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Friday, December 23, 2005

Rethinking the 19th century

People often (and rightly so) attribute most of the "bells and whistles" of modern formal Scottish attire to the nineteenth century. Silver buttons, military gauntlet cuffs, fancy fur sporrans with silver cantles and the like are seen to be examples of Victorian finery. When we think of a finely dressed Scotsman from the nineteenth century, we tend to imagine something like this 1829 portrait of King George IV (from the Wikipedia web site).

Dressed head to toe in bright red tartan, with belts, sashes, pistols, dirks, and fur-tasselled sporran, there is not much here that we can easily apply to day-to-day modern wear of the kilt.

However, I think it is important for us to realize that the upper crust were not the only ones wearing the kilt in the nineteenth century -- though they were the ones most often posing for portraits! I was recently introduced to the artwork of Richard Ansdell (1815-1885). He was an Englishman, born in Liverpool, and most famous for his paintings of hunting dogs and other wildlife. However, later in his life he had a summer home near Loch Laggan in Invernesshire, and he did paint many pastoral scenes of local Highland shepherds in their kilts.

I will show just a few below.

The Good Shepherd c. 1870

Sheep Washing in Glen Lyon

Look at the way these kilts are being worn. These are kilts worn by working men, who spend all day outdoors, working with sheep and other animals, getting about as dirty as a person can get. The first thing to notice is that just about all of these kilts appear to be made from tweed. Some have a tartan pattern woven into them, but some are solid.

It is surprising to me, when looking at paintings and photographs of kilted men from the nineteenth century, just how often those kilts are actually made from tweed. This nineteenth century photograph shows a man in a kilt, jacket and vest all in the same tweed pattern.

This really should not be surprising. Nothing is more Scottish than a good earthy-smelling tweed. There is just something extremely masculine about this cloth and it is naturally suited to kilting. Today the idea of a tweed kilt is just starting to come back into fashion, with most kilt making firms in Scotland offering some kind of tweed kilt, and Geoffrey Tailor doing a good job of marketing the "tweed kilt suit" with kilt, jacket and vest made from the same tweed (just like in the picture at right). They sell these as part of their "21st Century Kilts" line, but really they are 19th century all the way!

Look especially at the "Sheep Washing in Glen Lyon" painting. This is one of my favorites. The man in the center has a tweed kilt, knife pleated, but containing only four, maybe five yards of cloth from the looks of it. He's wearing a white shirt, with the sleeves rolled up for working. His vest has a leather front with the fur still on. His hose look to be made from a tweed equally strong and heavy as his kilt. And you can even see his red suspenders! He has no visible belt, which means his kilt must be fastened with a strap and buckle system, or just with pins. Though we cannot see his front, we can assume there is no sporran, as there is no belt for it to be worn from. Whatever goods he needs to carry are probably in the pockets of his jacket, which is laying on the ground to his left. That's also where he left his bonnet, which is adorned not with a "clansman's crest badge" like we see today, but a simple pennanular brooch.

There is an elegance, style, and ruggedness to the dress of these men that is missing from our modern dress (and here I'm not talking just of Highland dress). Today it seems that men can either dress sloppily in jeans, t-shirt, and ball cap; or if they are to dress up it must be suit and tie. There is the "L. L. Bean" look, that we call "dress casual" that I tend to favor for every-day wear. I even incorporate some of that style into my every day kilt wearing. But I think we would do well to take inspiration from these hearty nineteenth century Highlanders, as well.

To that end, I scoured the internet looking for a good place that might be able to provide some accessories from that era that could easily be applied to modern Highland dress. I found the Leavy Foundation for Historical Preservation, Inc. at They sell clothing and other accoutrements for various nineteenth century pursuits. Taking a look through their web site, I see belts, shoes, vests, shirts and other items that could easily be modified for use in both casual and formal Scottish attire.

I even ordered one of their black vests for myself. I plan on replacing the buttons with some silver ones and having a nice vest to wear with my black Argyll jackets for formal functions. If I like the look, I may order one in brown to have for casual wear. I'll be sure to post pictures when it arrives.

In the meantime, I am nearly finished with making myself a new kilt, from a charcoal grey Harris tweed, with lines of dark green and coral. This will be a knife pleated kilt, from just about five yards of cloth, inspired by some of the Ansdell paintings. I'll be sure to post pictures of that when I am done, as well.

In the meantime, this will most likely be my last post before the Holidays, so Merry Christmas to all of you!