Historically, the plaid was simply a wrap, a mantle of sorts. The word derives from the Gaelic for "blanket," and that was essentially what it was -- a large length of untailored cloth. The famous belted plaid, or feilidh-mor, in Gaelic, was a length of cloth that was worn gathered and belted at the waist. It was the lower part of this knee-length garment that would eventually develop into the modern kilt. (See my article on "Generations of Highland Dress.")
Today, when the modern kilt enthusiast speaks of a plaid, he may mean one of several garments, each supposedly meant to represent the upper portion of the old belted plaid. The most common today is the fly plaid; a large square of tartan, fringed on all four sides (and sometimes purled), and typically tailored into pleats at one corner. That corner is affixed to the left shoulder, and the remainder of the plaid is left to hang in the rear (some versions have a means to affix another corner to the belt or back of the kilt, creating a pleasing drape). The fly plaid is typically reserved for evening wear. (click for pic)
However, other plaids include the piper's or drummer's plaids, which are long, heavily pleated, lengths of cloth that are worn wrapped across the chest and shoulder, the longer portion trailing in the back. These are usually only seen worn in modern times by pipers and drummers in full military uniform. (click for pic) (article on how to wear)
Those are the most common incarnations of the plaid in modern Highland dress. Less commonly seen is the form sometimes referred to as a "laird's plaid" or "day plaid," or simply as a "shoulder plaid." This is an untailored length of cloth, about the size of a blanket, which is simply folded and draped over the shoulder, like one would a blanket carried on a picnic. (click for pic) (an older image)
The discussion about the plaid began on the Scottish Attire mailing list when a list member commented that he thought evening dress incomplete without a plaid. When I read that comment, I took it to mean the fly plaid, as it is the most common form of plaid worn today (outside of the military uniform, and uniform of the piper). And taken as such, I objected to the notion that evening dress is incomplete without a fly plaid. I never have much cared for the modern fly plaid. I don't really like the way it looks, and I find it cumbersome to wear. It is supposed to mimic the upper portion of the old belted plaid, and (having worn the traditional belted plaid for many years as a reenactor), I don't think it does the job all that well. I understand that many people like the look of the fly plaid, and they are welcome to their opinion. But I daresay that it should be considered an optional accessory, and not at all requisite for proper evening attire.
My comments drew some other opinions, both in agreement and disagreement with me. The ensuing discussion inspired me to go back and look through my copy of The Kilt & How to Wear It, by the Hon. Stuart Ruaidri Erskine, originally published in 1901, to see what Erskine said about the plaid. Not that Erskine's opinion is authoritative, mind you. But it is always interesting to read a Highland dress perspective from over a century ago. I was somewhat surprised by what I discovered.
In support of the wearing of the plaid, Erskine writes: "Our forefathers were on all occasions very particular to wear the plaid, and would have considered a man as incompletely dressed without it..." and, "Indeed, the plaid is an essential part of the Highland dress, and though fashion may have decreed and encouraged its disuse, yet the genius of the garb obviously requires and demands the addition of this graceful covering, without which -- which is the best proof of its necessity -- it neither looks, nor can be, complete."
But what form of plaid is Erskine advocating? It is not the piper's or drummer's plaid, which he calls a "cross plaid." Of this article, he writes: "...the popular military or cross plaid... would appear to be a really 'comparatively modern' method of wearing this article of the Highland or Celtic dress." And he calls it a "mutilated form of the old belted plaid," and says, "I have nothing but the profoundest contempt for it, and venture to indulge the hope that none of my readers will ever countenance it in the smallest degree, much less wear it. It is one of the most miserable makeshifts -- or rather fraudulent imitations -- in which the age abounds and, apparently, delights."
Of the so-called laird's plaid, he speaks no better. "The present fashion of carrying the plaid loose and over the shoulder is a purely Lowland, or rather non-Celtic one..." (I don't think he is historically correct, but such is his opinion, and so he does not recommend this form of plaid).
What about the popular fly plaid? He makes no mention of it by name at all, but by description we can assume that he has this article in mind when he writes of "the miserable scrap of tartan... which is frequently worn at dances."
So what form of plaid does Erskine favor, and indeed calls "as essential a part of the Celtic dress as the sporran or doublet..."? This is the proper plaid, as Erskine defines it in his own words.
"This plaid -- which can be of any soft, fine material, and whether of
tartan, livery, or homespun it matters not -- should be worn much after the
manner of the old belted plaid; that is to say, it should be worn with a belt,
the sides of the plaid, as in the case of the kilt in its 'primitive form,'
being pulled a little above the belt, and made to turn down over it in as
graceful a manner as possible. When in this position, the plaid (which
must have been previously separated in the middle by the hand, so as to discover
the sporran) will give the appearance of being furnished with rings, which is
just the appearance it gives in old portraits and prints, &c., and is
emphatically, from every point of view, the end to be aimed at. The wings
of the plaid should rest on the sides of the kilt at a distance of a foot or so
from the edge nearest the knee; whilst the two ends of the plaid farthest from
the wearer should be caught up and fastened by a brooch to the left shoulder, in
the traditional manner... I may add that the plaid, when adjusted to the
person, should depend backwards a few inches -- say, three or four -- below the
edge of the kilt."
A footnote at this point here indicates that "two yards by two is a convenient size." The footnote also references the cover of the book, which I will reproduce below, front and back.
I was curious enough that I told myself that I'd eventually make one and give it a try. And over this past weekend, I did just that, using a two yard length of Carolina tartan, to match a kilt I had recently made for myself. Here is how I did it. I started with two yards of 54" wide (double width) cloth. I believe this is what Erskine meant when he said a length of "two yards by two." Not two yards square, but two yards of double width cloth. I fringed the two cut ends (in Erskine's illustration the fringe looks to be about 4 inches long at least. I stopped fringing mine at about one inch, but this is a matter of personal taste).
One of the selvage edges I tailored into wide pleats, reducing the length from two yards to about 40" (my current waist size is 38"). I only sewed the pleats in about 3". I opened them up to make box pleats, and sewed those open along the bottom of the cloth. The intent here is not to make the pleats match up with the pleats of the kilt -- there simply is not enough cloth to do that. Nor do you have to leave an unpleated "apron" at either side. The idea here is simply to reduce the length of the fabric by means of pleating to something close to your waist size.
Finally, I added four keepers (belt loops) evenly spaced along the pleated portion of the plaid, to keep the belt securely in place. Now it was ready to wear!
Here's how I did it. First, you begin by just putting on the kilt, as usual. I also put my sporran on before the plaid, as I figured it would be cumbersome to try to strap it on underneath all that excess cloth.
I pre-strung my belt through the loops in the plaid, and then belted it securely about my waist. The plaid now hung down over the top of the belt, much like the upper portion of the belted plaid, only quite a bit longer than I was used to!
It is at this point, after you have belted your plaid on, but before you attempt to arrange it any further, that you would want to put on your jacket and/or waistcoat (or vest), if you are to be wearing one. I selected a simply Argyle day jacket for this outfit.
Jacket donned, find the two corners of the plaid and bring them up and behind you, up and over your left shoulder. Pin with a brooch. Viola! You are now wearing the plaid very much as Erskine depicts on the cover of his book.
One of the things that I noticed doing this is that, if you are wearing a jacket with any sort of length to it (such as the Argyle I am wearing), it is important that the edges of the plaid not be worn directly to the front, as the drape of the cloth, when it is brought up to the shoulder, will not be sufficient to give the jacket enough clearance. Pushing the edges of the plaid back a bit fixed this problem perfectly. Here are a couple of alternate views.
I'm going to have to start recommending this form of plaid to those enquiring about a fly plaid, and see if we cannot yet revive this style, that Erskine called "extremely recommendable for evening wear, or indeed, for extraordinary occasions of any kind," in favor of that "miserable scrap of tartan!"