Everything You Need To Know
Formal Highland Dress
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Highland dress is unlike any other form of formal wear. It brings with it a rich history and a level of artistry in its creation that few other garments can match. It is never bought ‘off the shelf’ and requires the input of a professional kilt-maker, who’ll not only assemble your outfit, but teach you the art of wearing it.
For all these reasons, your Highland dress represents a serious investment. In fact, it’s not uncommon for Highland dress to be passed on through several generations of a family. But if you’re choosing your Highland dress for the first time, the process can be somewhat overwhelming. What tartan is appropriate? What accessories do you need? What style of jacket should you go for? Is it acceptable to wear normal shoes?
The list goes on. But assembling your Highland wear needn’t be a chore. That’s why I’ve written this book. My aim is to not only introduce you to the colourful history of Highland dress, but explain everything you need to know to help your kilt-maker create you an outfit that will last a lifetime.
One important point is that it’s not necessary to buy your full Highland dress all at once. Most kiltmakers will have no problem hiring out either individual items, or the full outfit. This can be a great way to try out different tartans and different styles to find out what works best for you. It also means that once you’ve invested in your kilt, you can start assembling the other pieces over a longer period of time, hiring any missing pieces when appropriate.
Many people will reserve their kilts for Burns nights, or similar events, but if you’ve invested a lot of time and money in your Highland dress, why not make the most of it? Highland dress is perfect for any formal occasion, especially for those of us with more extrovert personalities, as it makes an eyecatching alternative to the familiar coat-and-tails. Remember this rule of thumb: if you can wear a dinner jacket to an occasion, you can wear your Highland dress.
The only occasion where Highland dress is expressly not considered appropriate is on morning occasions. In Scotland, a tweed variation of the outfit will be worn as morning dress, but this is rarely done anywhere else, so just reserve your Highland dress for afternoon or evening occasions.
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There are a wide variety of jackets to choose from but the ones I generally recommend are the Prince Charlie or the Argyll. Of the two, the Prince Charlie is slightly dressier – it’s a shorter jacket that doesn’t fasten at the front, so the buttons on your waistcoat are on display. The Argyll is a little more subdued by comparison. It’s a little longer with a slightly flared skirt referred to as a ‘peplum’. Both are perfectly acceptable at any formal occasion, so it really is a question of personal taste.
If you’re on the short side, avoid long jackets, as they will tend to make your legs look much shorter than they really are. A shorter jacket that accentuates the leg length is much more flattering.
When it comes to choosing the colour of your jacket, I’d urge you to stick with black. If you opt for a coloured jacket, you will be limited to wearing it at occasions like weddings. It’s far safer to opt for the classic black – it goes with any tartan and can be worn absolutely anywhere. Look at it this way; if you’ve invested lots of money in your Highland dress, you’ll naturally want to get the use out of it, so go for something that’s appropriate on any occasion! As far as shirts are concerned, I advise you to choose white ones since they go with anything and are always fashionable. Invest in some good quality ones and you won’t regret it.
When it comes to fitting, much the same advice applies as with the kilt: never by a jacket without trying it on. Furthermore, make sure that you try it on while wearing a shirt (ideally one of the ones you’ll be pairing it with). Trying on a jacket while wearing a T-shirt (or anything similar) will make it next to impossible to find one that fits well.
A properly-fitted jacket should fit snugly around the neck; otherwise you will find yourself constantly adjusting it. Many people neglect this when trying on a jacket. Although they check the front and back, they don’t realise that the neck is actually the most crucial part of the fitting process.
There is one particular occasion where you could even forgo the jacket altogether; the ceilidh, or general evening of dancing. On high-energy occasions like this, a jacket, waistcoat and shirt is likely to prove very uncomfortable very quickly, so as an alternative, you can opt for a Ghillie shirt instead, possibly paired with a Jacobean waistcoat. This type of lace-up shirt is perfect for dancing, as it is light, loose-fitting and doesn’t need to be paired with a tie.
It’s not uncommon for men to attend these events in their full Highland dress, but change into a Ghillie shirt for the actual dancing. This is a great option at occasions like weddings, which combine dancing with a meal.
As I said before, there’s no substitute for a professional eye when it comes to fitting, so don’t be afraid to ask if you’re unsure of anything or need some suggestions.
The specific type of formal occasion you’re attending will determine the type of waistcoat you choose. On evening occasions, a three-button waistcoat is generally worn, paired with a bow-tie, whilst at weddings, a five-button waistcoat is paired with a coloured ruche and a winged-collar shirt. As a rule, use side-button waistcoats with a ruche, as three-button waistcoats that fasten much lower down will leave a ruche flapping about, which will just look messy.
In terms of colour, there’s only one rule: make sure it matches your jacket! Once again, black is always a safe and stylish option. Why not have several waistcoats for different occasions, just to make your Highland dress that extra bit more versatile?
Ghillie brogues are the special shoes that accompany Highland dress.
These are not the same as the regular brogues you commonly find in high-street shops (which tend to resemble regular shoes with small holes drilled in them). Scottish brogues have no tongue and actually wrap the leather over your hose, making them extremely comfortable to wear.
It’s essential that you wear proper Highland hose (which typically comes in ecru or off-white) when you are trying on your brogues. It will be impossible to get a proper feel for how comfortable they’ll be if you try them on while wearing regular socks, as the brogues are laced over the top of the hose. If you are unsure how to tie brogues, your kilt-maker will be able to show you.
Another thing to consider when purchasing your brogues and hose is the flashes: the garters that hang down from the hose. It’s a good idea to mention them when your kilt-maker is preparing your kilt, as they will often be able to make you a pair from the same cloth your kilt came from.
If you are going to be doing a lot of dancing, then one fun option for your brogues is steel toe caps, which make a characteristic ‘clacking’ sound as you move.
Contrary to popular belief, the sporran has never been designed to weigh down the front flap of the kilt, as the kilt’s double-flap design makes this unnecessary. Nor is it designed to weigh the kilt down when the wearer is sitting with their legs apart, as the kilt is designed to do this on its own. Instead
It traditionally serves as an alternative to pockets, as these are never featured on kilts.There are a wide variety of styles available, ranging from simple day sporrans, to the elaborate designs worn by pipers, and even ones made from the pelt of an animal that incorporate the head as a flap! But as we’re considering formal wear here, the only appropriate option is the more ornate dress sporran. The sporran is usually worn at the front of the kilt, although it is conventionally pushed to the left while dancing.
The finishing touch for your formal Highland dress is the plaid and brooch. The plaid, worn at occasions such as weddings, is the strip of cloth draped over the left shoulder, folded to a point and then fastened where the breast pocket would usually be with a brooch, typically in the shape of a shield. Brooches typically incorporate a coloured stone, the colour of which is totally up to you. I’d advise you to either choose one that matches your tartan or go for a black one to match your jacket.
You’re probably surprised to see this chapter heading in a booklet on Highland dress, but there are a few legalities you need to be aware of when purchasing your accessories.
Due to the ban on sealskin, sporrans are generally made from bovine products in the UK. People who have tried to import sealskin sporrans from abroad have run into trouble with customs. If you are going to import a sporran, do as much research as you possibly can to avoid situations like that. In fact, I’d advise you to forget about importing your sporran and instead order one from your kiltmaker, as they will be able to help you choose one that will go perfectly with the rest of your outfit. Although newer sporrans are not quite as silky to the touch as sealskin ones, there are plenty of superb ones being made. If you choose a good one, you won’t be disappointed.
The issue of sgian dubhs (the small knives that traditionally accompany Highland dress) is slightly more complex, as these are considered offensive weapons. Although it is still legal to sell them (although obviously not to minors), hiring them out is no longer an option. Most kilt-makers will have wooden or plastic replicas available for hire if you aren’t quite ready to make the purchase, but you certainly wouldn’t want to dress the haggis at a Burns Night with one of those!
I hope this booklet has provided you with a nice introduction to both the rich history of Highland dress and helped you take your first steps towards assembling your own outfit. In closing, let me just reiterate that there is no substitute for the knowledge and experience of an expert kilt-maker. Let them know exactly what you want your outfit for and they will be able to provide you with a garment that will look stunning, last a lifetime and then be passed on to future generations.