There are few sights to beat the national dress in all its glory, but unless you’re well practised in the ways of the kilt, it’s understandable to be apprehensive. Can you wear a Prince Charlie jacket to an afternoon wedding? Are black socks really only meant for funerals? The simple solution is to take yourself to a reputable outfitter who will guide you through the options and ensure you end up looking your best.
The most obvious question is: who is entitled to wear the kilt - is it the sole preserve of the Scotsman? Kath Arnott, of Hector Russell in Edinburgh, says no, adding: "We’re absolutely chuffed that anybody would want to wear our national dress". Like all good things, she says, the kilt is big in Japan. For those who don’t have ancestral links to Scotland to point them towards a particular clan or district tartan, there are several "universal tartans", such as the Caledonia, Jacobite and Black Watch.
Although worries about Highland Dress often centre on the accessories, it’s important to get the fitting of the kilt itself right. One of the main criticisms of McConnell’s pinstripe 21st Century Kilt was that it appeared to sit above the knee like a mini-skirt. It’s widely agreed that the kilt should sit high on the waist - below the bottom rib - and rest on the top of the knee. If the length isn’t right, compliments will be few and far between.
Most outfitters are keen to stress that there is no set rulebook on how to wear Highland Dress but, rather, there are traditions that can be followed, depending on personal choice. In other words, the manufacturers don’t want to be seen as a sticks in the mud, but follow their guidelines and your outfit will look better.
So for daywear you might consider a plain tweed jacket. Your sporran, hose (socks), brogues, shirt and tie should also come under the "plain" banner. According to Arnott, your guide through formal and informal kilt outfits should be the jacket - so a semi-formal occasion would suggest an Argyll jacket and semi-dress sporran, while the Prince Charlie jacket or doublet is intended for evening wear only and would be accompanied by a full dress sporran. But Arnott points out that if you’re going to an afternoon wedding you might have no choice but to wear your Prince Charlie in the afternoon.
Often it’s the details that raise criticism - what of Sir Sean’s teaming of a tartan tie with tartan kilt? According to Arnott, this is a definite no-no: "In the evening it would normally be a bow tie and you never wear tartan with tartan, usually because the quality of the tie is different from the quality of the kilt and the colour doesn’t match."
Deirdre Kinloch Anderson, of the Highland Dress company of the same name, would never advise anyone to try out the double tartan combination, but adds "if he chooses to do that, then that is his choice". Instead, one might consider a self-coloured tie for daywear, selected to complement one of the colours in your kilt.
Then there is footwear. Black hose has become increasingly popular and although they were traditionally worn to funerals, Arnott says it’s very much a matter of personal choice and many younger men prefer the darker colours. For day, it should work much like the tie, with a plain colour being the prime choice; for formal events, cream hose are the norm, or sometimes tartan, although these hand- knitted creations can cost around 150. Do not, repeat not, wear white socks. Unless you are joining a pipeband. When it comes to shoes, full dress would usually be accompanied by Ghillie brogues, though not all men are fans of the laces. Generally, a black brogue is the obvious choice to wear with a kilt, although Arnott admits she quite likes the trend for teaming Timberland boots with the national dress.
Arnott gets a feeling of pride when somebody gets it right. To ensure this happens she encourages people to try before they buy, avoiding expensive mistakes. A well-fitting kilt can last a lifetime - Arnott’s top tip is not to hang the kilt up, but to lay it flat with pleats on the inside, then roll it up and store it in the leg of a pair of tights. Full Highland Dress can cost 700-800, and this is perhaps one reason more kilt manufacturers are producing "modern alternatives".
The man who seems to have single-handedly created the market for modern kilts is Howie Nicholsby, the designer of 21st Century Kilts at Geoffrey (Tailor). Seen on Vin Diesel, Robbie Williams and lots of young men on their wedding day, these designs certainly don’t come with a rule book. "My philosophy is that we would make a kilt in anything a guy would wear in trousers," says Nicholsby. "We don’t do these Lion Rampant or St Andrew’s cross designs because if you want a Scottish identity kilt, a kilt’s enough, or wear a tartan one." He’s used to fending off the critics and says that after wearing a kilt on a daily basis for the last five years, the only people who approach him to complain are Scots. "When you walk about town and see people wearing kilts, it’s mostly travellers and tourists, because they’ve realised it’s a comfortable piece of clothing."
So if a modern kilt has caught your eye, how do you wear it well? Nicholsby suggests treating it as you would a pair of trousers. "There’s no right or wrong in how to wear the modern ones, because you have to see it as an everyday piece of clothing - style it and wear it how you feel comfortable."
When Williams wore his 21st Century Kilt it was with white trainers, black socks and a suit jacket on top. Vin Diesel wore his with a plain black sweater, pushed-down socks and boots. The rolled-down socks and Timberland boots is a real winner with the ladies, though it’s doubtful you’d want to wear it to a garden party with the Queen.
Nicholsby is supportive of wearing full Highland Dress if the occasion demands it, saying: "If someone is wearing traditional Highland Dress and it’s for a formal occasion, yes they should follow a certain etiquette. Richard Branson - God forgive him and it might have been an accident, but that was a travesty."
The popularity of what’s now being called the "pub kilt", an economy version of the kilt designed to be worn at rugby or football matches, or even the occasional stag night, is also on the rise. Kinloch Anderson produce the Breacan, a "kilted garment" not intended as a substitute for the traditional kilt but produced to meet customer demand.
The message seems to be that if you’re wearing a contemporary kilt, anything goes. But if you are going to go down the traditional route, at least try to get it right.
21st Century Kilts at Geoffrey (Tailor), www.21stcenturykilts.co.uk; Hector Russell, www.hector-russell.com; Kinloch Anderson, www.kinlochanderson.com