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The Origin of the Kilt and its Evolution

by | Feb 3, 2022 | All About Kilts, Categorized

The kilt is a time-honoured symbol of patriotism, having a deep cultural and historical roots from the highlands of Scotland, first being mentioned in 1538. The word ‘kilt’ is derived from the ancient Norse word, kjilt, which means ‘pleated.’

The kilt is a basic garb worn by tucking it up and around the body, and they were full-length garments used by Gaelic-speaking Scots Highlander men. The very first kilts were either brown, green, white, or black. Kilts were coloured by clan people, using moss and berries to dye the wool.

Later on, plaids were developed for specific clans. It is most likely that these clans colour their kilts by using natural dyes that are available in their territories. The plaid pattern later on became known as the tartan cloth.


The Evolution of the Kilt

If we are to go back a thousand years and visit the Scottish Highlands, we wouldn’t see anyone wearing, or anything that remotely resembles the modern kilt. Back then, the standard garment worn, both by the Gaels of the Highlands of Scotland and of Ireland, was a tunic that was called a léine, a Gaelic word that means ‘shirt.’

The Origin of the Kilt and its Evolution by Ozkilts They also wore a semicircular mantle called the brat in Gaelic.

The styles of léine varied according to the time period. It was a simple long tunic that women wore pulled over their heads, and worn either long, or to the knee by men. It evolved into an elaborate full garment by the 16th century, with sleeves that hung down to the knees.

They were worn closely resembling that of a bathrobe. They also come in various colours, the most common was saffron. But, more often, they are undyed.

In the 17th century, the belted plaid became popular for Highland men at this time. Also in this time period, the philabeg, or the small kilt, was first worn.

A philabeg is described as the bottom half of the kilt that are gathered into folds. It is belted at the waist, and its length falls just above the knee. Additionally, a separate piece of cloth was worn over the shoulder for protection, and for warmth.

Today’s kilts are knee-length, and it did not evolve to that form until the first quarter of the 18th century. To the Gaelic-speaking Highlander, they were called feileadh beag (philabeg), or the ‘little wrap.’ It is an evolution of the feileadth mor (big wrap), the breacan-an-feileadh (tartan wrap), or the belted plaid.

The kilts worn today are the lower half of the belted plaid, which has its back pleats stitched up. This innovation is credited to Thomas Rawlinson, who was an English iron master who had Highlanders in his employ.

If the belted plaid is considered the grandfather of the modern kilt, the philaberg is considered the father. The philaberg is essentially the lower half of the belted plaid.


As a National Dress

For the sake of brevity, we will not cover that bad episode of the Diskilting Act or Dress act of 1746 enacted by King George II. But we will share that The Act made it illegal for Highland Regiments to wear clothes resembling that of Highland dress. This included the Tartan kilt. Only those serving in the armed forces were exempted from the ban.

Fast-forward, after the ban in 1782, the kilt became one of the endearing symbol of Scottish identity. Tartan patterns became representations of particular families, clans, and regions. There are 3,500 specific tartan family plaids today.

The Highland regiments were originally dressed in the belted plaid. But in order to conform to the other regiments of the British Army, they wore red coats that are cut away at the skirts. This allows for the kilts voluminous folds.

The ‘uniform’ also included a blue bonnet. It also sports a sporran, a small bag worn around the waist and kilt. Also worn are knee-length hose, and black buckled shoes. Over time, the leather sporran evolved into something large, hairy, and decorative.

In 1822, King George IV’s “publicity stunt” when he went to Edinburgh for a state visit and disported himself in full Highland threads. This propelled the kilt’s popularity and making it a fashionable get up among the Scottish nobility. This also helped established the kilt as the national dress of Scotland.

The Highland dress later turned into ‘tartan costume.’ From the 1840s, Queen Victoria shared King George IV’s romantic vision of Scotland. In 1853, Prince Albert decorated the queen’s private suites with tartan, as well as, parts of the interior of Balmoral Castle.

The queen herself wore dresses made from “Dress Stewart” or also known as the “Victoria” tartan. This sparked the tartan fashion trend worldwide.


Reinvention of the Kilt

Today, Younger Scotsmen wear kilts for everyday use. The Victorian styles of wearing kilts for formal day and evening wear gave way to contemporary usage. Though ceremonial wear is still practised, kilts are now worn with a t-shirt, sweater, leather, or denim jackets with trainers or heavy-soled boots with socks falling over the ankles.

Scotsmen now wear their kilts according to their own cultural and their own national identity terms. This trend now also spilled over to other countries around the world.

Recently, the kilt has been gaining popularity among non-Scotsmen who wish to project a self-confident, fashionable, and manly image. This is mainly attributed to, at least in part, to such films as Rob Roy (1995) and Braveheart (1995). These films portray the Highlander as a “warrior hero” that embodies timeless and masculine values.

This is further reinforced by the broadcast of the Highland Games, where men are shown in various sporting events, all competing wearing kilts. Non-Scotsmen now assert a self-conscious, albeit unambiguously, a masculine persona.


The Modern Australian Utility Kilts

Utility kilts, or work kilts, are an adaptation of the wool kilt from the Highlands of Scotland. They are built more robust and are deigned for to be worn for everyday use. One major difference of Australian Made Kilts, such as those made by Ozkilts®, is that they do not represent any kilt wearing clan. Therefore, it is not burdened with history apart from displaying love for Scottish culture.

You might not be of Scottish descent, or not a part of any Scottish clan, but there is no reason why non-Scots could not be a part of the modern day kilted clan. Our kilts are made as an awesome evolution while at the same time, respectful of the tradition.

The modern Australian Utility Kilts from Ozkilts® do so much more than normal kilts, since they are made for modern needs. Additionally, they look good and polished enough to be worn on semiformal occasions.


Kilt Up

Wearing a kilt as part of a Scottish-themed ceremony or event can be a perfect way to commemorate one’s Scottish heritage or immerse oneself in the culture of Scotland by celebrating it in this way.

If you’re looking for quality and functional Utility Kilts, you really don’t need to look any further than Ozkilts®.