How to choose the right kilt

Highland dress is a popular choice of outfit for weddings, graduations and glitzy events - and not just in Scotland, either.
Bagpipe player dons his kilt colours.Bagpipe player dons his kilt colours.
Bagpipe player dons his kilt colours.

However, it can be a confusing process buying a kilt, from choosing the tartan, to selecting the jacket and accessories, to tying the laces on your ghillie brogue shoes.

To give you a hand, here is a helpful guide to Scottish national dress, which will tell you all you need to know about kilts, jackets and sporrans.

What you need to buy

Kilts are a popular choice for graduation ceremonies. Picture: Neil HannaKilts are a popular choice for graduation ceremonies. Picture: Neil Hanna
Kilts are a popular choice for graduation ceremonies. Picture: Neil Hanna
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If you want to wear a kilt to a special occasion, it’s not just a kilt that you will need to buy. There are a number of specialist garments you will have to purchase in order to make sure that you are correctly dressed.

The jacket, waistcoat, socks, shirt and tie you are wearing with your kilt must be suitable for the event you are attending. Also, you must have a sgian dubh (a single-edged knife) as part of your Highland dress, along with garter flashes to keep your socks up, a kilt pin, a belt, and the traditional ghillie brogue shoes.

An optional part of Highland dress which you may wish to wear is the shoulder plaid, which can be attached to your jacket with a plaid brooch. The shoulder plaid is generally worn at weddings, and can be worn for photos then removed later, depending on your preference.

Choosing a tartan

Kilts are a popular choice for graduation ceremonies. Picture: Neil HannaKilts are a popular choice for graduation ceremonies. Picture: Neil Hanna
Kilts are a popular choice for graduation ceremonies. Picture: Neil Hanna

When choosing a tartan, most people make the decision based on their family name. If you are from Scottish ancestry, it is likely that your surname will be associated with a clan tartan. Otherwise, one of your parents or grandparents may have a Scottish surname.

Ireland, Wales, and parts of England also have tartans associated with them, and there are national tartans for countries across the world, including the USA, Denmark and Japan.

You can also choose a tartan based solely on aesthetic value, so as to co-ordinate with wedding outfits our your own personal taste.

Choosing a kilt

There are different weights of tartan fabrics depending on what kind of kilt you would like. The heaviest tartan is 19oz, and is used for regimental wear.

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However, the best weight of fabric for a gents’ kilt is 16 or 17oz, as it is heavy enough to sit and swing well. Kilts made with this fabric can be Teflon coated to make them stain-proof. There are around 14,000 heavy weight tartans to choose from.

Medium weight kilts, at 13oz, are usually produced for Irish and Welsh national tartans, with around 1000 tartans made with this fabric.

11oz light weight tartans are used for ladies’ skirts, gents’ trousers, waistcoats, children’s kilts and trousers, while lighter 8oz tartans are used for ties and ladies’ dresses.

Gents’ kilts are generally 8 yards, sitting high on the waist, a couple of inches above the hip bone, with 17oz the most common weight. However, ladies’ kilts are generally 6 yards and 11oz.

Choosing a jacket and shirt

There are number of different jackets to choose from, each of which is best suited to particular shirts, waistcoats, socks and sporrans.

One of the most formal jackets is the Prince Charlie, which is usually worn at black tie dinners, balls, graduations and weddings. You can wear this jacket with a three button waistcoat, a black bow tie, and wing collar pleat front shirt. Alternatively, you can wear a plain black or white front shirt with double cuffs and cuff-links. Plain or tartan rouche cravats are best for this jacket. The Prince Charlie must be worn with a dress sporran and black, tartan or off-white socks. You also need a belt and buckle, so that you remain smart when you take off your jacket.

The Sherrifmuir jacket, the Regulation doublet, the Montrose jacket and the Kenmore doublet are similarly formal, and should be worn with a jabot shirt and cuffs. However, a tunic collar shirt or a spread bat wing shirt, accompanied by a ruche cravat, are also suitable.

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An Argyll or a Braemar jacket can be worn at any occasion, and come with shiny, antique or black buttons, depending on preference. They can be worn with a plain, tartan or bow tie, with or without a waistcoat. However, if you are wearing a ruche cravat, you must wear a five button waistcoat also. When it comes to shirts, black or white plain front shirts are suitable, whether you are wearing a ruche cravat or a long tie. For formal events, make sure you have a dress or a semi-dress sporran, while leather sporrans are better for day events. Socks can be black, off-white, or colour co-ordinated with your kilt.

For casual or day events, the Tweed Braemar jacket is a good call. Ties should be plain, tweed or tartan, and ruche cravats with spread bat wing shirts are also acceptable. Five button waistcoats are optional for this outfit. Your sporran may be dress, semi-dress or day, depending on which shirt and tie you have chosen. Your socks must be of a similar colour to your jacket, and off-white socks must be avoided when wearing tweed.

How to wear your kilt

When putting on your Highland dress, it is a good idea to begin with your socks. Make sure that the ribs on the socks are not twisted, and are sitting vertically. Next, put the garter flashes on the outside of the leg. Adjust your socks to that there is a three or four inch gap between the top of the socks and the bottom of the kilt.

Once the socks are on, put your sgian dubh down your the leg of your right sock. If you are left-handed, the left sock can hold the sgian dubh instead.

To follow, put on your ghillie brogue shoes. Twist the laces three or four times, and take them round the back of the calf. Bring the laces to the front of the shin, about two thirds of the way up. Tie the laces in an ordinary bow at the front or the side of the leg. If the laces slip down, wrap them lower around the leg and around the ankle.

After the shoes it is time to put on your shirt and cuff-links, followed by the kilt itself. You should wrap the kilt around your waist with the pleats at the back and the ‘aprons’ at the front. The kilt should be long enough to reach your knee. First fasten the right apron fastening the straps at the left hand buckle. Next, the left apron straps should be fastened at the buckles on the right. Make sure the kilt sits well and is comfortable to wear.

The kilt pin should be on the front apron, attached at the fringed side of the kilt, about two inches from the bottom and side of the fringe.

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To attach the sporran, clip on the chain strap, put the chain strap through the kilt belt loops, and fasten the sporran at the back of the kilt. Ensure that the sporan is aligned centrally at the front of the kilt and that it is positioned about four or five inches below the top of the kilt.

Cover up the chain strap using the best and buckle, with the buckle about one or two inches above the sporran. This is followed by the waistcoat and the jacket. The jacket should be fitting square on, and aligned centrally. If you have decided to wear a shoulder plaid, attach it to the jacket under the left hand lapel using a plaid brooch.

The final touches are a long tie, bow tie or ruche cravat, along with an dram in your sporran and sprig of heather in your buttonhole.