*** English Kilts

English Kilts

English kilt
Figure 1.--Prince Charles pictured here at about age 11 often wore kilts as a boy. When not wearing full Highland regalia, he wore his kilts with a tweed jacket or for more casual wear with a sweater.

The kilt as we know it today has ancient origins. It is generally associated today with Scotland or the Gaelic peoplesof the British Isles and Normandy. The kilts use as a style of boys' clothing is much more recent in origin. In the British Isles, the kilt is mostly associated with Scotland and to a lesser extent Ireland. Boys in England itself, however, also occasionally wore kilts, especially after Queen Victorian began dressing the princes in Highland kilts during the 1840s. The full extent to which English boys wore kilts is somewhat difficult to determine. The photographic record shows that while it was not common, neither was it an extremely rare garment. Available photographs often do not indicate who the boy is or where he is from. Thus it is difficult to determine if it is an English or Scottish boy involved. We mostly see English boys wear kilts as dress garments. For some boys it was their party outfit.


Boys in England as far as we know historically did not wear kilts. In very recent times there was military action between Emgland and Scotland (18th century). After Bonnie Prince Charlie led the Scotts deep into England. The English finally defeated the Scotts at Culloden (1746). It seems unlikely that many English boys would wear clothing that that was associated with a national ememy. Attitudes towad Scotland began to change by the turn-of-the 19th century. Scottish Regiments began fighting alongside English regiments as part of the British Army. Scottish poets and novelists became popular in England, including a young Princess Victoria who developed a passion for Scotland, but as far as we know English boys did not begin wearing kilts. Without photography we cannot be positive. We do note that after Victiria became queen and the princes began to appear, she liked to dress them in kilts (1840s). The Royal Family had a huge influence on fashion. We are not sure how rapidly the British public adopted kilts for boys as a result of Victoria's choices. We are not even sure to what extent the public was aware of it. We are not sure tm what extent they were on public display. We have, however, very few English photographic images (1840s-50s). Queen Victoria's sons in 1851 wore kilts at the opening of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition in 1851. [Gagon, p.147.] We do have substtanial numbers of images with the appearance of CDVs and we see many English boys wearing kilts (1860s). The boys in the English royal family subsequently were often dressed in kilts. This was the case right through th children of Queen Elizabeth. Prince Charles' sons William and Harry, however, want nothing to do with kilts.


As far as we know, English boys did not begin wearing kilts until Queen Victoria and Prince Albert began dressing the young princes in them. This would have been some time in the 1840s, although I am not sure about the precise year. I am not sure just how rapidly the fashion caught on. For some reason we have not been able to find English daguerreotype portraits. We do begin to see English boys dressed in kilts in the 1860s when CDVs become available. The boys involved are boys from aristocratic or affluent families. We continue to see English boys wearing kilts for formal occasions and portraits throughout the 19th century. This continued to be the case in the Edwardian era in the early 20th century. This changed after World War I (1914-18). We see very few such portraits after the War, although there were a few exceptions such as the Royal Family. But they generally only wore kilts when they went up to the royal residence, Balmoral in Scotland.


The full extent to which English boys wore kilts is somewhat difficult to determine. The photographic record shows that while it was not common, neither was it an extremely rare garment. Available photographs often do not indicate who the boy is or where he is from. Thus it is difficult to determine if it is an English or Scottish boy involved. We mostly see English boys wear kilts as dress garments. For some boys it was their party outfit. Scottish boys may have worn kilts for everyday wear or to school. This was not the case for English boys. The kilt in England was primarily a dress outfit. Of course as formal clothing was more common in the 19th and early 20th century, the range of events for which dress outfits were worn was much greater than the case with modern boys. And it seems to have been boys from well-to-do families wearing kilts and they tended to dress up more than working-class and middle-class boys. Most of the photographs we have found of English boys wearing kilts are formal studio portraits, but e have found a few other images.

Regional Trends

We are not sure if there were any pronounced regional trends concerning kilts in England. One might think that kilts were most popular in northern England, closer to Scotland. But we have not yet noted that. Kilts seem particularly popular in London, presumably because it was the fashion center of the country. Many affluent families lived in London and believed in dressing their children stylishly. Wearing kilts was not, however, just a London style. We have, however, noted boys wearing kilt outfits in many different English cities. What ever was popular in London was soon copied throughout the country. One question we are not sure about is to what extent kilts were worn in the country's Celtic fringe--Somerset and Wales. Of course we treat Wales as a separate country and unlike Scotland separation from England is not a major issue, but the issue still stands as to whether kilts were more common in the Celtic fringe of western Britain. Somerset of course would be the area of England the furthest from Scotland.

Kilt Outfits

We note English boys wearing a range of kilt outfits. They seem to be mostly dressy outfits, including Highland kilts and kilt suits. English boys sometimes wore kilts with full Highland regalia. Almost always these were boys from wealthy families. The kilts were worn as dress outfits for formal events. This became fashionable beginning in the mid-19th Century after Queen Victoria and her decedents began dressing the princes in kilts. Few English boys in the 19th Century wore proper Scottish kilts with Highland regalia. Another kilt fashion was the kilt suit. I know that the kilt suit was very commonly worn by American boys in the late 19th Century. American mothers used the kilt suit as an intermediate step between dresses and outfits with knee pants, 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. I am not sure if this fashion was as common in England as it was in America. Some English mothers bought kilts for their sons for casual wear. Again this was mostly boys in affluent families. This was most common for English families which spent time in Scotland or the north of England.


There are many components to the various kilt outfits worn by English boys. They od course varied as to what kind of kilt outfit ws being worn. Heaswear might be Scottish bonnets--Balmorals or Glengarys. But the headwear was not limited to Scottish bonnets. These of course were not bonnets in the true sence, but the Scotts referred to them as bonnets. Many other non-Scottish caps and hats were also worn. Most Scottish outfits included jackets. The two best known were black jackets with milirary detailing and tweed jackets. There were also kilt suit jackets, but these varied widely. Boys also wore kilts suits with sweaters for casual wear, but this was not very common. The jackets commonly covered shorts and blouses. We do often note boys wearing kilt outfits with Eton collars. there were also jabots worn with formal outfits. Of course the primary component was the kilt, usually a plaid kilt. The exception here was the kilt suit. Often the kilt here had only a vague resemblence to a kilt. Some were really just skirts. Although there was more use of actual kilt-like garnents than in America. There were also a range of accessories, mostly associated with Highland kilts. They included sporans, eagle feathers, plaids, dirks, and pins. Argyle knee socks were often worn, but we also see white knee socks and white ankle socks. We also see grey knee socks as they became so common with school uniforms. We see arange of foowear, including buckle shoes, strap shies and other shoes.


Scottish boys wore kilts with their clan tartans. English boys did not have clan tartans to wear. We are thus not sure just how the tartans they wore were selected. Of course some English boys had Scottish relatives, but most did not. We suspect that mother may simply have selected patterns that appealed to then from the tartan patterns in the shops. Perhaps our English readers will know more about this. Another option was to do the kilt it suiting material rather than a tartan. Here we are talking about Highland kilt outfits and not kilt suits that were commonly done in suiting material rather than tartans. Based on the available photographic record, selecting a colorful Scottish tartan seems to have been the option that mothers preferred. These images are much more common than the plain suiting material.


We notice quite a few younger English boys wearing kilts in the second half of the 19th century and very early-20th century. It seems to have been a popular party or dress up outfit for boys from well-to-do families beginning in the 1860s. Most of the English kilt images we have have found are of pre-school age boys and younger primary-age boys up to about 8-years of age or so. There seem to be more of the pre-school boys than the primary age group. These images of younger boys wearing kilt outfits seem tombe a substantial portion of our English kilt archive. This suggests to us that it was primarily a style that mothers were enamored of and the boys were no so sold on. Famed Winnie the Poo illustrator, E. H. Shepard, remembers the Fauntleroy lace collar his mother outfitted him in for parties in the 1880s. It caused him some real trouble. One incident occured at a party where a boy wearing a kilt outfit took issue with his lace collar. His opinion was that a boy wearing a kilt didn't have much of a reason to criticize his lace collar and a tussle ensued for which was blamed on him-- unjustly ftom hid point of view. A girl he was attrached to was involved further complicating the whole sad affair. He had to go home in disgrace. We do see some older English boys wearing kilts, but no nearly so many. We are unsure about the conventions involved for the older boys. Most of the examples are portaits, perhaps mpre of a fancy dress outfit. The degree of Highland regalia varied widely.


The conventions for wearing kilts varied from Scotland. There kilt might be worn for everyday wear as well as dressing up. In contrast, English boys mostly wore kilts for dresswear. We know that they were worn to parties and outings, but are unsure as to just what other occassions where they might be worn such as church are visiting relatives. They were not worn to school. We see boys wearing kilts for special occassions. We see many different kilt outfits. There may be some regional differences such as in Cumbria along the Scottish border, but even there we mosly think kilts were dress wear. This is reflected on the photographic record, although during the 19th century most photographs were studio portraits in which children were usually dresed up in their best clothes. We see quite a number of English boys dressed up in kilt outfits. Actually there are more exmples than we expected to find. Actually we have found about as many English as Scotish examples, but this probnly reflects the much larger English population. In contrast, the girls were never dressed up in Scottish outfits. As far as we can tell, this fashon began only in the mid-19th century, but it is difficult to confirm this s thi was when photography was developed, and thus there is no photographic record for the early-19th century.

Social Class

We believe English kilts were essentially a upper class and substantial middle-class garment. This was a different than Scotland. Traditionally it was Highlanders in Scotland that wore kilts. This was the poorer, less developed region of Scotland. The kilt was rarely seen in the Anglicized Lowlands. By the time that Victoria was crowned (1837) this had begun to change. She helped popularize Scotland in England, a process that had already begun. And after she began dressing the princes in kilts, we begin to see English boys wearing kilts. We see quite a number in the photographic record. This can, however, be misleading. The photographic record, especially in the 19th century is biased toward the affluent section of the population. Studio portrait cost money. Some could not afford the price, which tended to be higher than in America. For many it was a rare extravagance. For the well to do it was a marginal expense. Thus the well-to-do and the clothing they wore are over represented in the photographic record. And you can see that in the images, the boys involved tend to be very well dressed and presented. Unlike American images at the time, they tend to get the fashions just right. And the one thing was happening in Scotland, the kilt was becoming a fashion for the well-to-do or comfortable middle class. You do not see working-class boys wearing them, especially after mid-century. This is apparent in the school photography that was developed in the late-19th century. We see no kilts in English schools. Only images of well to do boys dressed up for studio portraits.

Royal Family Clothing

The English royals are of course British and thus dressing the young princes in kilts was an adroit political move. It may, however, reflect more Queen Victoria's love of Scotland. Whatever the reason, each generation of British royals has been dressed in kilts. George V thought the kilt and sailor suit the only appropriate dress for boys. He gave great attention to what his sons wore, including which kilt outfit should be worn at which occasion. This tradition appears to have come to an end. The current royals, William and Harry, do not seem to care for kilts. Unlike previous generations, the boys seem to have considerable say in how they dress.

Social Class

Personal Experiences

Of course it is the English royals that are best known for wearing kilts. It was not, however, just princes that wore kilts in England.


Here are some short items dealing with the personal experiences that English boys have experienced concerning kilts. They are only short items which do not merit an entirely new page.

Island kilts

This account describes a boy on an isolated English island, about as far away from Scotland as you can get in Britain, wore kilts as a boy during the 1950s.


Gagnon, Louise. "L'apparition des modes enfantines au Qu�bec" (institut qu�becois de la recherche sur la culture, 1979). Collection Edmond-de-nevers. No 11.


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Created: July 25, 1999
Spell checked: 4:47 AM 9/25/2014
Last updated: 5:48 PM 5/18/2023