The 21st century kilt

"To boldly go. . . "

When tough-guy Vin Diesel strutted a black leather kilt at the MTV Awards in Edinburgh in 2003, some thought they were witnessing an appalling travesty, others a glimpse into a new dawn for men's fashion. The reality is, whether it causes hackles to rise or cheers to go up, the kilt is a wow on the catwalk and tartan is inspiring today's most creative fashion designers. But it's tartan on acid (or pure genius) and kilts in denim, khaki or Hawaiian sunbursts.

What's going on? The first thing to say is, yes, Scotland has deep-rooted and globally recognised cultural icons in tartan and the kilt. It has a long, proud history of producing quality textiles like cashmere and tweed; but equally, it has a long tradition of innovation. Possibly spurred on by a new-found sense of identity with its attendant freedoms, what we are seeing is a union of culture and creativity. Some will see it as unholy, some will see it as wholesome but there's always a divide where there's innovation. New wave bands have already blazed a trail, plugging in the fiddle and pipes and introducing influences that reflect the multi-cultural world we live in. Now, it seems, it's the turn of designers to transform the togs that the 'hip' and the 'cool' boogie in. And Scots and Scotland are leading the way into new, exciting territory.

New frontiers from Braveheart. . .

Not so long ago one may have been excused for thinking that Scotland and fashion were not synonymous. But not any longer. Scottish patterns and materials are exciting international designers; Scottish designers are rubbing shoulders with the more expected doyens of the limelight - the French and the Italians; and Scotland's major cities are now seen as desirable locations for the world's top fashion stores. To bear this 'outlandish' statement out: legendary fashion house Escada has opened a store in Glasgow; and international designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Tommy Hilfiger have, for some years, drawn inspiration from tartan and the kilt in their provocative designs. Hilfiger, incidentally, claims direct descent from Robert Burns. It's as if tartan has imprinted itself on the fashion-world's psyche.

Films like 'Braveheart' and 'Rob Roy' may have taken a rather jaundiced view of history but they've done wonders for giving men in skirts a resounding macho spin. A fact which the US-based charity Friends of Scotland like to celebrate during Tartan Week in New York by hosting a gala fashion show called 'Dressed to Kilt'. Meanwhile, far to the west of New York, the city that has brought the world Microsoft and Starbucks has now unveiled the 'Utilikilt'! The Seattle Utilikilt, which comes in camouflage, Hawaiian print and black denim, is a pleated garment with cargo pockets and belt loops for holding hammers, screwdrivers, pliers and other builders' tools. Macho enough?

Back across the pond, the man who lent Mr Diesel the leather kilt, is one Howie Nicholsby, the creator of TFCK - Geoffrey (Tailor) Kilt-makers in Edinburgh. TFCK looks almost as rude as FCUK, a fact not lost on a fashion conscious clientele, but it stands - intriguingly - for Twenty First Century Kilts. Nicholsby is one of a new breed of kilt-makers who have brought this traditional garment right into the 21st century, divorcing it from the mandatory tartan and thus making it a comfortable, versatile, every-day garment for men all over the world. The emphasis on every-day as opposed to ceremonial is very important. Nicholsby also designs exclusive ranges for women.

. . .to Brave Art

Nicholsby and others may have taken a crash course in kilt-making, but Glasgow's very own Jonathan Saunders - the most feted darling of the catwalk, notching up Kylie & Madonna as fans comes from a fine art background.

However, having said that, he was recognised as a fashionista when he first studied textiles at Glasgow School of Art. And when he graduated from London's St Martin's College of Art and Design in 2002 (aged 24) with a stunning show displaying his acid-bright geometric designs (literally 'tartan on acid') he was immediately commissioned by Alexander McQueen to create his bird-of-paradise prints for summer 2003.

A fine artist working in fashion print, Saunders' futuristic designs belie their hand-made origins he uses a multi-panelled, screen printing process which requires long long hours to complete. When asked what women would wear his gear, he's replied "Brave women. Confident, with a sense of humour."

A trek back to first base

A sense of humour and indeed a sense of history are probably prerequisites for more traditional kilt-makers these days. It's worth remembering that tartan which derives from the French word 'tiretaine' meaning woven cloth first expressed the Celts' love of vivid colours by way of the plaid, a large piece of cloth belted in the middle. It gradually evolved into the shorter kilt to make a garment more practical for work and battle. Essentially it was an everyday garment that was proscribed for almost 40 years after the Battle of Culloden. A new enthusiasm naturally followed the lifting of the ban in 1782 which grew into a 'tartan frenzy' after Sir Walter Scott had persuaded King George IV to visit Edinburgh in 1822 in full Highland dress. And finally the affection Queen Victoria and Prince Albert showed for Scotland and the full-scale endorsement of tartan in the Prince's festooning of the newly purchased Balmoral Castle in a tartan of his own design, paved the way for an international appetite. It was then that canny Victorian marketers began assigning specific tartan designs to each of the great clans, knowing the appeal it would have to the already sizeable diaspora.

So history, natural evolution and commercial nous have had a big part to play in the development of tartan and the kilt. New research also shows that contrary to popular belief many of the dyes that were traditionally used in the creation of tartan were not from native Scottish plants, but were imported from far away. The native plants were just not bright enough to deliver the dazzling reds, yellows and blues that the old clan chiefs hankered after. So, they sent agents to buy Mexican cochineal for red, North American Old Fustic for yellow, and Indian indigo for blue. Who'd have thought it? The chiefs, if they could have hitched a lift on the SS Enterprise, would probably have been there in New York, whooping at the brave new creations on the catwalk!

Scottish Textiles

Dressed to Kilt

Jilli Blackwood


21st Century Kilts

Last updated 2 Apr 2015