The Kilt

By Janine Holmes

My final project explores the visual and literal history of the Scottish Highlander kilt. I have chosen to focus on the versatility of the kilt, specifically on its cultural and military purposes. My garment will serve as visual storytelling of the kilt. Kilts have been worn by Highlanders for hundreds of years. They are typically associated with the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1745 against the English monarchy because they were banned almost immediately after, according to the Berg Companion to Fashion by Valerie Steele. However, England allowed kilts to remain a part of the Scottish military uniform. The kilt never recovered its daily use, despite the ban being repealed years later. According to Malcolm Chapman’s Freezing the Frame, kilts and the Scots themselves were viewed as savage and a threat to the British crown until King George IV visited in the early 19th century. Queen Victoria I’s visit later on also helped to popularize the tartans kilts are made from.

I am applying Barthes’ theories of semiotics to my project and focusing on the kilt as both a military uniform and as an everyday object. Barthes discusses the function of symbols and that everything can send messages to the viewer. The English viewed the kilt as a form of Scottish defiance and as a nuisance, while the Scottish viewed it as a symbol of national pride. According to Thomas Abler’s Hinterland Warriors and Military Dress, Scottish soldiers wore kilts more adapted to warfare with a khaki apron in the front. Kilts were officially worn in battle up until World War I, but unofficially worn by a small number of soldiers during World War II. Abler also states that German soldiers during World War I nicknamed Scottish soldiers “the ladies from Hell” due to wearing the kilt. My garment should illustrate the pride, function, and history of the kilt.

I have found a double-faced olive and red twill polyester fabric and Clan MacLeod tartan that I am using for the construction of my kilt. The double-faced fabric reminds me of military-grade fabric, which represents the kilt being a military symbol for both the Scottish and the British. The thick green exterior is commonly associated with having an “army” look, both in the modern and historic sense. The red underneath is rebellious and bold, which is how England symbolized Scotland after the Jacobite rebellion. Clan MacLeod tartan is a traditional fabric that illustrates part of the kilt’s history. I am adding pleats of various widths to the back, with one large box pleat in the center back. Traditionally, the back of a kilt is always pleated while the front is flat. I am mostly following this tradition except for the fact that my kilt is only partially pleated in the back to make it more functional and militaristic. I am keeping the selvage exposed on the top right edge of the kilt to show the red fabric that it is layered over. The waistband of the kilt is made from a torn selvage of Blackwatch tartan, which was named after a Highlander militia. I have attached Clan MacLeod tartan to the left front of the kilt to break the uniform olive color and add color. Instead of using a kilt pin, I have attached strips of Clan MacLeod tartan that keep the kilt fastened. I left the hem of the kilt unfinished to show the kilt’s ability to stay functional despite any damage it might suffer during war. I added a military-style pocket with a flap with a Clan MacLeod tartan border, which is my variation of the sporran bag that was worn with the kilt. The pleated Blackwatch tartan is my interpretation of ornamental fur on the sporran.

Kilt design sketchKilt design showing pleats

stitching top of kilt Red polyester underside of fabric for kilt

kilt design detail with plaid exposed kilt - design reinforcement

I added an embroidered Jacobite rose as a nod to the Scottish rebellion. I draped Blackwatch tartan on the back of the fabric to represent the traditional “plaid”, or shawl of tartan worn over the shoulders. One aspect of construction I struggled with was making the inside red polyester fabric stay pleated, so I added topstitching to keep the pleats’ form. I topstitched a box over the large box pleat in the back. A design difficulty I faced was combining cultural storytelling and military function. The pocket I added in the front both adds to the military aesthetic while also being a modern take on the traditional sporran. The combination of my fabrics rather than just using tartan or the polyester helped to blend these two aspects of the kilt.

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