Thursday, January 27, 2011

Burns Night Supper & Ceremonial Scottish Dress


"We all know that Robbie Burns was a famous Scottish womanizer and tax-collector, but did you know that he also wrote poetry?"

Every year, on or around January 25, clubs and families all over the world celebrate the great works and spirit of Robert Burns, who was unfortunately born in the cold depth of winter, making the journey to the event... um... quite bracing.

The evenings are not necessarily full of kilts, as most guests generally opt to wear smaller tartan of some sort.  The organizers can offer anything from a simple toast to the poet, to a full ceremonial evening with rivers of whisky and hills of haggis.

Our event (above) saw only three kilted gents, while the rest opted for tartan ties, tartan suits and jackets, scarves, skirts, thistle pins, etc. The gent on the left is wearing his black tie, and he has excellently and staunchly refused to purchase a dinner jacket and trousers, correctly reminding the inquisitive that his kilt and Bonnie Prince Charlie jacket are formal, thank-you-very-much.

What should I wear to a Burns Night Supper?

The answer is, whatever you want.

Outside of a Burns Night Supper, kilts are a tough angle, though.  One can get deeply into the realm of costume very quickly.  As everyday wear (in the US), they are a sure ticket to the kooky end of the eccentric spectrum.  Occasional use, such as hiking, spey-casting, in-field shooting, etc. can be pleasant in one. They are always correct during ceremonies though, and they are not unfamiliar sights at weddings, funerals, or black-tie events, especially in Georgia, the Carolinas, and the more maritime areas of Canada or any Caledonian Club of [insert city/country name] around the world. 

Can I wear a tartan that is not mine?

Of course.  If not, the Stuart Clan (above) has a LOT of complaining to do, and lumberjacks all over will have to make a genealogical case as to their decendency from Rob Roy.  Find a tartan you like, and wear it.  If someone asks you if you are of that family or clan, you need only explain that you wear it as tribute.  If you are questioned further, ignore them and find someone better to talk to.  In the US, you can always play it safe and go with understood-as-neutral Black Watch:

I still see guys wearing the "work" or "sport" kilts, generally on college campuses, usually monochromatic and paired with a black undershirt depicting a band of some kind.  I think people should wear whatever makes them happy, but that is a look that is not for me.

As for the other question that people always ask concerning kilt, I suggest you research it for yourself.


  1. Nice illustration showing how to properly wear tartan ;)

  2. Some historical material on the history of Scottish garb:
    --Burns himself was born during the prohibition of Scottish clothing that ran from 1745-1782, when only the military was allowed to wear them, and it is commonly claimed that he never actually wore a kilt. He did favor regional traditions, though, so probably wouldn't mind.
    --the pleated short kilt or philibeg was only popularized in the 1720s for factory and manual laborers, and even then by an English Quaker in the iron smelting business, Thomas Rawlinson. Before that kilts were belted plaids (meaning blankets, or cloaks, tartan being the term for the type of pattern we call plaid) that were bunched by a belt at the waist and fastened at the shoulder. (It was this shoulder piece that got in the way at the furnaces.) Richer or landed people typically wore more expensive "trews", tight tartan leggings, ironically not unlike plaid punk pants of the 80s.
    --only in the early 19th century, when the once-dangerous working-class clan culture was re-embraced as a valuable heritage for aristocrats, were specific tartans attached to certain clans. Before this, pattern choice was just a question of taste and to a degree region. Though this clan attribution was discussed as early as 1815, it was made common practice during the preparations for the royal visit in 1822. When for instance Cluny Macpherson went to Wilson and Son to order some tartan for his clan's delegation to the royal visit, he picked a pattern off the peg called "no. 155" or "Kidd", after a Mr. Kidd who had ordered a lot of it for his West Indian slaves. We now call that tartan sett "Macpherson".

    So, clan-specific tartans were a relatively recent effort of falsifying nostalgia; short kilts were not originally dressy but for hard work, like jeans, and became dressy when aristocrats embraced the history of their own people; and punk pants were actually the original dressy garment in post-Irish Scotland. We could describe similar absurdities in almost any article of good dress. It's the mixed history and changing uses of clothing that make its use elegant or eloquent, as YWP often points out, not the dogmatism of some supposed tradition proscribing one thing or another.

    YWP-- only just now writing this do I wonder what your position is on trews? I see that even when Sir Walter Scott was pushing tradition garb at his parties, he himself wore trews, not a kilt. Are they too obscure now to be worn meaningfully, or does the punk connotation add to their potential use in higher dress?

  3. A lot of the old imagery still depicts trews, and we have a few engravings of ancestors wearing them. While they are traditional, they are a bit too 'period' for me, and most. They are authentic and traditional in the same way that laced frocks, tights, and slippers are... once appropriate for gentlemen, but now worn only by bit players on movie sets.

  4. Noodling about and came across this; would like to add what I consider a contemporary appropriate place for the casual kilt: after playing a rugby match. Last year I saw a gent in a tasteful casual kilt at the post-match drink-up, when I was longing for a good change of clothes after the work. Eminently practical in that instance, event-appropriate and sharp to boot.

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