*** Scottish kilts

Scottish-style Kilts

Scottish kilts
Figure 1.--The kilt is generally associated with Scottish boys, but is now rarely worn, except for special occasions. This boy is kitted out for playn or a hike.

Here we have a problem. This page dusscusses the Scottisk kilt as a style which was worn in many countries, in some cases a child's garment. We meant it to be Scottish kilts as a styles rather than a page about kilts in Scotland. We needv to separate the two. We bow also have a page about the kilt in Scotland where the garment originated. It will take little time to sort this out. 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's 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.

formal Scottish kilt
Figure 2.--This older English boy had his portrailt taken in Bouremouth around the turn of the century. H is waering a formal kilt outfit. Note the velvet cit-aeay jacvkrt and patent leather shoes.

Historical Background

The kilt, the virtual symbol of Scotland, has a rather strange history. Most foreigners erroneously believe that the Scots have been roaming the moors in plaid skirts for eons. Actually, the Scots didn't begin wearing the now world-recognized plaid kilt until the 18th Century. Earlier the Scots wore long, knee-length, plaid shirts belted at the waist. The surprising thing about the modern Scottish kilt is the extent to which it has been influenced by the English Sasquats. The English have influenced the kilt now worn in Scotland and by Scottish people around the world. 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 has given rise to enduring erroneous reports and misunderstanding.

Chronological Trends

Only limited information is available on the popularity of the kilt in certain historical periods. The kilt seems to have been widely worn in the Scottish Higlands. Wwe see some emigration from the Highlands, most notbaly to the Ulster Plantatioins (17th century). We don't think the kilt was common, becuse the Scotts that migrated to Ukster came mostly from the Low Lands. Lowlanders dressed more like the English. We are not sure to what extent kilts came with them, but we expect that the fsshion was very quickly lost. At the time Brutain's primary colonies were the 13 North American colonies. And we do no nite kilts being worn to any extent in America. Settlement of the Ulster Plantations began at about the sane time (early-17th century). Massive emigration from the Highlands came after Culloden (1746) and the English supression of the Highlanders. Both bagpibes and kilts were banned for a time. This continued for some time, but attitudes gradually chzanged. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Sciottish regimdnts, basgpines asnd kilts becam the shocktroops of the Brish Empire. Scottish authors popularuized Scotland. One person ebtralled by this was the young English princess Victoria. As queen, the royal family acquired the Balmoral estate in Sotland. She dressed dressed the princes in kilts. The Royal Family at the time had a huge impact on setting fashion trends. As a result, kilts becae a major style for for boys, not only Englnd, buteven more so in America where the kilt suit bcame a mjor sgtyle. They were also worn by boys on the Continent, but to a much smaller extent. One largely unanswered question was just how commonly worn the kilt was in Scotland by the average boy. Until the mid-19th century it was for the most part only in Scotland that kilts were worn. This changed after mid-century. Scotland is a small country. As a result the number of boys whjo wore kilts is limited. Probably more American boys wore kilts, at least kill suits, than in Scotlaznd. WEe think than in all other countfries put together. By the 1870s the photogrohic record, shows large numbers of american boys wearing kilt suits. After the turn-of-the 20th century the kilt began to disappear outside of Scotland. .


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.

Scottish Hghland kilt outfit
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.

Scottish kilts gender
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.


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 governing the wearing of the kilt. Available images suggest that it was most commonly worn at knee level.

Boys' Attitudes

Accounts vary as to the attitude of boys to kilts as oposed to other styles prevalent at the time. Some clearly disliked the kilt as girlish. This is especially the case in themny countries besisises Scotland. 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. 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.

Scottish school cadet kilt
Figure 5.--This Scottish 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

Other than in Scotlnd the usage of the kilt was very limited. We jostly see them in Scottish events like Highland gatherings and Scottish dancing competitiions. Very occasionasly we might see them at eddings, but usually with Scorrish Americans. We do not see kilts being used as school uniform beyond Scotland, althoygh we do nitice being wiorn at an Irish school. England was a bit an exception. For a time, the kilt moght b used as a dress uop outfit for yonger boys. And kilts were worn by Brirish royals. Primce William anf Harrt did not like the idea and this convention seems to be ending.


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.

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.

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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: 8:01 PM 1/23/2023