Highland Dress

Highland dress has been worn, interpreted, and mythol-ogized in many different ways and its history is therefore fascinating and complex. From the early nineteenth century, Highland dress began to be seen as synonymous with Scotland as a whole. However, its origins relate to the specific culture that existed in the northerly Highland region of Scotland up until the late eighteenth century. Dress in the Highlands was initially closely linked to Irish Gaelic culture, consequently men's dress included long "saffron" shirts, trews (leg-coverings between trousers and stockings), and brown or multicolored mantles (a type of simple-shaped cloak). By 1600 men's dress had evolved to fit the following description:

the habite of the Highland men ... is stockings (which they call short hose) made of a warm stuff of divers colours, which they call tartane.. .a jerkin of the same stuff that their hose is of . with a plaid about their shoulders, which is a mantle of divers colours

The plaid or breacan was worn by all sections of Highland society and by both genders. It was a versatile garment, comprising an untailored piece of cloth, usually tartan, that was draped around the body in various ways. Men commonly wore it as the breacan an fheilidh or belted plaid, where it was gathered in folds around the waist to form a short-skirted shape, and the remainder was draped over the shoulder and fastened with a brooch. The belted plaid formed the basis of the tailored feileadh beag, in English phillabeg or little kilt, which is the form the kilt takes in the early 2000s. This adaptation was initiated by the English industrialist Thomas Rawlinson between 1727 and 1734, when he found that workmen at his Invergarry furnace needed a more practical form of dress than the unwieldy belted plaid.

The defeat of the Jacobite army at the battle of Cul-loden in 1745 was followed by the Disarming Acts of 1746, which involved the proscription of all forms of Highland dress until 1782. The kilt survived this period largely owing to the British establishment's adoption of Highland dress as the uniform of its Highland regiments. The militarization of Highland dress was to play an important role in shaping the visual imagery of the British Empire. It also informed the design of the fanciful version of Highland dress worn by George IV on a state visit to Edinburgh in 1822. This period also involved the creation of popular, romanticized interpretations of Scotland's history by several authors, including Sir Walter Scott. From the 1840s Queen Victoria's passion for the Highlands was to further promote the fashionability of Highland dress. Victorian interpretations of it were often outlandish; however, this period also saw the establishment of the key elements of the style as it is worn in the early twenty-first century, namely, the combination of neatly pleated kilt, decorative sporran, knee-length hose with sgian dubh (black knife), tweed or other short tailored jacket, and sturdy brogue shoes.


Queen Victoria promoted the fashionability of Highland dress in her instructions to Edwin Landseer concerning the painting Royal Sports on Hill and Loch, 1874. "It is to be thus: I, stepping out of the boat at Loch Muich, Albert in his Highland dress, assisting me out. Bertie is on the deer pony with McDonald ... standing behind, with rifles and plaids on his shoulder. In the water ... are several of the men in their kilts." (Ormond, pp. 159-160)

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