Howie, where's yer troosers?
I HAD just landed in New York at JFK Airport, knackered, after transferring through Schiphol with a huge delay. On arrival, an elderly, solid-looking immigration officer called me to one side. I'm well versed in travelling into the US, but getting pulled this early? You can't help but get that dread in the pit of your stomach: 'Oh boy here we go... strip search!'
The officer leant forward, towards me and asked, in a serious tone, "Son, why do Scots wear kilts?" I exhaled in relief; it is my kilt he has taken an interest in. As casually as possible, not wanting to sound too fed up, in a rush and not to ruin his moment, I questioned him back: "Sir, what reason do you think Scots wear kilts?" Ready to explode in delight, he leaned forward and reeled off his punchline: "Because sheep can hear a zipper!"
I laughed loudly, confidently, making sure he felt I hadn't heard that one before, saying "Thank you sir, may I please go now?" I've never got through US immigration so fast; I wonder if he radioed ahead, "Look after the guy in the kilt" or something.
Now in my sixth year of wearing the kilt every day, I think I've experienced every joke, comment and question possible when wearing one - but I genuinely don't think I could go back to trousers. It is the best ice-breaker on the planet - in bars, airports and in business, it makes a statement. As long as you are good-natured, and wear your kilt well, the world can be a lot more open, fun and friendly.
Kilts, tartans, Highland dress and their history in Scotland have been questioned for years. I say "yes" to all nations and cultures claiming some ownership of our national dress. Austrians, African tribes, Japanese warriors, Vikings, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, they have all either claimed ownership of tartan as an ancient art or kilts as an evolution of their traditional garb.
What Scots must accept is that we are not the only culture in the world to (a) wear checked fabrics and (b) not the only men in the world to wear an unbifurcated (no crotch) garment. Scots are, however, one of the only nations/people who still proudly wear historic national dress in a realistic, functional manner. More than 80 per cent of Scottish men marry in Highland dress.
Obviously, in more than six years wearing a kilt every day - and growing up in a family kilt business - I have heard all sorts of stories. The fact is that any one of us can look in a dictionary and see that the word tartan is of French roots; tiretaine - woollen cloth. The word kilt is of Danish roots; kilte - to tuck or pleat.
Scots must accept our national dress has probably developed and evolved through thousands of years of different cultures. All clothing and fabric has.
Across Britain and Ireland, where Celtic roots are in abundance, men wear Scottish regalia with pride and passion. In parts of England (such as Cornwall), in Wales and in Ireland, plain and checked tweed kilts have been worn throughout history. There are people all around the world who want to wear the kilt and embrace what is now essentially Scottish national dress, whether they have any roots in our fair nation or not. It is a garment loved and respected the world over. When travelling, kilted people from all corners of the world regard the kilt - tartan or not - as a distinctively Scottish icon.
The kilt is going through another renaissance. Men of all ages are accepting it as a more realistic alternative for formal and casual occasions. More men than ever are making the investment to have one of their own.
My worry in its new rise in popularity is the influx of cheap, poor-quality products. A kilt only looks good on a man if made of good fabrics and not scrimping on the amount of fabric used. Also, one would hope the kilt is actually made in Scotland. Please don't think a cheap kilt, probably made in a sweatshop in China, could ever look, last or feel like a real kilt. A kilt is worth shopping around for and investing a bit of money in - a good kilt can last a lifetime, even if it is just for wearing to football or rugby games. Outdoors, in the elements, with beer, is when a proper kilt comes into its own. For example the cloth we weave in our mill next to Edinburgh Castle has a Teflon-coated finish. No beer stains...
The parliament could and should protect our tartan and kilt industry from inferior foreign products which can only bring disappointment to the buyer - tourist or local.
The kilt can say so much without the wearer saying a word; respect, history, love, pride, heritage. Not many things these days do this and we must protect it. Kilts, tartan, full Highland formal dress, or on the beach with flip-flops and T-shirt while travelling... however you decide to wear it, it will always be a wonder of Scotland.
Howie Nicholsby is the creator and designer of 21st Century Kilts and marketing manager, Geoffrey (Tailor) Kiltmakers
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Wednesday 22 May 2013
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