The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Highland Dress

Category: Customs + Festivals

The old Highland dress has changed very little. The coat or jacket was sometimes of green, blue or black cloth. But the arrangements of the belted plaid were of the greatest importance in the toilet of a Highlandman of fashion. It was fastened across the breast by a large silver bodkin or circular brooch often enriched with precious stones or imitations of them, having engraved mottoes consisting of allegorical sentences or mottoes of armorial bearings. These were employed to fix the plaid on the left shoulder.

A large purse of goat’s or badger’s skins answering the purpose of a pocket, and ornamented with a silver or brass mouthpiece and many tassels, hung before. A disk with a knife and fork stuck in the side of the sheath, and sometimes a spoon, together with a pair of steel pistols, were essential accompaniments. The bonnet which gentlemen generally wore with one or more feathers completed the national garb. The dress of the common people differed only in the deficiency of finer or brighter colours and of silver ornaments, being otherwise essentially the same, a tuft of heather, pine, holly, oak, etc., supplying the place of feathers in the bonnet.

The belted plaid consisted of six ells* of double tartan — about five feet wide and eighteen feet long. It was laid out and pleated until its length had been reduced to about five feet. The wearer then lay down on it so that its lower edge was above the back of the knee, folded the two unpleated ends across his front and fastened the whole thing round his waist with a belt. He then stood up, put on his jacket, and gathered up the upper part of the tartan and pinned it to his left shoulder, leaving his right or sword-hand free. The net result was something similar to the small kilt worn with a plaid in modern full Highland dress, except that it was much bulkier around the middle.

There are two main forms of plaid. The full plaid is worn bandolier fashion, usually under the sword-belt, passing under the right arm and brooched to the left shoulder by a plaid brooch. Military bandsmen display great skill in arranging the pleating of that part of the plaid which is round the body. The other style of plaid is the short belted plaid, which fastens to the waist behind by a strap, and is attached tothe left shoulder with a shoulder brooch, the loose part hanging in front.

There are many different types of tartans, the three commonest being the clan sett*, the hunting sett, and in rarer cases the dress sett. Some clans possess all three, others have only aclan sett. Most clans have adopted hunting setts nowadays, unless the clan sett is predominantly dark anyway. There are, however, certain other types of tartan whose significance is not always generally understood.

Tartan is worn by Highland women in two principal forms, tartan skirts worn with jumpers or twin sets, and tartan costumes. Tartan scarves are also popular.

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