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Matthew A. C. Newsome

Kilt Maker - Kilt Wearer - Kilt Historian

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Name: Matthew Newsome
Location: NC

Member of the International Guild of Tartan Scholars, curator of the Scottish Tartans Museum

Saturday, July 15, 2006

How to Wear the Kilt -- literally

You'll have to forgive us long-time kilt wearers. Sometimes we take certain things for granted, and just assume that everyone automatically knows how a kilt should be worn. We forget for the first time kilt wearer just how different this is from the usual mode of dress.

Then we see a picture on the internet of some poor misguided, but well intentioned soul, and we are quickly reminded that some people need a bit of help!

Seriously, though, I do occasionally get phone calls or emails from people who have just received delivery of their first kilt that go something like this: "Hi, I just got my kilt that I ordered. It looks great! It's a real work of art; excellent craftsmanship; a thing of beauty! ...so, er... how do you put the thing on?"

So I thought it might be useful to go over How to Wear the Kilt (ta-dah!). No, I don't mean the proper way to match accessories and the "correct" time of day or night to wear this jacket or that sporran. Much has been written on those topics already (too much!). I mean the physical nuts and bolts of how the kilt is worn.

This is how I get dressed in the morning.

  1. Put on your shirt. Whatever shirt you are wearing, be it a button down, polo shirt, t-shirt, whatever.
  2. Put on your kilt. It may seem obvious, but the pleats go in the back! (Some people do need reminding of this). The two flat aprons overlap in the front. On most kilts, there will be a leather strap at the end of the right-hand apron. This will cross over in the front and pass through a hole in the left side of the kilt and fasten to a buckle at the outer left waist. (I make my kilts a bit different: see here). The top of your kilt should come up well above the belly button. Make this as snug fitting as is comfortable. It needs to be snug enough to keep your kilt in position -- you'll stand straighter, as well!
  3. Now cross the apron to your left over to the right and fasten with one or two leather straps there. It is important to keep things even. You want this outer apron to lie smooth across your belly. In a well made kilt, where the straps and buckles are placed evenly, this means that you should position the straps on both the left and right equally. In other words, if your left-side strap is on the second hole, then you need to wear your right-side strap at the second hole, as well. This applies for the straps at the waist. If your kilt has a third strap down on your right hip, take care to fasten this only as tightly as necessary to allow the apron to lie flat and smooth. People have a tendency to wear this strap too tightly and this creates a pull across the front apron. (Or you could just follow my suggestion and have this superfluous third strap removed and not worry about it!).
  4. The kilt is designed to sit up high on the waist. Most civilian kilts are made with a 2" rise. This means that (on most men) the bottom of the leather straps (the upper straps, if your kilt has a lower one on the hip) will be at your natural waist line, at the top of your hip bone. The top of the kilt itself should come to just under your rib cage. On thinner men, this will be the natural place where the kilt feels comfortable. Larger men, with a waist (belly) larger than their hips tend to want to wear their kilt at the hips, below their belly. Avoid this temptation! Nothing looks worse than a man with his beer-belly protruding out over the top of his kilt. Wear your kilt high, above your belly button. Believe me, it looks a lot better and more fitted.
  5. Most well-made kilts will have one of the pivot points of the tartan (the point at which the pattern mirrors itself, often a dominant stripe) at the center point of the front apron. See that that line is centered, and line up the buttons on your shirt to that line.
  6. Reach down underneath the kilt and give your shirt a little tug to get it in place, and smooth the shirt out. If you need to during the day, you can repeat this little maneuver to neaten up your appearance.
  7. If you are wearing a belt, now is when I would put it on. If you plan on wearing a vest or waistcoat (or a cummerbund for as part of a formal ensemble), then you will not want to wear a belt. Most kilt belts are between 2" and 3" wide, with the average being about 2.25" to 2.5". I'll do a different post later on about formal/casual styles of kilt belts. Your kilt may or may not have belt loops in the back. These belt loops are actually a relatively modern addition to the kilt. They are not necessary and many kilt makers (myself included) still do not put them on. It is the straps and buckles that will keep a properly fitted kilt up, not the belt, which is purely decoration. If your kilt is sans loops, just put the belt on at the natural waist. Some are of the opinion that the belt should come up even with the top of the kilt (so that you cannot see any kilt above the belt). J. C. Thompson advocates this in So You're Going to Wear the Kilt! I find this very impractical to maintain, however, without the belt slipping off the top of the kilt, and see no reason for it. The belt should cover the leather straps on the kilt, and it's perfectly fine if the top half inch or so of the kilt shows above the belt. If your kilt does have belt loops, go ahead and run your belt through them. So (again, Thompson being an example) say that since these belt loops are a new addition, made originally for the sporran strap (true) and therefore should not be used for the belt. So they say to wear your belt on top of the belt loops. If you want to do this, I won't argue with you. But I will say that to most who see you it just looks like you missed your loops when you put your belt on.
  8. The belt should be snug fitting (but not so tight as to bunch up or crease the kilt!). A snug fitting belt will stay in place (and help the kilt stay in place on those men with no hips!). A loose fitting belt will work its way south during the day and the next thing you know your half inch of kilt showing above the belt has turned into three or four inches, and nothing looks sloppier.
  9. Again, make sure everything lines up -- your belt buckle should be even with the center line of the kilt apron (and the buttons of your shirt).
  10. The next thing I put on are the hose. When you put them on, pull them all the way up, over the knee. Take your garters and fasten them above the calf, below the knee. The flashes (the colored cloth ribbons) should be on the outside of your leg, positioned just slightly to the front. (Just FYI, the elastic band is a garter, the colored ribbons are the flashes, and together they are referred to as "garter flashes." They are not called "flashers" or "flashings" -- both of those things will get you arrested!). Garter flashes in place, the top of the kilt hose now folds down, hiding the garters, with the bottom few inches of the flashes showing. Don't get too hung up on how many inches the fold over of the hose needs to be. Just use your best judgment. Some kilt hose are designed to be folded over two or three times for a thicker top. Most just fold over once.
  11. Next I usually add the sgian dubh. This just gets tucked into the top of my right kilt hose (because I am right handed), on the outside of the leg. Too many people wear their sgian dubh with the entire handle sticking out of the hose. This is uncomfortable, and you may loose your sgian dubh that way! All that needs to be showing is the top half or one third of the handle -- enough to grab it when you need it.
  12. If you are wearing a tie, now is when I normally put it on. You will have to tie it a bit shorter than you normally do with your trousers, because the kilt has a much higher waist. If you wear the tie at the same length, it will come down too far below the waistline of the kilt. You want to tip to be just a bit below the top of the kilt, but not too much.
  13. Now you are ready to put on your sporran. Adjust your sporran strap so that the top of the sporran is a few inches (not too much! I'd say no more than 3" or 4") below the belt. If your sporran moves around too much, feels like it is slipping, or feels uncomfortable in any way, you are probably wearing your sporran strap too loosely. If you want to run the strap through the belt loops in the back of your kilt, feel free. That is what they are there for. Most men won't need to do this, but again, if your waist is larger than your hips, this may help keep everything in place. Some men with larger bellies have a problem with their sporran hanging down below their gut and creating an unsightly pull in the front of the kilt. One solution to this are the handy sporran slings that are being sold now, allowing the sporran to hang from the main kilt belt. These will keep the sporran in the correct position no matter your waistline! Again, make sure your sporran is centered.
  14. If you are wearing a vest or waistcoat, now is the time to put it on.
  15. We are almost done! Time to put your shoes on. I don't have time to go into detail about the proper way to tie the ghillie brouge laces, other than to say there are about half a dozen "proper ways." Here is one way that works. Unless you are dressing formal, you don't really need to wear your ghillies, anyway. Just wear comfortable shoes.
  16. Lastly, before you head out the door, put on any outerwear. This means jacket and/or bonnet.
  17. One minor word about the bonnet. No matter if you are wearing a balmoral or a glengarry, the ribbons should be centered in the back, with the hat cocked ever-so-slightly to the right, highlighting your crest badge. On the balmoral, it is customary to wear the ribbons tied into a bow. (This is a remnant of the old broad bonnets that were sized with a draw-string). With a glengarry, the ribbons are left loose.

And that's it. You are dressed! Wow, what a long post about a relatively simple subject. With practice, it will all come as second nature and not take more than a few minutes.

Have fun!

4 Comments:

Anonymous said...

Right you are Matt! One of the points I totally disagree with the late Scotty Thompson. The kilt belt should be at your natural waist and the amount of kilt that appears above the belt all depends on how much "rise" has been built into the kilt. A surplus military kilt may have several inches of rise above the kilt belt.

Yours aye!
"Tom Og"
Tom Mungall, III
Baton Rouge, La, USA

12:45 PM  
jpaterson26@cogeco.ca said...

Nowhere did I read where the kilt length sits at the knees. There is nothing worse than to see the kilt worn and hanging below the knees as I see lots of people wearing it .They look like Wully Dreep!. Ugh

10:05 AM  
Allen MacNeill said...

In my family (Clan Macneil, Weymouth, Nova Scotia branch), there is a long-standing tradition about the ribbons at the back of the balmoral. If you are young and unmarried, the ribbons are left untied and long; if you are married, they are tied short.

So, ladies, watch out for a lad with tied, but very long ribbons!
Allen MacNeill
Ithaca, NY

6:58 PM  
Roland Hulme said...

Very interesting post!

I wrote about 'how to wear a kilt on a budget' but I didn't realise there were so many kilt wearers this side of the atlantic!

http://rolandhulme.blogspot.com/2007/07/how-to-wear-kilt-on-budget.html

2:34 PM  

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