I don't like using the term and I sometimes find myself having to explain why. I am afraid that occasionally during these discussions I can come across as a nit-picker. So I thought it would be helpful to explain in a single blog post my reasoning. This way I can simply refer to this post the next time the issue comes up and be done with it!
But before we get into the term "military box pleat" and the issues I have with it, I want to explain why I care about kilt terminology at all. For fourteen years I worked at the Scottish Tartans Museum and my work there involved me in educating the public about the kilt both historical and modern. Highland dress is one of those subjects where a little knowledge can suffice to make one a self-appointed expert. And there are legions of them. Nearly every day I would find myself talking to a person who believed he already knew it all on the subject of the kilt. But the fact is, there is a lot of misinformation out there that can easily lead to confusion and erroneous conclusions. This was a constant source of frustration for me.
I'll give a few examples. I once had a phone call from a person looking for information about "battle kilts." At first I thought they were meaning regimental kilts such as issued by the Ministry of Defense. But no. They had in mind inexpensive budget kilts, made from about five yards of cloth, roughly pleated and machine sewn, held up with velcro. Some vendor at a Highland Games they attended was selling these as "battle kilts" and the person thought that was an actual Highland Dress term, with a history behind it; that men in Scotland would have their formal dress kilt to attend Highland balls in, and their "battle kilt" to wear while keeping the neighboring clan away from their cattle.
Another source of confusion is the term "regimental pleating." If I hear that term, my first assumption is that the person means a kilt pleated to the stripe, as regimental kilts are. But sometimes people use that term to mean a kilt made with a lot of small pleats (as any eight yard kilt would have). I have even heard people use that term loosely to describe just about any knife pleated kilt.
And don't even get me started on the confusion surrounding tartan colors. I have written volumes on the imprecise terms ancient and modern, weathered, reproduction and muted. I couldn't tell you how often I've had calls from people asking about their "ancient weathered" tartan. (Which is it, ancient or weathered? It cannot be both.) Confusion can even be found from sources that really ought to know better. I was once surprised to find, on the official Clan MacKenzie web site, the MacKenzie tartan in the weathered colors referred to as the "Hunting MacKenzie" tartan.
So kilt terminology is a pretty muddy area to begin with. When people hear a particular term used, their assumption more often than not is to take it as an accepted and recognized term, which is all-too-often not the case. In light of this, I always try my best to be as precise and consistent as possible. With this in mind, let's look at the term "military box pleated kilt."
Here is what comes to mind when some people hear "box pleated kilt."
This is a kilt made from about four yards of cloth. This particular one has about eight pleats which are about 2.25" wide or so.
Here is what comes to mind when other people hear "box pleated kilt" (photo courtesy Kinloch Anderson).
This kilt is made from about eight yards of cloth. It has more than 20 pleats (I can't really see in the photo just how many) which are perhaps 3/4" wide, perhaps a bit less.
Who is correct? They both are. The first kilt is an example of how kilts would typically be made c.1790-1850 (roughly). The second kilt is an example of how kilts in certain military regiments would be made in the twentieth century. Both are box pleated; they are simply made with different amounts of cloth.
Styles of Pleating
Before we go much further it would help to make sure we have our pleating terminology straight. Just what is a box pleat and how does it compare to other forms of pleating?
Most kilts today are made with knife pleats. Sometimes these are called side pleats, or natural pleats, but the most common term is knife pleat. This pleat is made by simply folding over the cloth, so that the fold lies in one direction. Here is an example.
By contrast, a box pleat is when the fold of the pleat is opened up so that the fold lies in both directions from the pleat. So when you are looking at the pleat from the outside of the kilt, it looks like a little "box" with pleats going in at either side.
What is important here to understand is that these are really the only two types of pleats used in making kilts. Any other differences in style are made either by combining these two pleat types (as in the Kingussie style of kilt, which is made with one box pleat, and multiple knife pleats), or by using different amounts of cloth to make the kilt. The more cloth is used in the kilt, the more pleats can be made. The more pleats there are, the smaller the outside "face" of the pleat will be, and the deeper the inside depth of the pleat.
A Brief History
More detail is on my web site, but it will be helpful to give a summary here. The first kilts were untailored length of tartan worn gathered and belted at the waist. But by the 1790s kilts were being made with the pleats sewn down from waist to hip. These first tailored kilts were made from around four yards of cloth, and box pleated. For the military, they were pleated to the stripe. For civilian wear, they were originally pleated to no pattern at all. By 1815-1820 or so, civilian kilts were also commonly being pleated to the stripe.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, the amount of yardage used in making kilts began to increase; gradually at first, and then more rapidly. As late as 1881, McIntyre North was still writing in The Book of the Club of the True Highlanders that "a kilt... should measure about five and a half yards" of cloth. He was a bit of a traditionalist, and many kilts made at this date had more that this. By the time the twentieth century rolls around, you have the nominal eight yards of cloth considered standard for men's kilts.
Pleating styles also changed during this time. As I have said, box pleating was the norm at first. In 1854 the Gordon Highlanders became the first military regiment to make the switch to knife pleated kilts. Others followed, as did civilian fashion. But up to the late nineteenth century, one still found plenty of box pleated kilts in use. All of the kilted figures in The Highlanders of Scotland series painted by Kenneth MacLeay c.1865-69 are wearing box pleated kilts. And in 1881, McIntyre North was complaining that the "modern form" of pleating (knife pleating) was incorrect, and a proper kilt should be box pleated.
Nevertheless, by the twentieth century box pleating had completely gone out of fashion for civilian dress; the eight yard knife pleated kilt was the standard. Most military regiments were also wearing knife pleated kilts. Only a few still retained the original box pleated kilt; such as the Seaforth Highlanders and the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders I mentioned above. But these were not the original four yard box pleated kilts of the end of the 18th century. These were modern kilts made with a nominal eight yards of cloth (though in actuality often less was used). And because more cloth was used, the kilts naturally had a different appearance.
You can see this easily in the first two photos of box pleated kilts I posted above. To better illustrate just how the addition of more cloth affects the pleats, let's look at some more photos. I have already shown you a "bottom up" view of a four yard box pleated kilt. If we looked at that as a simple line drawing, it would appear like this.
What happens when we add more cloth? Here is a box pleated kilt made with five yards of material.
And if we continue to add more cloth...
The Box Pleated Kilt of Today
Up until relatively recently, when someone mentioned a box pleated kilt, what they meant was the type of kilts currently worn by those few military regiments that continued to wear this style. Very, very few civilians bothered to have their kilts pleated this way. Most kilt makers did not even bother to learn to make this style. It became the almost exclusive provenance of a handful of regiments. So people naturally thought of box pleating as a military style (even though most military kilts by this time were actually knife pleated).
In 1982 kilt maker Bob Martin began to revive the older style of box pleated kilt, made from four yards of cloth. Bob Martin was not only a kilt maker, but an historian of Highland dress, most especially the development of the kilt. His kilt making career spanned more than 30 years, most the time based out of South Carolina. So most of his kilt clients lived in a climate decidedly warmer than the Scottish Highlands. For this reason many people would ask him to make their kilts from light weight cloth.
As a kilt maker, he knew heavier weight cloth was superior. For those wanting a lighter weight kilt, he began to recommend a return to the original tailored kilts made from half the material of most modern kilts. In addition to offering these kilts to his clients, he also taught a few others to make this style, including myself. In 2004 I began to offer these kilts as a kilt maker. In my kilt making career to date, I have made over 700 four yard box pleated kilts. That same year I also began to actively promote this style on the internet, via my own web site and also through my participation on X Marks the Scot.
Because of this effort, the four yard box pleated kilt has a new lease on life. Many kilt wearers now look upon this style as an acceptable alternative to the usual eight yard kilt of today. But now we have an odd situation. Because the modern style of box pleated kilt as worn by certain regiments is still comparatively rare, and because the original style of box pleated kilt with less material is becoming more familiar (in certain kilt wearing circles), confusion has crept in. There is an obvious visual difference between the two styles.
If people's first exposure to box pleated kilts is the four yard style, they often don't know how to describe box pleated kilts made from more cloth. I have heard all sort of descriptions, including "box-knife pleats" or "a box pleat with a knife pleat on one side," and "a knife pleat with the end turned back." In reality, it is simply a box pleat. Just as one can have a knife pleated kilt made from any amount of material, a box pleated kilt can also be made from any amount of cloth.
But people naturally feel the need to classify and name things they perceive as different. And because of the association this style of pleating has with certain military regiments, some have taken to calling any box pleated kilt made from a nominal eight yards of cloth a "military box pleated kilt," and calling a four yard box pleated kilt simply a "box pleated kilt" or sometimes a "historic/traditional style box pleated kilt."
Let me say here that I do not have any problem with the term "military box pleated kilt" per se. My concern is that they way it tends to be used is inaccurate and imprecise.
When I hear "military box pleated kilt," I hear three things.
1. A kilt
2. That is box pleated
3. For the military
But that's not how most people use the term today. Some people assume that a military box pleat is an entirely different form of pleating than a "regular" box pleat. As I have shown above, that is simply not true. The only difference is yardage (which can also entail some different sewing techniques during construction, just as making a four yard knife pleated kilt will involve different techniques than making an eight yard knife pleated kilt).
What most people mean by "military box pleated kilt" is any box pleated kilt made from around eight yards of cloth -- even if is not in a regimental tartan, and the wearer has no connection with the military. It is inaccurate to call such a kilt a military kilt, just as it would be inaccurate to call a non-regimental eight yard knife pleated kilt a military kilt.
What is more, this definition excludes many actual military kilts. Here are a few examples from Bob Martin's book All About Your Kilt! (2001).
This is a regimental kilt from the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, made sometime prior to WWI. It is a true military kilt, and box pleated. But it is made with only 6.5 yards of cloth.
Going back further in time, we have this kilt.
And looking even further back, to the very first tailored kilts, we find this.
It seems to me that there is something wrong about using the terminology "military box pleated kilt" in such a way that would include non-military kilts while excluding actual military kilts.
The key factor in play here is yardage. People use "military box pleat" to mean a box pleated kilt made from close to eight yards, and exclude box pleated kilts made from less cloth. If that is the intent, then why not simply state the yardage of the kilt?
If I say "four yard box pleated kilt" there is no doubt as to what I mean. If I say "six yard knife pleated kilt" or "eight yard box pleated kilt" there is no confusion. And let's reserve the term "military" for actual military kilts, be they knife pleated or box pleated, regardless of the amount of cloth used.