There again, History is loquacious. During the 6th Century a kingdom known as the Dál Riata, lay across the sea between the eastern part of Ireland and the Clyde (in Scotland), and the Irish (then called the Scots) imported their Gaelic language.
Those Irish spread across Scotland, fighting the indigenous Picts, ferocious warriors whose name was given by the Romans (Picti) which indicates that they were « painted », their body fully covered with a blue dye to fight the Roman legions north of Hadrian’s Wall. In Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart (1995), their inheritors are not naked but wear the kilt having the rest of their body dyed in blue.
Throughout the ages, the diverse colours of the tartan attached to various clans were used as a sign of reconnaissance in battles just as the war cry, the slogan in Gaelic.
The kilt in Brittany
The kilt was not only worn in the Highlands, in Ireland or in Wales but also in Cornwall and continental Brittany.
Regarding the two latter Celtic nations, they are recent creations (or revivals). In Cornwall, the national yellow and black tartan has been created by the linguist and national activist Robert Morton Nance (1873-1959).
In continental Brittany, we owe its resurgence mostly to Richard Duclos with the conception of a “national” kilt (registered in Scotland) predominantly black and white, combined with the blue of the Arvor (the seaside country) and the green of the Argoad (the inland country).
It is likely the Breton people wore a piece of brown cloth tied around their waist as sculpted figures on the Plougastel-Daoulas calavary bear witness (see photo).
According to one tradition, the baggy trousers or bragou braz were a kind of lengthened kilt sewn to make up trousers’ legs.
Also, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, gave an entitlement for the Bretons to wear kilts to thank them as they welcomed her in August 1548 in the harbour of Roscoff while she was fleeing the English on her way to marry the king of France.
Before going to Paris, she went through Nantes, one of the two ancient capitals of the formerly independent duchy of Brittany. There, the 6-year-old queen saw a large parade – half fashion, half military – with 150 children walking across the city, wearing white clothes, playing fife and tambourine, or bearing tiny halberds while shouting cheers of welcome to the queeny.
Thereafter, Mary Stuart owned one of the most beautiful wardrobes of the time and enjoyed it before walking up the scaffold, much later, executed at the instigation of the jealous Elizabeth Ist.
Two centuries later, again in Roscoff, landed the pretender to the Stuart throne Bonny Prince Charlie. His army had been defeated at the famous battle of Culloden in 1746. Notably, the tartan was banned in the Highlands by the conqueror until the end of the 18th century, that is until clans rallied to the Crown forming the backbone of the armies of the British empire with soldiers of specific Scottish regiments wearing the kilt, such as the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment wearing the tartan of the clan Campbell). In Spain, at the Battle of the Coruña, Scottish and Galician soldiers fought the troops of Napoleon all wearing the kilt.
By 1815, with the return of peace, Scottish clans were identified and itemized with a code of tartan colours.
Walter Scott, the author of the novel Quentin Durward, celebrating links between Scotland and France, presided the Celtic Society. In 1822, he managed to unite all the clan chiefs, asking them to wear their tartan to welcome the king George VI who in turn wore it too as a gesture of respect. By then, Scott had also written novels that fascinated Europe with other Scottish characters, such as The Adventures of Rob Roy (1817), celebrating an outlaw who symbolised the spirit of resistance of the Highlands: Robert Mac Gregor aka Rob Roy or Robert the Red (Raibeart Ruadh). That novel was adapted for the screen several times.
Even in Scotland where the kilt finally became most developed, the influence of the other Celtic communities was obvious as the book by French travel writer Louis Esnault bears testimony in 1859 Angleterre, Écosse, Irlande : voyage pittoresque : “We recognized as if we were a real Gael, the Sutherland dark green, the white tartan of Inverness, the highly contrasted tints of Mac Cameron, the deep purple of Fraser, enlightened by two little light stripes, and the royal plaid of the Stuarts with a thousand colours. But what a fugacious knowledge indeed! Already half forgotten, confused rays escaping from a broken prism that sparkle in front of our eyes and dazzle our uncertain memory. All what we remember now in the rainbow of tartans, is that the green glitters in the clans coming from Ireland such as the MacKenzies; the red from the Breton Celts, such as the MacGregors and the yellow coming from the Danish clans such as the MacLeods.”
Interestingly, this travel writer describes several times women wearing skirts with the colour of their country. Until then, the kilt mainly hid the masculinity of battling warriors. But by the end of that century, women were going to reduce the might of the male kilt-wearers, such as the terrifying Mistress MacMiche in the novel by the Russian-French countess de Ségur, A Good Little Devil, published exactly at the same time.
Women take on the kilt
Wearing the kilt has become cleary ambiguous as regards gender and sex issues.
As is proven by the reiterated questions over a mystery as too whether or not it is worn above a naked skin with or without underwear.
The militarization of the kilt at the time of British empire, both in Scottish regiments and bagpipes groups, had strongly remasculinized its role (and by military rules imposed wearing it on the bare skin). Later, on the contrary, there was a change as exhibition and visions could be considered obscene during ceremonies in the Victorian era. Especially for Gaelic games, traditional dances and competitions of bagpipes.
So, by the 20th century, it slipped towards unisex.
As a consequence, specialists remind us that the kilt is worn to the knee for men. And either above or under the knee for a woman just as a skirt. For traditionalists, a man wearing to low his skirt would look “sissy”.
As a result, the feminization depends upon the ways of wearing the kilt (for hygienic purposes also) and their measurements. But the designers of our 21th century are now the main organizers of this change.
McQueen, Loverboy and MacBeth
Some Scottish fashion designers have explicitly rooted their creations in local traditions but break new ground and face other ethnical traditions.
I am thinking about Glasgow-born Graeme Armour, graduated from Central Saint Martins, London. In 2008, he was designated as Scottish Young Designer and collaborated with big names such as Alexander McQueen who died two years later. Let us note that Graeme Armour cooperates with Vietnamese designers.
And one remembers that his mentor, nicknamed “McQueen of Scots” was indeed born in the East End of London but came from an ancient family from Skye Island. And for his catwalks, he used the tartan of the McQueen clan, that is black, red and yellow.
He had called two of his Autumn/Winter collections according to famous examples of the battle of the Scots for their independence: Highland Rape (1995) and Widows of Culloden (2006).
The latter wore dresses or suits with tartan even though this designer insisted on the necessity to move away from a romanticism which in his opinion was too closely associated with an image of Scotland.