** Scottish kilts

Scottish Kilts

Figure 1.--The kilt is generally associated with Scottish boys, but is now rarely worn, except for special occasions.

The Scottish kilt as a child's garment is a relatively recent phenomenon. The modern kilt, in fact, dates from only from the 18th century. It's use as a child's garment was largely due to Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century and her infatuation with Scotland. The young Queen, showing the romantic outlook of her younger years, outfitted her sons in flamboyant kilts. I'm not sure if this was actually the Queen'd idea or someone on her staff or even Prince Albert. Nor am I sure weather it was an inovative idea or just a popular fashion the Queen picked up on. Whose ever idea it was, the decission had an enormous impact on popularizing the style--at least among mothers. And it was the mothers that for generations had the virtual absolute disgression in choosing their sons clothes--usually with no consideration of the boys' opinions. The result was a long-lasting dress style for generations of British and American boys. Several variants of the kilts introduced by the Queen developed. The kilt suit was the most ubiqutous. Other styles in which kilt suits were made include sailor and Fauntleroy suits. While kilt suits have passed from the boys' fashion scene, the Scottish kilt continues to be worn today by schoolboys, Scouts, dancers, pipe bands, and participants at various formal occasions such as weddings where ring bearers, attendants, and even the groom might wear kilt.


Some of the terms associated with kilts are confusing. Some have assumed a different meaning in popular usage han the original meaning. This is in part because the kilt has evolved from a Medieval garment and many Medieval clothing terms are confusing and have varied along time perspectives, cultures, and geography as well as uses in various foreign languages. Here the most important words associated with the Scottish kilt ar plaid and tartan.

Figure 2.--This older English boy had his portrailt taken in Bouremouth around the turn of the century. Note the patent leather shoes.

Historical Background

There is a great deal of inaccurate information spread about Scottish kilts. The romanticism associated with the Scotland has been one source of false information. Another has been the adoption of kilts as almost a symbol of Scotland but using a style created in the 18th century that had only a minimal relationship to the true Gaelic kilt. The fact that the modern kilt and tartans are a creation of the 18th-19th centuries (and even worse from the Scottish perspective that the English played a prominent role). A variety of reports suggest that the English (the very English British army, an English queen, and an English manufactuer) has given rise to enduring erroneous reports and misunderstaning. The modern kilt does seem to have been strongly influenced by a succession of known and unknown English men and one woman--Queen Victoria. This may upset our Scottish friends, but is in fact the case.
British army: After the disatrous Battle of Culloden and the supression of the Higland clans--the kilt was prohibited in Scotland. Only the Scotts joining the English army were allowed to wear the kilt. Thus English generals who approved uniforms play a major role in the development of the modern kilt.
British princes: The very English Queen Victoria was fascinated by Scotland. Her decission to dress the young princes in Higland garb play an important role in popularuizing the kilt, especially as boys' wear.
English manufacturer: Some reports claimed that what is now thought of as the Scottish kilt today appears to have been contrived in 1725 by of all people--an Englishman, Thomas Rawlinson who owned an iron works in Glengarie and Lochaber. Scottish readers tell HBC, however, that this claim has been descridted by Scottish scholars.

Chronological Trends

Only limited information is available on the popularity of the kilt in certain historical periods, especially before authors helped change the image of Scotland and Queen Victorian popularized the kilt 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. The kilt chronology is primarily one of Scottish kilts. But kilts were worn in other countries as well. We see them in England for well-to-do boys And large numbers of American boys were wearing kilts suits by the 1870s. Scotland was a very small country. Thus probbly more American boys wore kilts than anywhere else, at leat kilt suits. HBC is acquiring information on this topic, but much needs to be learned.


The kilt is a length of woven wool, usually with a plaid pattern, that is paermanently pleated except for sections at each end and wrapped around the sweaver's waist in such a way that the pleats are massed at the wearer's back and the flat unpleated ends overlap to form a double layer at the front. A reader asks how a kilt sewn together. Is it more than one piece of material sewn together? HBC reports that modern kilts are made from one piece of material cut from bolts. The length of the material cut from the bolt is determined by the waist size and the extent of the pleating.

Tartan Fabric

Tartan is a cross-checkered pattern repeated repeated continously. The various destincive patterns are referred to as "setts". The patterns consist of different colored bands, stripes, or lines of definite with and sequence. They are woven into wool cloth, sometimes with silk added. Tartan patterns have existed for centuries and in various cultures, but have come to be assocaited with Scotland where they have become a quasi-heraldic emblem of families or clans. Tartan has come to be widely associated with Sottish kilts. The ancient Celts had no written language, but descriptions of their clothing exist from the writtn records of the people they came into contact with, epecially he Greeks and Romans. The Celts from the erliest times were noted for the use of color in their clothing. Early historical desciptions indicate that the Celts wore multi-colored woven cloth. Tartan patterns have existed for centuries and in various cultures, but have come to be assocaited with Scotland. We also note Irish tartans. Tartans are known for other areas on the Celtic fring of Europe: Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Wales, and others. Tartans also exist from countries with Scottish connections, primarily to which the Scotts and Irish have mmigrated: Australia, Bermuda, Canada, Ulster, the United States, and others.

Figure 3.--This 19th Century image shows another boy in Highland garb. It is not clear to the author, however, to what extent boys actually wore kilts like these in Scotland during the 19th Century.

Garments and Accessories

A proper Highland kilt outfit involves much more than a simple kilt and jacket. A reader indicates that a kilt is held up by a belt, but asks is there are belt loops on a kilt or not? HBC reports that kilts are sometimes worn with a leather belt, but often this is worn as an ornament. I have not noted belt loops. Some better made kilts have tabs at the side to tighten the waist. Young children wearing kilts might wear a bodice kilt or wear their kilt with suspenders. Proper kilts were generally worn by older boys. They were worn with a variety of shirts varying from lace trimed blouses to shirts with stiff Eton collars and bow ties. The Victorians chosing Scottish kilts and pleated plaid skirts for their boys, liked to pair them with various styles of caps. The most popular were Scotch bonnets (Balmoral cap) or Glengarry. Queen Victoria's fondness for all things Scottish extended to a proper cap as well as the kilt itself.

Boys' Kilts: Principal Variants

We notice variants of the Scottish kilt. The fashion popularized by Queen Victoria fostered two primary variants. The first was the proper Highland kilt, which was worn both formally and informally. The forml Highland kilt outfit involved elaborate regalia. The same kilt could be worn as a suit alternative with a tweed jacket or as a casual garment without a jacket. The second was a kilt-like skirted garment, the kilt suit which was especially popular in America. We see them in England and Scotland, but they were not nearly as common as in America. I'm unsure to what extent it was worn in Scotland. We also note skirt suits, but this seems to have been more of an American variant as actual kilt were not as available as in Britain. While the Highland kilt was not very common in America. The kilt and skirted suits were emensely popiular.

Figure 4.--English family dressed in kilts at mid-century. Notice the siblings are dressed alike except for the caps and collars and of course the boy's sporran.

Usage in Scotland

I am not precisely sure as to the extent the kilt was worn in Scotland during the 19th and early 20th Century. The proscriptions on wearing the kilt were removed in the late 18th Century. What I do not know is to what extent boys and adults began wearing the kilt again. It clearly was not adopted as specifically boys wear until Queen Victorian began dressing the princes in kilts in the 1840s. It is unclear if Scottish boys were wearing kilts to go to school or for play and work. It appears that the kilt in Scotland during the 19th Century was primarily worn for dress occaions by middle class and wealthy boys for dressing up, such as church, parties, weddings and other formal occasions. I could be wrong about this. Victoria's grandchildren, for example, wore kilts for casual wear while in Scotland. I remember an A.J. Cronin novel set in Scotland and some boys wore kilts to school. The cost of the kilt in the 20thnCentury has necesitated that it be reserved for dress occasions. The cost of a kilt in the 19th Century, however, may not have been as high relative to trousers as is the case today. One clue comes from the movie Chariots of Fire, a film in which the costuming was extremely well researched. One scene set in Scotland shows many boys going to church in kilts during the years before World War I. A Scottish source reports that it was not unusual for boys to wear kilts to church in the 1950s and 60s, but it is less common in the 1990s and church attendance itself has declined considerably.


There were a variety of conventions in Scotland governing the wearing of the kilt. Available images suggest that it was most commonly worn at knee level. One Scottish HBC reader, however, reports that " ... at our school, we were always told to wear our kilts 2-3 inches above the knee, not on or below the knee. Reason? To stop the bottom of the kilt cutting into the back of knee and causing it to become sore, especially when the weather was wet and cold. This is particularly important when out hiking/fell walking."

Boys' Attitudes

Accounts vary as to the attitude of boys to kilts as oposed to other stylesprevalent 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.


The kilt was historically a male garment in Scotland. And continues to be so in modern Scotland. We only see boys wearing Highland kilt outfits. Wehave seen occasional images of siblings all dressed alike, but this was unusual. For the most part we only see boys weaing kilts. Our Scottish archive is not huge, but it is large enough to allow us to state fairly definitively that this was the case. We are less sure about more informal kilt outfits, but even here we see few girls wearing kilt outfits, although we do not have sufficent images here tonmake any definitive assessments. We note that girls perforing in Scottish dancing often wear white dresses with Scottish trim rather than kilts, except when dancing male parts. Scottish Boy Scouts wear kilts, but not the Girl Guides. In the 20th century we begin to see plaid skirts bcoming popular for schoowear in England and America. we are not sure about Scotland. The kilt cintinues to be an exclusively male garment. We see a few family portraits in which the biy wears a kilt and his sister a plaid skirt. This does not appear very common, but we have seen a few examples.

Figure 5.--This boy appears to be wearing a kilt as part of a school cadet corp. The sporran suggests it is a dress outfit. Notice his Balmoral cap on the table. This photograph was taken in 1917, during World War I.

Modern Usage

Kilts have not disappeared in the modern world. Boys wear kilts as both schoolwear and as youth group uniforms. They are often worn for a varity of special events. 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. One of the most popular events, other than the sheep dog trials at Highland gatherings are the dancing competitions. Higland dancing along with the kilt are two beloved symbols of Scotland. Kilts are also of course seen at a variety of ethnic events, especially the various Galelic events held annually. The most well known are the Highland gatherings now held around the world. These events are perhaps best known for the dancing, pipe bands, and athletic evets--that is of course after the sheep dog events. It is not just the dancers and other competitors (athletic and pipe band members) that wear kilts. Boys and men in Scotland may choose to wear a kilt for formal dress. These outfits could be quite elaborate with lacey jabots and silk blouses. Weddings are one such event for which kilts are worn, but there are many others, including baptisms, christenings, anniversaries, partriotic observances, graduations, birthdays, and many other suuch events. Notably the tradition of English princes wearing kilts appears to have died out. While Prince Charles often wore a kilt as a boy, his sons virtually never appear dressed in the kilt--even during trips to Balmoral. Some schools in Scotland and Ireland adopted kilts as a school uniform. This is no longer the case, but they are still commonly worn for dress occasions at many Scotish schools. Some of the boys don't much like the idea, especially the English and occasional American boys at the schools. Kilts are also worn by school cadet groups and by pipe bands at schools around the world. Kilts are also worn by Scottish boy scouts. This is primarily for dress occasions are a variety of functuions as they are too expensive and not very practical for camping. Today it is mostly Scottish Scouts that wear kilts.


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. It was mostly boys from middle class families that owned kilts--copying the royal family. It was never worn to school (except by some boys at private school) but kept forchurch/Sunday School, parties, weddings, Christmas--that sort of thing.

The Cult of Scotland

While various authors do a good job of explaining how some Scottishtraditions were invented, they say less about why they became so popular. It seems reasonable that Scottish mothers might want to dress their sons in kilts. But what was it that attracted English and American mothers to dress to pick up on this fashion? Was it just the cachet of the royal family, or was there more involved. It would be helpful to finding out more about thecultural phenomenon in the 19th century that promoted representations of Scotland which included kilts, bagpipes, Burns, Scott, and a romantic, pastoral ideal. Just what was behind this "cult of Scotland."

Personal Experiences

Some information is availanle on personal experiences reported by Scotish boys. These are memories submitted to HBC by men looking back on their childhood. These Scottish readers report widely varying experiences over time. Sone boys objected to wearing kits. Other boys had no objection to doing so. Boys wore kilts as a school uniform, for formal events, or even for play or Scouting. HBC also hopes to add accounts from biographies or autobiographies. Please let us know if you recall interesting Scottish accounts.

Kilt Links


A 1920s Fashion article: Thoughts on boys' fashions in the 1920s

Kilt history: Interesting background on the kilt


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Created: October 14, 1999
Last updated: 1:07 PM 3/17/2017