Formal Highland Attire: The Correct Wearing of the Kilt; the National Dress of Scotland

We don't simply wear a theatrical costume; we wear the national dress of Scotland. While some people might think that any proposed definition of what is "correct" in traditional Highland dress is in some way a gross infringement of their right to express their individuality, others may be interested to know just what the standards are, even if they choose to exhibit variations on the theme. Voluntarily observing the rule and custom of the Scots in the matter of dress is one way to strengthen and to reinforce the genuine and traditional of the Highland culture that we claim to celebrate.

BLACK TIE

Formal Highland attire is in order whenever the invitation on an announcement reads "Black Tie" or "Evening Wear" requested. For men, this means the Highland equivalent of a tuxedo. Burns Nights, St. Andrews Dinners, and Dining In ceremonies are all formal affairs. This includes a kilt, either white hose or other solid primary color kilt hose, tartan kilt hose, red and white, red and black or blue and white diced kilt hose and flashes, white tux shirt (with studs and cufflinks, if appropriate), black or solid colored bow tie and one of the formal style kilt jackets such as the Prince Charlie, regulation doublet, or Argyll jacket. The Argyll jacket is particularly appropriate for an individual who doesn't want to spend a fortune on several different coats as it can be properly worn for both day and evening wear. All of these are worn with waistcoats. A dirk may be worn on the right hip with a Prince Charlie or regulation doublet with the hilt between the tashes (Inverness flaps).

For the ladies, formal Highland attire means either a hostess length kilted skirt with a fancy lace trim blouse or an evening dress (either long or tea length) with an optional tartan sash and brooch. Some evening dresses incorporate or are entirely made of tartan. In Scotland, it is traditional for younger lassies to wear white evening dresses with full skirts and tartan sashes for Scottish Country Dancing. As they become older, they graduate to black dresses. The ladies should wear their tartan sashes on the right shoulder unless they are a clan chief or a colonel of a Scottish regiment, or the wife of a clan chief or colonel of a Scottish regiment, who then wear it on the left shoulder. The exception to this rule is Scottish country dancers who wear the sash on their left shoulder for safety's sake. The rules for a lady's sash apply for both day and evening wear. Women do not wear bonnets with evening wear.

WHITE TIE

White tie for men means the formality equivalent of "tails". This requires a kilt with tartan or diced hose, white pique shirt and vest with white studs and cufflinks, and a Prince Charlie or regulation doublet, with a white bow tie. The Argyll jacket is not appropriate here. Another option, and there are many for this level of formality, would be one of the white collarless shirts with lace jabot and cuffs with one of the more formal type coats such as the Sheriffmuir or Montrose doublet. The sporran should be like that worn with black tie, except that the day/evening sporran is not considered appropriate for this level of formality.

For ladies, "white tie" means long evening gowns with the option of a silk tartan sash and brooch.

Kilted Skirts

Unless in the uniform of a pipe band women don't wear kilts, they wear kilted skirts, either soft pleated or knife pleated. The lighter worsted wool falls more easily into easy soft pleats and hangs better. You can just pull the gathers or soft pleats together and place a waistband on it. Length is largely a matter of taste and varies with occasion. You can put a zipper in the side or a button or even eye & hook closing (left side). If you want to wear it for evening dress you can make it floor length (or formal). As with a man's kilt, matching up the setts in knife pleating can be very tricky, but must be done properly to look good. Some ladies wear a vest or velvet jacket of dark, complimentary colors, with a plain white long sleeved blouse under it. Lace ruffles can be snapped or sewn in the sleeves and allowed to come gracefully down half way on the hands, and a lace jabot at the neck flowing out over the vest or jacket. Most items of male Highland attire are generally not considered appropriate feminine attire, including sporrans (the possible exception would be a sporran worn as a shoulder bag, which can be most tasteful and attractive), dirks, sgian dubhs, kilt hose and flashes, etc.

Military Decorations

With formal wear, miniature military medals are worn on the left lapel of the coatee or doublet. Ribbons, campaign ribbons, unit citations, or full-size medals are never worn with formal Highland attire. The exception to this rule is the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is worn around the neck in its full-size form for day or evening wear. Non-military medals and/or ribbons are not worn. It is absolutely incredible to me that this needs to be said, but experience has repeatedly shown it to be necessary and worth repeating here. The wearing of military medals or ribbons to which you are not rightfully entitled is considered the penultimate in bad manners, deeply offensive to a great many people, and may provoke the most negative of consequences socially. In Canada and the UK it can even get you arrested.

Plaids

A full plaid may be worn over left shoulder and under right arm, pulled firm to the body. The edge of the plaid should be 11" from the ground at rear of the leg with fringe hanging down below this level. The lower edge of the plaid should be horizontal and parallel with ground. The leading edge of plaid and front face of plaid is secured by plaid brooch high on the left shoulder. While very striking, a full plaid is also very hot, and wrapping and securing it properly requires quite a bit of practice, and generally cannot be done without an assistant. A more common alternative, the fly plaid, may be worn on the left shoulder, usually under the epaulette and pinned with a plaid brooch. The upper edge of brooch should not be above the top of the shoulder, with the design properly aligned. An Irishman might elect to wear a brath instead of a fly plaid; essentially the same square yard of cloth but folded into a rectangle, draped over the left shoulder, and pinned with a kilmainham (penannular brooch). Plaids are always in the same tartan as the kilt and preferably purchased at the same time, as there can be differences in color from one bolt of cloth to the next, even from the same mill.

Sporrans

For formal wear the sporran should be a formal type with a silver-mounted cantle-top and fur pouch or a full fur and animal mask type (the animal masked sporran is one of the few all-purpose sporrans that can be worn with the most formal dress or the most informal wear). There is also a day/evening combination sporran that looks best when worn with the Argyll jacket, but looks a bit out of place with the more formal Prince Charlie. Sporrans are worn centrally over front apron of kilt, the cantle one hand's breadth below the waist belt buckle. The sporran should square the area between the hips and the knees and swing at a natural arc from the hip. Sporran straps go through the belt loops at the back of the kilt, and over the buckles at the sides (the belt is generally not worn through the belt loops, but over them and the sporran strap), with the pointed end of strap pointing to right hip. A military horsehair sporran is generally not worn except with a military or regulation doublet. Leather sporran straps are worn with horsehair sporrans (leather sporran straps also don't wear on the kilt quite as badly as chain straps). Hair sporrans are not trimmed to length. When a gentleman is dressed in Highland attire and dances with a lady, he should move the sporran to his left hip. For Scottish country dancing, you may want to take up your sporran belt a couple of notches. The sporran should also be moved to an unencumbered hip when sitting down to the table. This removes the sporran from harm's way so you don't spill on it and makes your lap unencumbered for a napkin. In general, it's just considered good manners.

Belts

For evening wear the belt should be of black leather and the buckle silver; generally belts will match the leather and hardware of the sporran. The belt is worn outside of the kilt's belt loops, it's top edge flush with the top of the kilt's waistband. It should be very snug, allowing only an index finger to be inserted between the belt and kilt. The buckle should be centered on the body, level from front to back, and both runners should be drawn up tight on both sides of the buckle. The belt should not cover the buttons on the rear of the doublet or tunic. Belts generally aren't worn together with waistcoats.

Hose & Flashes Argyll and diced hose are considered formal wear. Solid color hose are appropriate for almost all occasions. The color of hose and flashes should compliment both kilt and each other. If you want dressier hose but can't afford Argyll in your tartan, get a pair of the fancy cabled kilt hose with the ornate knitted hose tops (not the puffy "popcorn tops" of cheap pipe band hose). The top of your hose should be three fingers breadth below the outside bone at your knee, and level side to side and front to back. The leading edge of front flash may be vertically lined up with the front of the leg (in line with the center of your shoe), or just forward of the side of your leg, with no gap between the flashes. If wearing diced or Argyll hose, the leading edge of the front flash should bisect the top "diamond" of the pattern (which should be centered on the front of your leg). The sgian dubh is worn tucked inside the hose of right leg in the front-right portion of leg bisecting the flash. The handle should protrude only and inch or two above the top of the hose top. Staghorn sgian dubhs are not appropriate for evening dress.

Shoes

For formal wear, black gillie brogues or shoes with gilt or silver colored buckles are worn. With gillies the laces should not be wrapped up around the leg like a ballarina's slipper. Gillie laces are given two or three turns in the front, wrapped around the ankle, given two or three twists, then brought forward and tied off in front or the outside of the ankle. White spats are only worn with military and pipe band uniforms.

Bonnets

The balmoral is worn with ribbons tied; the glengarry with the ribbons left untied. The balmoral is worn level on forehead 1/2" above the eyebrows, with the cloth top pulled over right side of the head. The cockade should be centered over the left temple. The bow should be centered at the back of the head. The glengarry is traditionally worn canted to the right; 1" above the left eyebrow and 1/2" above the right eyebrow, with point of the glen centered on the head, aligned with the nose (although some regiments wear them square on the head). In Scotland, the balmoral is the more popular style, in various colors, with or without the red "toorie" on top. The glengarry owes its popularity to the Highland regiments and pipe bands. Civilians, officers, and pipers generally wear plain glens; enlisted ranks and drummers wear dicing. The diced (red checked) band indicates loyalty to the House of Hanover, i.e. the royal house of England. Highland civilians generally do not wear dicing. The caubeen, the traditional green bonnet of the Irish piper, is worn level on the head with the cap badge centered either over the left eye (Royal Irish Rangers) or right eye (Royal Irish Guards), with the cloth pulled over to the opposite side, similar to a balmoral. The Irish caubeen is often decorated with a "sheillah"; the harp of Erin, or a shamrock. In the Republic of Ireland, the harp is usually displayed without the crown for obvious reasons. Traditionally the only adornments should be the cockade and your clan crest worn in a strap and buckle form or your own crest if you have one. It's also common for veterans to wear their regimental badges, and sometimes firefighters and law enforcement officers their badges. It is also appropriate to adorn the bonnet with a sprig of your clan's plant badge, or rosemary on Remembrance Day, and rising no more than about 1 1/2" above the top of the badge. It's also customary for pipers to wear the red poppy on their glens for Remembrance Day, as the bass drone tends to brush them off of jacket lapels. The poppy is usually displayed forward of and on the same side as the glen badge (although I know of at least one regiment which has an aversion to anything being forward of their regimental badge; even a red poppy).

Remember that the bonnet isn't a cowboy hat; it shouldn't be the repository of your lapel pin collection. However, a friend of mine wears an old USMC collar pin on his; as it dates from his visit to the Chosin Reservoir, I don't think anyone has ever questioned his right to wear it any way he pleases. Feathers in the bonnet are traditionally reserved only for clan chiefs, clan chieftains, and armigers. Officially the rule is; a Chief wears three feathers, a chieftain wears two, and an armigerous gentleman (one who personally has a right to heraldic arms) wears one. The wearing of bonnet feathers by those who are not chiefs is generally considered presumptuous in Scotland. However, Americans, who have the right to keep and bear arms guaranteed under the second amendment of our Constitution, could arguably wear one eagle feather in good conscience. Feather hackles are awarded to regiments for battle honors or a special reason. Therefore, serious consideration and research should be given prior to hackles being worn by a civilian pipe band, much less an individual.

One last word on hats; uncover when you go indoors. It is considered bad manners to continue to wear the bonnet indoors, especially in someone's home or in church. The only exception is when you are under arms. Examples of this would be carrying a flag or tartan banner in the Kirking of the Tartans, or while playing the pipes. Pipers should uncover when not actively piping.

The Kilt

The inside and outside aprons are securely fastened by buckles, with the inner apron folding to the left, usually secured by one buckle, and the outer apron folding to the right, usually secured by two buckles (buckle the lower one loosely). Ladies' kilted skirts fold the opposite way. The kilt is not meant to be worn like blue jeans, down around the waist near the hips. The top of the waistband should be at your navel; military-cut kilts rise high enough to come to the wearer's bottom ribs. Highland dancers and Scottish country dancers often ask for a very high rise so that when they raise their hands above their heads, tartan is still seen beneath the jacket instead of a white shirt front.

The lower edge of the inner apron should not be visible. If the inner apron consistently shows from beneath the outer apron, you'll need to tighten the strap on your left hip, even if it means cutting away the buckle and moving it back a few inches. The lower edge of the kilt should break somewhere between the middle and top of the kneecap. Above the knee, and it's not a kilt, but a Catholic school-girl skirt. Below the knee, and it becomes a tea-length dress. The apron should be centered and the hem should appear even from front to rear and side-to-side. If you wear a kilt pin, the proper place to wear it is three inches from the bottom of the kilt and three inches inward from the right side of the apron. The kilt pin should only go through the top apron and not be pinned to the bottom apron. Any variation in this general area is considered OK, and if you have a double thickness on the right side of the apron, you might affix it to that area. As with the sgian dubh and the sporran, the kilt pin should be appropriate for the level of dress and the occasion. Keep in mind that kilt pins can become snagged upon all sorts of objects, potentially tearing the outer apron.

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