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No Longer an Everyday Garment, It's Becoming Ceremonial Wear : Kilt Making a Comeback as Symbol of Scottish Pride

September 01, 1985|MARCUS ELIASON | Associated Press

EDINBURGH, Scotland — The kilt, having all but died out as an everyday garment, is making a quiet comeback as a symbol of Scottish pride.

It's not the sort of attire your average Scot would wear to the office or the Friday night poker game, but it is popping up with increasing frequency at ceremonial occasions such as weddings, dinner dances and school graduations.

Its resurrection is being helped by a wave of roots-mania among Scots abroad, and even the fashion world is toying with tartan.

Those Scots who still wear the kilt as an everyday garment are believed to number only a few hundred.

"It's not good for sitting behind a desk or driving a car," says Bernard Lawson, who manages his family kilt-making business in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital. "But it's fine for walking and dancing. Men often tell me they prefer the kilt to a tuxedo. They say tuxedoes make them look like penguins."

Lawson says he produces 2,500 kilts a year. Until a decade ago, 85% went to American and Canadian buyers, he says, but now the trade splits 50-50 between foreign and local customers.

"It's a way of saying, 'I know who I am, and I know where I came from,' " says James Adam, vice chairman of the Scottish International Gathering Trust, which organizes mass reunions of Scots and has done much to bring Scottish national pride back into style.

Adam says the revival is due to the boom in Scots-descended American tourism to Scotland. "People here are meeting more and more overseas Scots who are bringing back into their consciousness an awareness of tradition."

Some Scots say they wear the kilt when abroad to distance themselves from the English--especially this summer, when anti-English sentiment in Europe has been stoked by the behavior of English soccer-game hooligans.

Romance of Highlands

To many foreigners, the kilt evokes Highland romance, although knowledgeable Scots will confide that the romance has largely been concocted by novelists beginning with Sir Walter Scott.

In its original, Irish-born form, the kilt swaddled the entire body. Then came 1746 and Bonnie Prince Charlie's ill-fated rebellion, which led the English to order the troublesome Scots into breeches.

However, in 1782 the ban on kilts was lifted, and Highlanders were encouraged to join the British army and wear their tartan with pride.

A whole system of clan identification through tartan pattern and color was invented. Even today, when the clan system survives in little more than name, the average Scot only has to consult one of the numerous reference books on tartans to find one attached to his family name.

John Stephen Orr, a Scot and well-known portrait photographer, says he hasn't worn trousers for 50 years.

"The kilt is colorful, warm in winter and cool in summer," he said. "In my business, I'm my own boss, so I can wear what I like, though I don't know whether an office manager would look too favorably on his employees dashing about in a kilt."

As for that old joking inquiry about what a Scotsman wears beneath his kilt, the answer, according to kilt-maker Lawson, is ordinary underpants.

However, until this century, it was considered unmanly to wear anything underneath.

And Adam, 77, regards the kilt pin, supposedly introduced by Queen Victoria to preserve decorum among her Scottish guards, as superfluous.

"It spoils the hang of the kilt," he said. "It's an . . . effeminate approach to the wearing of a masculine garment, and I say away with it!"

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