boy kilt
Figure 1.--American boys wore kilts too. This little American boy (New York) wears a Fauntleroy jacket, ruffled collar, and large bow. He seems to be wearing more of a plaid skirt than a kilt. Note that he does not wear a sporran, a popular accessory in Britain that was virtually unknown in America, except for Highland outfits.

Kilts and Kilt Suits

The kilt is a knee-length skirt-like garment tarditionally worn by men and boys. The kilt as we know it today has ancient origins. It is generally associated today with Scotland or the Gaelic peoples of the British Isles and Normandy, however it has been worn in other countries as well. The kilt became so associated with Scottish naltiinalism that the English prohibited it for a time. The kilts use as a style of boys' clothing is much more recent in origin. The Higland kilt is simply a skirt, but younger boys might wear bodice kilts. A much more limited kilt-like garment was the kilt suit. This was kilt worn by small boys with matching jacket and skirt which as popular in America during the late 19th century. Today the kilt is primarily worn at ethnic celebrations and at Gaelic dancing competitions, but it is also worn for Scouting and formal events such as weddings.

National Background

The kilt has been worn in different socities anf through different periods of history. It is the Gaelic, especially Scottish kilt that is best known to us, but it is not the only kilt worn in modern times.Kilts of various styles have been worn in modern Greece. The styles varied widely in different regions of Greece. The most famous is a white which has become the ceremonial uniform of Greek soldiers. The Greek kilt, however, never was adopted as a style for boys' clothing. The Gaelic people of Ireland, like those of Scotland, wore kilts. There were many similarities, although the Irish never adopted the tartan styles popular in Scotland. The Irish kilt was not popularized as a style for boys' clothing. It is still worn in Ireland, primarily for pipe bands and step dancing, but much less commonly than in Scotland. The kilt is still worn by pipers, dancers, school children, boy scouts, weddings, at a variety of public occasions, church attendance, Highland gatherings, and on many other occasions. And it was the Scottish kilt that was adopted by Queen Victoria as a style for boys clothing that eventually influenced boys clothing in America.Actual Scottish kilts were not extensively worn in America. Some wealthy American families like the Rossevelts did dress their boys in kilts complete with sporrans. This was most common in the late 19th Century. Kilts are seen in American at Highland gatherings and other ethic events. While few American boys in the 19th Century wore proper Scottish kilts with Highland regalia, many more boys wore the kilt suits that were popular in the late 19th Century. American mothers used the kilt suit as an intermediate step between dresses and outfits with kneepants, such as Fauntleroy suits and sailor suits. These mothers were not yet ready to fully breech their sons, but felt that they were becoming to old to still wear dresses.

Definition

A kilt is a type of skirt. A skirt is a garment worn suspended from the the waist and worn open without being joined in any way between the legs. Unlike a dress there is no bodice, although younger children might wear skirts with bodicies. The bottom part of a dress is sometines referred to as the skirt. Skirts are primarily worn by women and girls, although younger boys also wore them in the 19th century. They can be pleated or not pleated, worn at various lengths, and made out of various materials and patterns. There are many types of skirts. The Scottish kilt is one such type. A Scottish kilt is unlike the skirt, a male garment worn by men and boys. It is a knee-length pleated garment, usually but not always done in plaid patterns. Unlike a standard girl's shirt which is a continuous streach of fabric, the kilt is a wraparound garment with overlapping front aprons and pleated around the sides and back. It is secured by a pin in the front. The pins can be ornate. Kilts are also made to buckle together. In modern kilts the buckles tend to be more important aznd the bin mpre of a decoration. The pleats are an inportant part of a kilt. A reader tells us, "Skirts are mostly pleated from the waistband. The pleats of kilts are stitched from the waist until the body curves inwards. This allows the pleats to fall vertically." This is what is meant by a traditional Scottish kilt. The term kilt is, however, used for a variety of other garments. Scottish sources also describe a kilt-skirt, but this seems to be a different term for the kilt rather than a different garment. It is based on traditional highland dress and in the 19th century came to be worn as a folk garment or for Higland dancing. Scottish girls for folk dress wore dresses rather than kilts. But for Highland dancing, girls often wear kilts. The plealted skirt, often done in tartan, became popular for girls in the 20th century. These skirts were sometimes referred to as female kilts and were adopted as uniform items in many chools. They usually in Scotland and England, but not always, crossed to the left and the male kilt crossed to the right. A british reader tells us that his daughters wore school uniform skirts that the school referred to as kilts. They were plain grey. attached to bodices and pleated all the way round. He tells us, "The difference between their 'skirts' and other school 'skirts' was that the pleats were stitched from the waist to the point that they fell vertically. This feature, it seems to me is a significant difference, but again there are many exceptions." In popular parlance, boys wear kilts and not skirts. Girls on the other hand can wear both kilts and skirts.

Variations

As explained above, the kilt is a wrap around pleated garment with axfront pannel secured with a pin or buckles. There are a range of differences as to kilt styling. Differences include the fullness and direction of the wrap-over panel. The size of the pleats also vary. This can affect the look and the amount of material required. And the length of the kilt varies. The standard length for men and boys has over time remained basically thesamne--knee length. The skirted school garments worn by girls and called kilts have varied in length overvtime.

George IV to St. Giles in Edinburgh
Figure 2.--This Turner painting depicts a visit of George IV to St. Giles in Edinburgh about 1822. Edinburgh's upper crust of course donned their best clothes for the visit. A boy wearing a kilt can be seen at the right.

Scottish Kilt History

The modern kilt is most associated with Scotland. The modern modern image of the kilt is very different from that the earlier historical image. The kilt along with bagpipes had been the symbol of the wild, warlike Highland clans. They were considered by the Lowlanders and English alike as late as the mid-18th century as the garb of barbarrious savages. Kilt-clad Highlanders with bagpipes blaring led by Bonnie Prince Charlie had posed a major threat to the English Crown in the Kacobite uprising of 1745. Yet in less than 100 years by the early 19th century that image of the kilt had changed and had become the very symbol of the British Empire with kilt-clad Scottish units of the British Army leading Britain's Imperial expansion. And to complete the change in image, the Scottish kilt which was employed as a fashion suitable for the sons of Queen Victoria herself a Hanovarian who had come to love the Highlands and bragged about the Stuart blood in her veins.

The Kilt in Scotland

Queen Victoria did not conceive of the idea of dressing boys in kilts. Scottish boys in the early 18th Century wore kilts for dress occasions. I do not yet have any details on the extent of Scottish boys wearing kilts. I have noted paintings of the era and they do show boys wearing kilts.

The Princes

The Queen popularized kilts for boys when she began outfitting the young princes in kilts. Many authors note the impact that the Queen had on boys' fashions. One author writes, Queen Victoria's "insistance that her family wore the kilt on these occasions (annual visits to Balmoral) brought a new impetus to the fashion." [Roderick Martine, Clans & Tartans] An interesting question is what the Princes thought of the kilt. The modern generation of princes (William and Harry) does not seem to like kilts at all. The first generation (Bertie and his brothers), according to one HBC contributor appears to have liked their kilts. Which of course was fortunate as their mother insisted they wear them so often. The contributor informs HBC that he has some historical evidence on this and will provide them. The growing availability of women's magazines with extensive coverage of fashion and increasing numbers of illustrations meant that fashion conscious women all over England as well as the rest of Europe and America had access to detailed information on fashion trends. The fashions of royalty had always influenced fashion, but expanding incomes, the growing middle class, the popularity of Victoria, and the improving technology and falling prices of magazines meant that royal fashions, had a greater impact than ever before. This was certainly true of styles for boys. The fashion of kilts for boys soon spread to the United States where kilt suits were introduced for boys who had never heard of Scotland and lacked an ounce of Scottish blood.

Age and Breeching

A reader writes, "Queen Victoria had a lot to do with "introducing" the kilt as a boys' fashion. Was this worn by older boys who had previously worn skeleton suits? Or was it worn by boys who had previously worn "petticoat" styles until breeched?" This is a little tricky to answerbecause we have so liitle information about the early-19th century. One point. There are kilts and there are kilts. What Victoria used for the princes was the Highland kilt. But this was not a boys' garment, rather a male garment. Because of Queen Victoria, more boys began wearing Highlahnd kilts including both younger boys and English boys. The Highland Kilt was, however, never seen as an exclusively little boys' garment. We think, however, that dresses, tunics, and skeleton suits were much more common than Highland kilt ever became. A factor here was that the complete Highland kilt with all the accoutrements was an expensive outfit. In contrast a tunic was fairlyh inexpensive. The kilt suit in contrast was different. There of course were differences from country to country. But in America the kilt suit became very common, much more common than the Highland kilt. And it was an outfit just for younger boys. The skeleton suit had disappeared by the time kilt suits took off. But I think it is fair to say that mothers did use kilt suits instead of dresses for younger mostly pre-school boys, say boys 4 ad 5 years old and even some 6-year olds. Tunic unlike the skeleton suit continued to be worn, but I thinkthe kilt suit did affect popularity of tunic outfits.

Kilt Garments

The kilt was garment steeped in tradition. It was a male garment worn by Scottish warriors. It all began with the Highland kilt. It also proved to be the perfect fashion for doting mothers dispairing of their sons growing up to fast and having to dress them in trousers. The kilt suit was a natural transition for boys who had grown too old for dresses. And many different kilt garments devedloped as moters began adopting the garmrnt as a children's garment. We see kilts and skirts with a range of kilt features. And we see suits done with kilts. The style was not limited to Scotland and England. Affluent Americans generally looked to England as the arbiters of good taste and were soon also dressing their sons in kilts. Scottish ancestry had little to do with the choice of kilts, although families with actual Scottish ancestry might be particularly likely to wear Highland kilts. Kilt uits ere a different matter. They were commomnly worn by boys with no connection to Scotland.

Bodice Kilts

The Highland kilt is a basically a Tartan skirt covering the lower half of the body. Many of the kilts shown here worn by younger boys were bodice kilts. Boys tend to be slender without pronounced hips. This makes it difficult for these boys to wear kilts. The solution was to sew on a bodice to the kilt to hold it up. This is the same reason that younger boys wear suspender shorts to hold them up.

Mothers

Mothers of the era loved to dress their sons in kilts and fancy blouse. Many who hesitated to breech their sons still wearing dresses, saw the kiklt as a happy alternative to pants. The kilt was seen as a more manly garment than a dress--yet it still was not a manly pair of pants. Younger boys were dressed in bodice kilts rather than proper kilts, usually without sporrans. Kilt suits for little boys were quite popular in America. Some mothers even selected sailor kilts, sailor suits with middyblouses, but a kilt instead of short trousers. (As the kilt was of the same material as the blouse and not plaid it was more of a skirt than a kilt.) Older boys wore proper kilts, but with avariety of shirts varying from lace trimed blouses to shirts with stiff Eton collars and bow ties.

Hair Styles

Boys kept dressed in kilt suits after graduating from their baby dresses and smocks would usually not have their hair cut and often wore curls or bangs. While in kilt suits, it was not unusual for boys to wear hanging curls and perhaps bangs but the curls were cut when the boy was finally breeched (allowed to wear pants), an occasion which would brought tears to the eyes of many a doting mother.

Preferences

Accounts vary as to the attitude of boys to kilts as opposed to other styles prevalent at the time. Some clearly disliked the kilt as girlish. Others thought Fautleroy suits with lace collars and Russian tunics to be worst. Probably the favorite of most boys before they graduated to more adult-lookingstyles was the sailor suit.

Fashions Fades

Kilt suit as boys wear passed from the fashion scene in the 1910s. I'm am not positive why a fashion which had been so popular for so long disappeared so quickly. Certainly the social changes following World War I was part of the change, but I do not fully understand the precise social process. The Highland kilt, however, itself continued as is still worn today.

Chronological Trends

Only limited information is available on the popularity of the kilt in Scotland during certain historical periods, especially before Queen Victorian popularized it as a child's costume in the 1840s by dressing the princes in kilts. One largely unanswered question was just how commonly worn the kilt was in Scotland by the average boy. HBC is acquiring information on this topic, but much needs to be learned.

The Kilt Today

The kilt as a fashion for boys have continued into modern times. The late 19th Century kiltsuit is no longer worn, but the Higland kilt is still commonly worn for many occasions.

School uniform

The kilt as a school uniform garment is primarily still worn in Scotland. The Scottish schools use them as a dress uniform, but this only occurs at private schools. Some schools in Ireland also adopted them as a school uniform, but not as commonly. Virtually all private Scottish schools, both preparatory and secondary schools, use the kilt as a dress uniform, usually worn with a tweed jacket and a modest leather sporan. Both boys and girls wear the same outfit. Some of the boys don't much like the idea, especially the English and occasional American boys at the schools. Some of these boys had never even heard of a kilt before enrolling at the schools.

Interestingly while the kilt is now only worn for dress occasions at private Scottish schools, plaid skirts have become one of the most popular styles for girls school uniforms in the United States. While this was once primarily a fashion at parochial or Catholic schools, many public schools in the United States are now adopting uniforms and often plaid skirts or jumpers or chosen for the girls. Paradoxily this is almost never seen in Scotland and England.

Church attendance

Some Scottish boys report that they wore kilts to church and Sunday school when they were growing up. One Scottish contributor reports that during the 1950s and 60s went to church as a family almost every week. He wasn't the only boy wearing a kilt, so it wasn't that unusual, although most younger boys wore shortpants suits and the older boy long pants suits. Church attendance has since fallen considerably. I'm not sure what the situation is in Scotland during the 1990s, but I think it is relatively rare except for special occasions.

Scouting

Scottish Boy Scouts still wear the kilt. Because of the cost, however,it is mostly worn at dress occaions and events like jamborees where the boys like to compare each others varied uniforms. One Scottisg Scout tells HBC that he made a little money "renting" out his kilt at a event with German Scouts so they could have their photographs taken in a kilt.

Ethnic events

Kilts are also worn at Celtic events around the world. Interestingly while the kilt is a popular feature at Scottish Highland gatherings, it is rarely seen at Irish events. At Irish events only the pipers and dancers wear kilts. The dancers only put on their kilt costumes to perform and then take them off immediately after their last performance.

Dancing

The kilt is worn for Celtic dancing. Scottish boys wear kilts at Higland dancing competitions held at Higland gatherings. Irish boys around the world wear them at step dancing competitions called feises. Boys and adults also wear kilts for Greek dancing, although this is not as common or competitive as the Scottish and Irish dancing.

Pipe bands

The kilt is worn by both Scottish and Irish pipe bands. The Scottish pipers generally wear tartan kilts while the Irish bands usually wear solid colored kilts.

kilt ring bearer outfit
Figure 5.--English and Scottish formal weddings may have the ringbearer and pages dressed in kilts, often with strap or buckle shoes and white socks.

Weddings

Kilts are often worn as formal dress at Scottish weddings by the groom, attendants, and guests. Ring bearers and pages in Scotland and England also sometimes wear kilts. Many formal English weddings had the ring bearer and pages in kilts, but knicker pageboy outfits are now more common. The kilt is. however, still commonly used at formal weddings in Scotland. With the kilt a black jacket and jabot is normally worn.

Casual wear

Prince Charles often wore a kilt as a boy, for both dress and casual wear. His sons, except when very little, never appear dressed in the kilt. Even in Scotland today, the kilt is not worn as casual wear. The kilt is not a very practical garment for most occasions, especially for active boys. It is actually quite an expensive garment. Thus Scottish boys for Scouts and school uniform normally only wear it for dress occasions. The cost also makes it unsuitable for boys' casual clothes.

Dress wear

Some wealthy and middle-class boys in Scotland have kilts. They are worn for dress occasions. Except for formal occassions they are now almost always worn with tweed jackets. As mentioned above, church attendance was one event where kilts were worn. Many other dress up occasions like formal family gatherings might be other circumstances for wearing kilts.

Individual Accounts

There are a number of pages arcived on HBC about individual boys wearing kilts.
Allan Victor Mackenzie (about 1910)
Boyhood preferences: Boys' thoughts
My Scottish kilt: The 1950s
My Scottish kilt: The 1960s
An Irish boy: School uniform
An American boy: School uniform

Kilt Links

There are a number of prtinent kilt related pages archived oin HBC.
A 1920s Fashion article: Thoughts on boys' fashions in the 1920s
Kilt history: Interesting background on the kilt






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Created: February 25, 1999
Last updated: 11:32 PM 9/20/2012