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Highland Kilt

The Highland kilt is widely recognized as perhaps the most readily identifiable symbol of Scotland, by Scots and non-Scots alike.  Typically created using clan-specific plaids or tartans, kilts serve as personal “flags” signifying family membership and, thereby, the rich social and historical heritage of one’s ancestors.  This paper will examine the kilt with regard to the James Laver’s three principles of dress: the Utility Principle, the Hierarchy Principle, and the Seduction Principle. 

Highland Kilt

Laver defines the Utilitarian Principle quite narrowly as “wearing clothes as a protection against the elements”. In this paper, however, a broader interpretation of utilitarianism is adopted.  Thus, the kilt will be examined with regard to its usefulness in the lives of those who wore it, including climatic and geographical elements but not to the exclusion of other adaptive applications.

This reader was surprised to learn that the Highland kilt, now such a source of national pride, actually began as the dress of the Highland poor who could not afford more expensive trews (trousers).  This unique garb was introduced to the northern regions of Scotland by Gaels from Ireland during the conflict with invading Romans.  The Irish, ever the “whipping boys” of the English, have been economically disadvantaged throughout much of their history, and they brought the poor man’s garment with them to their new home in the Highlands.

According to an author (n.p.), “[u]ntil fairly recently, only the poorest of the poor would only own a piece of material to wrap around themselves.  No Highland ‘Chief’ worth his name would have been caught dead in such a low-class garment!”   Cockburn’s statement hints at the origin of the kilt when he refers to it as “a piece of material.” An author reports that “the kilt began as a tartan blanket used as a skirt by day and bedding by night”.  Other writers concur with Min on this point. Called a “great kilt” (filleadh mor) to distinguish it from the current fashion (“little kilt” or filleadh beag), the original garment was “essentially a long blanket pleated and belted around the waist” (“Scottish Kilts: Historical Development”).  Thus, the Highland kilt was utilitarian from its origin.

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