One of the articles of clothing I get asked about most often by men putting together their first kilt ensemble is the hose. Yet surprisingly little has been written about them. That doesn’t stop people from having some rather strong opinions about just what is and is not “correct.” So time to tackle the garment that everyone knows is worn under the kilt – the socks!
To begin with, let’s take a step back into history and look at the very first type of kilt hose worn – the cadadh. These hose were cut and sewn from tartan cloth. They were not necessarily the same tartan as the kilt – most often they were a different tartan entirely. In fact, two tone red and white (or red and black, blue and white, and other color combinations) were popular. The important thing here to remember is that these were not knitted hose. They were made from cloth, cut and sewn with the tartan pattern on the bias (diagonal) for elasticity, with a single seam running down the back of the calf and the bottom of the foot.
The earliest portrait of anyone wearing the cadadh with a kilt is from the early seventeenth century. Since the earliest evidence we have of anyone wearing any form of kilt (the belted plaid) is from 1594, it would seem that the Highlander has been wearing cadadh for as long as he has been wearing the kilt.
Now, we know that knit hose were made in Scotland at least as early as the sixteenth century, but they simply were not worn with Highland dress until the mid-nineteenth century.
But our topic of hand is not the history of hose, but modern fashions. I mention the cadadh only because much of the debate that has occurred over the past century has been on the subject of tartan vs. solid hose. And the knit tartan hose are the modern descendants of the cadadh.
Knowing our history now, let’s look at what some people have had to say about the hose over the past hundred years or so. Beginning with The Kilt and How to Wear It, by the Hon. Stuart Ruaidri Erskine in 1901, he writes:
Formerly hose were made of the same stuff with the kilt. Nowadays tartan hose are not worn, save with evening dress, and not always with that…. [after some discussion of the traditional cut and sewn hose] Nowadays, however, hose areIn a footnote to the above comment, he writes:
invariably knitted, and modern fashion decrees that tartan shall not be donned for day wear.
Tartan hose are still worn by liveried servants. Pipers also cling to them. For day full dress they are proper.He then continues:
Personally, I am a supporter of fashion in this respect. I think a neat pair of plain hose looks infinitely better and more serviceable than a pair of the same articles knitted upon a tartan plan… A pair of plain hose, of some colour whichSo, to sum up Erskine’s position, tartan hose should not be worn for day wear, unless by livery servants, pipers, or some other in “day full dress.” For day wear he prefers simple, plain colored hose, and for evening for formal wear, diced hose of whatever color looks well with the kilt.
harmonizes with the kilt, and without ornamentation or female embroidery of any kind, is to me every way more acceptable than the most brilliantly embellished stockings…. For evening wear, I strongly recommend diced hose in preference to
tartan stockings… Red and white diced hose are the kind most generally worn nowadays; and they would appear to have been the most popular in the past… Black and red, green and red, black and white diced hose are all suitable for evening
wear; and, doubtless, there are numerous other checks which would serve this purpose equally well.
Moving on, we will see that our other commentators have far less to say on the matter than Erskine! Next we will look at The Scottish Clans and Their Tartans, published by W. & A. K. Johnston. This is one of the popular-style "clan tartan" books that was perpetually reprinted in the early twentieth century. Mine is the thirty-third edition and was published in 1947. In its chapter on “The Highland Dress and How to Wear It,” the only comment it makes about hose is that they should be “plain knitted hose” for everyday wear, and for full dress the hose should be “either made from the web of tartan or knitted in check of its prominent colours in the proper proportions.” In other words, either true cadadh, or knit hose made to look like the tartan. No mention of the diced hose is made.
A standard reference that many modern kilt wearers are familiar with is So You’re Going to Wear the Kilt by J. Charles Thomspon, originally written in 1979 (mine is the third edition from 1989). Most of what he has to say about kilt hose in his chapter on “Footwear” is to complain about not being able to find a decent pair of hose at a good price! Were Mr. Thompson still alive today I think he would be well please at the variety and affordability of hose today. One can get a decent pair of kilt hose from any of the many kilt outfitters in person, through mail order, or on line, with prices in the $20-$25 range for most.
Getting to the point, on the matter of what color and pattern to wear, he writes:
Remember… that tartan hose [here he is referring to knit hose] are for evening only! They are not correct for day wear… Diced hose in blue and white or red and white have always been an alternative choice for evening wear, and since even these are hard to come by, you will see many men in evening attire with solid color stockings. The purists have given in on this point, but they insist that the only correct color is white.So, by and large Thompson is in agreement with our other commentators. Tartan or diced hose are for evening wear, although now he affirms that solid color hose may also be worn for evening, but only in white.
Next, we will get the opinion of an expert in Highland dress, both historic and modern, Bob Martin, author of All About Your Kilt (second edition, 2001). On the subject of hose, he begins:
Not too much need be said about kilt hose. Some time ago, the only hose “ruled” proper for evening wear were “tartan” hose, with fold-over or castellated tops. The “rules” went through a modification, and now white knitted hose are quite popular. Since when, may I ask, must a color be apportioned its time of day or night? May not a good, strong red be worn with equal “correctness” at night? Perhaps one is wearing an all-tartan evening outfit with no white save a jabot. Wouldn’t hose that tone with the kilt be preferable to white ones? The books sayMartin here throws all of the before mentioned “rules” out the window (and rightly so!). Why should tartan hose, originally the only hose worn with the kilt, today be relegated only to very formal occasions? And if you want to wear solid hose to a formal event, why do they have to be white? Why not any color that compliments your outfit?
that “tartan” hose should not be worn during the daytime, without remembering that kilt hose were originally of tartan cloth, cut from the piece and worn all the time (cadadh).
The truth of the matter is that there are no “rules” about what you wear with your kilt other than the rules of fashion and common sense. If you have the fashion sense to match socks, trousers, shirt and tie, then you can match hose, kilt and jacket just fine. Wear what looks good.
A few practical matters come to mind here. First, as far as cadadh are concerned, if you want a pair you are going to have to either make them yourself or find someone who can make them for you. They simply are not seen offered in the catalogs today. Most of the people you see wearing them will be reenactors or others interested in period dress.
So, for most of us, the knit hose are the only options we will be considering. Hose made in a tartan pattern can be hard to come by. (One point that should be made: unless your tartan is very simple, the hose will not truly be knit in the tartan, but rather in a pattern that is made to resemble the tartan in terms of color and proportion). These typically will have to be custom made and cost well over $100. Those who go through the trouble of commissioning a pair are very likely to reserve these expensive items for formal events and understandably so. So even though you certainly may wear tartan hose for day wear, effectively you won’t see these worn much except on dress occasions.
Diced hose are easier to find than the tartan hose. Manufacturers can just make them up in the standard red and white, red and black, and maybe one or two other variations, and not have to worry about all the possible color combinations of the many tartans. But these will still be a far cry more expensive than solid color hose, and for that reason they are still seen more often at formal events than during the day. Personally, this is a style of hose that I wish we saw worn more often, but until they become as readily available as the solids, this is not likely to happen.
The fact of the matter is that for most kilt wearers, the choice they have to make is not between solid or tartan hose, but between various colors of solid hose. And the color we will deal with first is the ever-controversial white. I talk with people all the time, in person and on line, who are seeking advice on this question – which is more appropriate, white or colored hose?
Unfortunately, people’s opinions seem to be all over the map on this one, and every opinion is held strongly, so no matter what side of the question you come down on, you are likely to encounter someone who thinks you are very wrong. Such is life.
As we have already seen, many people (such as Thompson) are of the opinion that white hose are for formal events, with other colors to be worn during the day for casual wear. Yet I have also encountered those who are of the opinion that white hose should never be worn for formal wear! Many have expressed the opinion that white hose are to be worn by pipe bands and dancers only. (Which is ironic, as one hundred years ago, Erskine was making the point that tartan hose should not be worn during the day except by pipers!).
Martin’s opinion that any color hose will work for formal wear so long as the color tones well with the outfit is the most sensible. An on-line article on Highland attire by Thomas Gordon Mungall III says for formal wear the hose can be either white, or some other primary color (surely he doesn’t mean only blue, red, or yellow???), or tartan, or diced red and white, red and black, or blue and white. In other words, anything goes! Just make sure it goes!
For day wear, Mungall says either off-white or other solid color. This brings up another sticky point. When people discuss white hose, do they mean true white or the off-white that is most commonly seen? I have talked with people who say white hose should only be worn, or should never be worn, for this occasion or that, only to find out some time later that they were meaning pure white hose, not off-white or cream.
Pure white hose are actually not that common. The only times I normally see them are being worn by pipe bands at festivals and on parade, usually with the “popcorn” tops. Perhaps this is why some people believe that they should only be worn by pipers. Most of the hose that you will see are in fact an off-white or cream color. Sometimes I have people requesting pure white hose be ordered for them, out of concern that the cream hose will not match their white shirts. I always reassure them that the colors will match fine. It is the cream hose that you see men wearing most often, they look fine with white shirts, and if they were to wear pure white hose it would be quite noticeable (people might ask you where your pipes are!).
Some people choose to avoid the whole issue and avoid both white and cream colored hose entirely. And this is a good option. There are many colors under the sun to choose from, so why limit yourself? Personally, I prefer colored hose for casual wear, and either colored or diced hose for formal wear. I have to admit, though, that I do have a couple of pair of off-white hose in my wardrobe, for two reasons.
1. If I am wearing ghillie brogues for formal wear, the black laces show up much better against the light background of the cream hose than they would against, say, bottle green.
2. The off-white hose go with everything. This is a purely practical consideration. I have kilts in several different tartans, and I know that off-white hose will match whatever kilt I want to wear that day, even if my other hose are dirty.
Off-white hose continue to be the most popular today for both casual and formal wear for many reasons. One is simply that they are guaranteed to match any tartan. Other is that Highland dress suppliers offer these hose with much more frequency. If hose are included with rental kilt outfits, they will be off-white. Perhaps this use of off-white hose by the kilt-hire industry is why they have become so established for formal wear. So be it. Wear off-white hose if you like, but please do not feel limited to them.
Another downside to the light color hose (besides the fact that no one can agree on when they should or should not be worn), is that they tend to show dirt much easier. For those who wear their kilts primarily to Highland Games and other outdoor festivals, where it can either be dry and dusty or wet and muddy, this is an important consideration.
I usually recommend people purchase at least two pairs of kilt hose to begin with, off-white and a darker color. This is the least expensive part of the outfit, so why not splurge? Also, for most kilt wearers here in America, the most likely venue in which you will wear your kilt is a Highland Games, most of which are two-day affairs. Who wants to wear the same socks two days in a row?
So besides white or off-white, what colors are there to choose from? The most commonly seen are the dark bottle green and navy blue, the lighter lovat green and lovat blue, black, khaki (sometimes called tan, oatmeal, or stone in various catalogs), and gray. You’ll sometimes see other colors, such as red and burgundy. Any color that matches your kilt will be fine. In general, the darker bottle green, navy blue, and black will match most tartans in the modern colors. Lovat blue and lovat green will match most tartans in the ancient colors, but also look good with many modern tartans. Khaki, like off-white, tends to go good with everything.
Besides just using your eye and seeing what looks good together, there are a few considerations. First, the darker colors like black, navy blue, and bottle green will look better for formal events than khaki or the lovat mixtures. These are merely loose guidelines, of course. There will always be exceptions. I was talking with a gentleman recently who was describing his formal outfit to me: a formal doublet made from his tartan in the weathered colors, a kilt in solid “weathered green” (really a brown) to match the color of his tartan doublet, worn with khaki hose that matched his kilt. I imagine the effect is quite stunning!
Garter flashes are another matter, and we will only touch on them briefly. Some people think they can skip out on them and save a few dollars, but besides adding a bit of color, they really are an essential item. The elastic garter keeps your hose from slipping, so unless you want to spend your day pulling your hose back up your leg, don’t forget the garters!
Though tartan flashes (to match your kilt) are very popular today, flashes are traditionally solid. I usually advise people to select a color hose that matches one of the dominant colors of their tartan, and flashes to match one of the colors of the narrow lines, if possible a line that lies on the color you chose for your hose. For instance, one of my kilts is in the Armstrong tartan, which has a red line on a blue ground. So blue hose with red flashes look excellent with this kilt. Green hose with red flashes also look good, for this tartan is mostly green.
The reverse is also true -- you can select hose to match a secondary color of your kilt, and flashes in your kilt's primary color to pleasing effect. In fact, this is a more common choice if your tartan is primarily red, such as Bruce, or MacDonald of Sleat. Red hose with green flashes would look fine with either of these tartans, but most people do not choose to wear bright red hose for casual wear, so green hose with red flashes are more usually worn.
(By the way, if you are having trouble deciding what color flashes to wear, just go with scarlet red. You can wear red with any tartan under the sun, even those with no red in them -- really! In The Kilt and How to Wear It, the only color garters Erskine mentions at all is scarlet, worn with any kilt.)
Hamish Bicknell, a frequent poster on the X Marks the Scot kilt forum, and full-time kilt wearer, has some good advice. His strategy is to match the color hose to the shirt you are wearing, and match the flashes to the dominant color of your kilt. In this way, your kilt is “framed” so to speak by your shirt above and your hose beneath. If your hose match your shirt, you can even get by with wearing a color that is not in your kilt at all. I've seen lovat blue hose paired with light blue or denim shirts to good effect, in tartans that are red and green.
This works very well, so long as the color of your shirt and hose is subtle. One point Hamish stresses is that you never want to wear anything that will distract from your kilt. Everything in your outfit should be chosen to compliment and highlight the kilt.
Good advice from someone who wears the kilt every day. Those of us who do wear the kilt frequently can tell you that this really isn’t that huge an issue. If you are worried about what color hose you can wear, you are probably over-thinking it. Use your eye. Use common sense. Try and select a color that looks good with your tartan, and if possible get several pairs so you can alter the color hose based on the shirt, tie, or jacket you are wearing. Keep the overall look of your outfit in mind. And if you simply have no eye for fashion, and you know it, don’t be embarrassed to ask. I wear the kilt all the time, and have a drawer full of kilt hose, and even I sometimes have to ask my wife, “Will these hose look good if I wear this shirt?” She’s the one that must be seen with me, after all!