Originally published April 2001.
Author: Ceilidh Lerwick
Celtic Clothing Part 1
The following is the first article in a series about Celtic clothing. The term “Celtic Clothing” is as broad a statement as “American Clothing” or any other culture for that matter. If you were to look at what you are wearing right now and then compare it to what a person in your situation would have worn 100 years ago or 500 years ago, the differences would most likely out number the similarities. There are also regional variations that can throw a wrench in the works as well (like how a Texas rancher would dress vs. a $500/hour NY City Attorney). Please keep in mind that is published in this newsletter is correct to the best of my knowledge.
Probably the most pronounced article of Celtic clothing in the modern world is the Kilt. It is commonly known as the Scottish National Dress “Dress” being the foremost word to a few men who are worried about their masculinity. Being such an identifiable garment many often wonder just why, how and when the Kilt evolved and this can most often be a volatile topic if you happen too near the pride line of a Scot. Needless to say, though, there are truths and there are myths. The problem being, as with much of Celtic history, that there is not a lot of accurate and detailed information on the subject and the trick is to weed through the information and come out with a fairly accurate picture.
First we have to define just what a Kilt is. A Kilt, as it is known in modern times, is an article of clothing that looks like a skirt, but is worn by a man. It is made with several yards of cloth that are pleated together in back an left unpleated in the front. It is designed like a wrap around skirt. Laid flat it would have pleats in the middle and two unpleated, flat sections-one on each side. It is then placed around the lower portion of the body with the pleats in the back and the flaps in the front, one folded over the other, and fastened by a system of buckles. It is important to note that a Modern Kilt is made for the bottom half of the body, like a skirt, and uses just enough fabric to cover from the knee to just above the waist (usually less than 30″).
So lets go back a ways, back to when most of the historians believe that the makings of the Kilt (the Feileadh Mhor) first appeared, which would be the very late 1500s AD.
The Feileadh Mhor is what is commonly known as the Great Kilt, or a “belted plaid”. Different from the Modern Kilt, A Great Kilt is made to cover most of the body, from the knees to the neck and sometimes even the head. It is made by using twice the width of cloth as a modern kilt (usually 54″-60″). One then lays out many yards of the very wide cloth on the ground and proceeds to pleat up the material until he has a section of pleats in the center of the cloth and two flat, unpleated sections on either side. For some highly recommended instructions, click here. When the Great Kilt is pleated, but not yet on the body, it should look quite a bit like laying flat a modern kilt, only twice as big.
Here I must quick diverge to add that the Modern Kilt is an extension (or bastardization, depending on how you look at it) of the Great Kilt. The Great Kilt is voluminous and, while it had many advantages in the Highlands, was not great for factory work. It is said that around 1725 a man named Rawlinson who owned a factory and employed large numbers of Highlanders, noticed that the Highlanders might be able to work faster if they weren’t encumbered by those voluminous amounts of cloth. So, he cut the Great Kilt in half and sewed the pleats in to eliminate the need or a belt or the upper portion. The upper portion of the Great Kilt could then be worn similarly as before (like a cloak or shawl) but could be removed for factory work and donned again when needed. Another interesting benefit was that, with the pleats sewn in that kilt laid flatter against the wearer meaning it was less bulky and less likely to catch on equipment. Rawlinson then presented this to his employees and the concept seems to have caught on quite well.
But, back to the original line of discussion. Just what is a kilt? Above is a description of the Modern idea of a kilt as well as the definition of a Great Kilt, however, one important notion to keep in mind as we continue is this: the verb “kilt” or “to kilt” simply means pleat. A Kilt, the modern men’s garment, is called such because it is made by “kilting” material into a skirt like garment. Someone, somewhere couldn’t pronounce Feileadh Beg (or the other various Gaelic terms) or got sick of saying “that pleated skirt like thing those Scots wear” and so that person just started calling it a “Kilt”. The term caught on and here we are.
Thus, a Kilt is simply a garment that is Kilted (or pleated), at least in the simplest definition, and this definition becomes very important when discussing where the Modern Kilt came from and also the concept of the Irish Kilt.
So just where did the Kilt come from?
The most popular theory is this: The clothing of the Celts of the British isles was pretty much the same until the late 1500s AD. Prior to this time, commoners wore a shirt and a Brat for warmth. The style of the shirt varied a bit over time as well as the desire to wear pants or even a shirt that covered enough to be modest if we are to believe certain accounts. The two items that pretty much held true were the shirt and the Brat.
A Brat is really just a piece of cloth, big enough to wrap around one’s shoulders. Brats varied in size, were worn by both men and women, and were often larger and larger in proportion to a person’s purse strings. The Piper’s Plaid or women’s Plaid Shawl are really modern versions of the “Brat”.
I have worn a Brat several different ways and in all honesty it is rather annoying. There are very few ways to wear it without it constantly falling down into whatever I am doing and never staying where I put it. Just pinning it wit a brooch doesn’t seem to cut it and it seems like a logical conclusion to belt the Brat into place and make it stay put.
It is because of this sentiment that I do lend considerable credence to this theory of how the Great Kilt began. It is thought that someone decided to wear his belt on the outside of his or her Brat, probably for the same reason I have described above. It is also thought that the excessive amount of cloth and the technique of pleating came to being for added warmth in the cold moors. While the Irish were learning to make thicker, blanket weight Brats, the Scots were pleating. More cloth means more layers and layers will trap the heat and keep you warm; however, a person couldn’t just wrap layers of cloth around themselves. Why? Probably because lots of wrapping made the garment very difficult to remove and removing was necessary in the many battles fought in the Highlands. So, the cloth was Kilted; pleated to maintain the layers of cloth and still have the ease of removal; just let go of the belt and the Kilt falls to the ground.
This theory seems to be generally accepted with out much variation on the theme. However, in my research I have found some interesting tidbits of information, which at least need to be explored. None of which really dispel the popular theory, but they definitely make it more interesting, including the concept of an Irish Kilt and also the Greek and Roman influence in the Celtic cultures. These topics will be addressed in the next issues of the newsletter.
If you would like more information on the topics covered in this issue, please see the following sites: