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Scotland's Independent Style: The Kilt
|The debate on the yes/no vote has seen many figures in the fashion industry speak out about how an independent Scotland would impact their work, with designers Christopher Kane and Betty Jackson, and model Stella Tennant signing an open letter urging people to vote ‘no’ to independence, and Glasgow-born designer Jonathan Saunders describing the referendum as "nonsense".|
It began with a war. In 1794, famed politician and mathematician Sir John Sinclair created a local military force to fight against Revolutionary France. Staying true to the new fashion of dressing Scottish forces in Highland garb, Sinclair gave his men a uniform of tartan trousers.
Few in fashion today would agree with Pinkerton’s brutal assessment of tartan, which has thrived to become a key part of high-end designers’ work, from Vivienne Westwood’s punk aesthetic, to Chanel’s spectacular homage to Scotland’s tartans, Fair Isle knits and Celtic brooches at its Metiers d'Art show, staged in an ancient Scottish castle in 2012.
Whether worn with pride as a symbol of national identity in the Scottish football team’s ‘Tartan Army’, or to add flair to black tie at formal events, the kilt has become staple wear over the past half-century, benefitting from a growing sense of cultural distinction in Scotland as well as the international influence of punk rock and Braveheart. Yet, as Pinkerton’s comments show, Scots have not always viewed the kilt kindly, nor has it always been as popular as it is today.
The tale of the kilt’s birth somewhat foreshadows its later life as a rugged DIY look amongst punks, customised with rips and safety-pins. In the eighteenth century, Thomas Rawlinson, Lancashire Quaker and industrialist, took the “belted plaid” – a large tartan cloth wrapped over the shoulder and belted around the waist to make a skirt-like garb – and, with the help of a military tailor, basically chopped off the bottom, creating what is now recognised as the modern kilt.
Despite the disputed authenticity of this story, and the grating idea of Scotland’s most iconic national outfit being the brainchild of an Englishman, giving historical credit for this item of clothing to a man who simply cut bits off a traditional garment seems like a beginning too humble for this iconic style.
Nonetheless, the kilt took off during this time. Within twenty years the kilt was sufficiently well-known as a symbolic garment that anyone except members of a few select Scottish regiments were banned from wearing it. These regiments, quickly distinguishing themselves in colonial wars of the 18th century and in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, would capture both the aristocratic imagination in Britain and popular curiosity abroad. Combined with the growth of the romantic movement, which came to glorify a romanticised vision of Highland life and the bravery of the “noble savage”, the kilt emerged triumphant as the defining symbol of Scottish clothing.
Like the bowler hat for the English or lederhosen for the Germans, the kilt serves as a simplistic and stereotypical uniform for Scotsmen. In light of the referendum on Scottish independence, it’s best to remember the kilt for what it really is; neither traditional dress of the ancient clansmen, nor simply the patronising gift of an English industrialist.
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