14 May 2008

Identity As A Construct - Part IV: Fashion & Scottish Highland Dress

Identity As A Construct - Part III: Las Vegas
Identity As A Construct - Part II-b: Fashion & Identity
Identity As A Construct - Part II: Fashion & Identity
Identity As A Construct - Part I

One of the best examples of the peculiarities of garment and identity is the Scottish Tartan and the Kilt. There are two interesting parts to this topic. The first is the creation of the national dress of Scotland; kilt, fitted jacket, large hairy sporran, knee socks with garter flashes, sgian dubh (skeen dhu) – the black knife – and tam o’shanter. The second aspect is the idea of clan specific tartan setts (the particular thread patterns used to weave the cloth) as tradition passed down from antiquity.

Originally the Highland Scots wore the same clothing as the Irish they were descended from. Towards the end of the sixteenth century the Highland Scots began wearing what was later called the fheilidh mor (felie more), the great kilt. This garment was a wide piece of fabric, four to six yards long, folded into pleats and belted around the waist, with about one third of the width hanging below the waist and two-thirds of the width gathered up around the shoulders. History has it that an English Quaker ironmaster invented the feileadh beag (felie beg), or small kilt in or around 1727, hiring a tailor to modify the great kilts of the Scotsmen working in his foundries. The resulting kilt was easier to wear and to work in and was quickly adopted by the workers. However, textile historian Dorothy Burnham writes in Cut My Cote that it is more likely that the change results from a move away from use of the slow and awkward upright loom to a more modern version of floor loom which produced narrower widths of fabric, but enabled the weaver to work much faster.

The Diskilting Act, created immediately after the defeat of the Jacobite Uprising in 1745, was an important step in the creation of the national dress of Scotland. The law forbade the use of tartan fabrics (even though at this time there was no association of specific tartans with specific Highland clans) and the wearing of either the great or small kilt. This law was meant to eradicate any traces of Highland culture and independence. When it was repealed in 1782 “neither the kilt nor tartan was seen any longer as symbolic of Jacobite threat.”

Even during the time of the Diskilting Act, kilts were allowed in the military for the newly established Highland regiment. Some have stated that the regiment’s use of the kilt led to the later standardization of the different tartan patterns as clan symbols and costume. Manufacturers of fabric for the military encouraged the use of different patterns for the different companies of the regiment.

The fascination for all things Scottish began to take root in Great Britain, first encouraged by King George IV and then by Queen Victoria. This enthrallment helped firmly establish the notion of the Highlander as “noble savage,” where once he was despised by all as an often ruthless, primitive rogue. Amidst the royal fervor for Scottish garb and the fashion craze it created, a manufacturer who up until this point had been making tartans for the various brigades within the Highland regiment realized that he could assign clan identities to the various patterns of tartan fabric. This ended up being a very successful business strategy and the manufacturer became the historical authority on Highland attire.

This historical revision took root and for over one hundred years people have believed that this “fashion” has ancient roots. During the last decade or so the kilt has been become more than a national costume. Lou Taylor writes in The History of Dress, “…after nearly two hundred years, a reclamation of the wearing of the kilt is taking place.” The kilt is being worn by Scots and non-Scots alike, and contributes to a fashion statement that is part of a number of identities – gay, straight, working class, upper class – a statement of ultra-masculinity that challenges non-wearers’ perceptions of the kilt-wearers and of themselves. My son Eli, and my partner Wes, wear both the feileadh mor, or great kilt, and the feileadh beag, or small kilt. They wear them for several reasons – heritage (both have Scottish ancestry, either a grandparent or great-grandparent), comfort, distinction, and rebellion. Their rebellion is against the expectations placed on them – a pushy, playful sort of rebellion that often opens the way for conversation.

Just don't ask either of them what's worn under the kilt....

Source: The Invention of Tradition ~ Eric Hobsbawm (Editor), Terence Ranger (Editor)

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