I like my skirts with high waistbands and low hems. In recent years, this style has been universally adopted as a wardrobe staple referred to as a maxi skirt. I prefer "street length" but will defer to popular taste. Just this once. When THE SKIRT launched in Summer of 2014, I immediately began thinking of winter and the incredible maxi skirt I'd be donning to all holiday parties. THE SKIRT in tartan! Aside from its incredible look, why tartan? This modern woman is a sucker for tradition.
True or false: In Scotland, skirts made with tartan fabric were always worn by men. Trick question. Mostly. This style - known as a kilt rather than a skirt- wasn't always a shoo-in as the national dress of Scotland. The original Scottish kilt was worn primarily by the people of the Highland region of Scotland. In fact, the Lowlanders hated the Highland kilt and considered it a “barbarous form of apparel.” (To get a brief breakdown of tartan's roots in Scotland click here).
Actually, the original Scottish kilt doesn’t look quite like what we associate with the style today, And while the word ‘kilt’ is widely accepted as synonymous with Celtic culture today, it actually may have come from the Nordic 'kjalta' in the 9th century. The first Scottish kilts appeared in the 16th century and were called 'Fèileadh Mhor' (meaning 'Great Kilt' and pronounced 'feela mor'). Today, they are usually referred to as ‘belted plaid’ or ‘philamhor.’ These Great Kilts were typically made from one length of thick, wool cloth or ‘breacan’ that could be up to 21 feet long. To wear the kilt, the fabric would be folded into loose pleats, wrapped around the waist, and fastened with a belt. The remaining cloth would be thrown over the shoulder and tucked into the back.
The Highlanders were the toughest of the tough - sleeping outdoors on a regular basis no matter the weather or season. (I'm definitely Scottish by marriage.) And, this, the philamhor was perfect for them: It provided both warmth and freedom of movement with the top half functioning as a cloak in the rain and the entire ‘breacan’ serving as a blanket with just an unbuckle of the belt. Brilliant. (Maybe I do have some Scottish in my blood.)
It took about a hundred years for the Scots to realize how awkward and heavy the philamhor was becoming and finally replace it with the 'Fèileadh Beag' (or ‘philabeg,’ pronounced ‘feela beg’). This is more similar to what we recognize as kilts today. They are made up of the lower half of the philamhor, still loosely folded and secured with a belt. In the 18th century, the Highlanders started sewing the pleats into the fabric. Like duh. , This ease of wear popularized the philabeg, which became known as the ‘Walking Kilt’. Putting an end to the Great Kilt as an everyday wardrobe piece.
Tartan Skirts for Women
Although skirts were mostly worn by men, there were exceptions. Women never wore kilts, but some did wear ankle-length tartan skirts. Traditional Scottish dress for women was drab- no bright colors or memorable patterns. They typically dressed with little distinction from women in England and Ireland. The only piece that was more unique to Scotland was the earasaid (arisaid in English). The arisaid wasn’t as thick as breacan, but was longer and usually white with larger patterns. They were also worn in the same manner that a philamhor would be worn in, but not all arisaids were made with tartan.
Another form of tartan skirt for women in Scotland is the Aboyne dress - the uniform for female dancers in Scottish national dances. This name comes from the Aboyne Highland Gathering back in the 1970s when the dance committee wanted new rules for acceptable and better-looking dress for female dancers who needed a way to better differentiate themselves from their male counterparts. (I should think so!) And to this day, women are strictly forbidden to wear kilts at the Aboyne Gathering.
Ban and Rebellion
But how, you ask, did tartan skirts become a symbol of Scottish national identity and pride around the world? Well, back in 1746, the Parliament of Great Britain decided to try to rein in the rowdy Highlanders who - in the prior year- instigated the Jacobite Rising (Big, huge revolt against Great Britain. Guess who won? Not a trick question.) To do this, they passed the Act of Proscription and the Dress Act which made wearing ‘The Highland Dress’ (tartan and kilts) illegal in Scotland. But only in Highland Scotland. So tartan was still produced in the Lowlands and by the regiment.
In true rebellious Highlands character, some chose to totally ignore the ban and wear the kilt to make a point. And, of course, the attempt to stamp out clan culture and kilt-wearing in the Highlands only fueled their dissent and turned dress into a point of patriotism for Scotland.
It’s almost fitting though that tartan was used in such an anarchistic way, since tartan has been used as a form of rebellion ever since then. Think punk.
Transition to Mainstream
Queen Victoria might have romanticized tartan in celebration of her Stewart ancestry and Highland roots, but tartan didn’t make its lasting impression on fashion worldwide until the 1970s. This decade marked the emergence of punk culture, which was created in protest against society and against fashion (though, ironically, it BECAME fashion). Tartan was chose as a feature of punk fashion, but it wasn’t until the rise of Vivienne Westwood that tartan and punk became permanently linked.
And then we have the 90s. Ahh, the time of grunge and layering and androgyny. Though grunge music was short-lived its style and culture had a huge impact on fashion from Nirvana’s perpetual look to Marc Jacobs’ ‘93 Spring Collection. Once again, tartan became a symbol of rebellion and defiance. Enter Kate Moss and her pleated tartan miniskirt and you have a fashion movement.
The high fashion world has always had a love affair with tartan. It's abstract, minimalistic, polished and sophisticated. At once modern and traditional. Tartan is so timeless that its return year after year to various F/W collections is not surprising. Where would fashion be without Lee McQueen and Vivienne Westwood? These two iconic designers have set the stage for tartan fashion around the world. McQueen channeled his inner creative vision with this fabric while Westwood has always infused historical references and punk edge into her collections.
Modern Tartan Skirts
So what do tartan skirts look like today? Kilted skirts for women are pretty popular now as a form of dress. They can come as pleated or straight-fit in a wide variety of lengths and can be used for both formal and casual occasions. In Scotland and around the world, women can wear kilted skirts for normal everyday wear, but it is more common to see them when ceremonial dress is in order - graduations, weddings
Tartan skirts usually appear as 'plaid skirts' nowadays. The two have become synonymous and almost interchangeable. Though some plaid skirts are actually checkered skirts or fabricated in buffalo plaid as made popular by Lumberjack Chic. Plaid skirts are usually more simplified in their print than traditional tartan skirts, but nevertheless they celebrate the style inspiration of Scotland. People use tartan skirts to channel all sorts of looks from preppy to punk to office chic.
One of the most common types of tartan skirts we see today are tartan mini-skirts, particularly the schoolgirl uniform tartan mini-skirt.
There isn’t a lot of information on why, but school uniforms around the world (especially in Catholic schools) have always been associated with a tartan or plaid skirt. My best guess is that this tradition is rooted is in UK schools that may have had an association with a religious order.
The schoolgirls can have their short skirts, this grown lady prefers a longer hem. And paired with a chambray button down, crop top or boyfriend tee. I wear mine for casual dinner with friends, formal holiday functions and drinks-only parties.
Did I miss anything? Is there anything else about tartan skirts you want to know? Ask me! Let's talk tartans. xXx April