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The Skirt of Braveheart

By Madeline | May 18, 2010

Most history haters (inconceivable, I know!) out there think of the word kilt and (after giggling about how it’s a skirt for men) are immediately reminded of the movie Braveheart and the man who made looking pasty and dirty with a toilet-bowl-blue face sexy.  As with all Hollywood made historical movies, there were obvious inaccuracies, but I won’t get into all of those as I don’t have nearly enough time and I’m sure I’d bore you to death.

I will, however, get into one of the hotter aspects of his getup: the kilt.  (BTW, who knew a man baring his hairy knees could have such an effect on women?)  First and foremost, I’d like to point out that the first sightings of a Scottish kilt were not recorded until the beginning of the seventeenth century and even the eyewitness accounts were incredibly vague.  Therefore, the more common origination is dated closer to the late seventeenth century.  Considering William Wallace was born in 1272, he certainly wouldn’t be anything we’d want to see in a kilt in 1790!  *shudder* (well, maybe some people would…but that’s just creepy and not something I’d like to get into…)

The first kilts were a far cry from what we are used to seeing.  They were not tailored to fit the wearer with fancy buckles and buttons, nor did they have the matching socks that rolled neatly up to the knee.  No, primitive kilts were long strips of one-size-fits-all (better than the one-size-fits-none of today) wool, that were pleated around the wearer’s waist.  After the kilt was secured around the waist, the excess was either draped over the body (yes, like a Snuggie minus those fabulous built in sleeves) or draped over the head like a hood.  Contrary to popular belief, the pin adorning kilts was not to secure the loose fabric; it wasn’t even pinned through more than one layer of fabric. It was there to act as a weight to help the wool fall correctly either over the shoulders or across the head.

The historic kilts most often replicated by re-enactors are not the original kilts, but those worn around the time of the Battle of Culloden during the Jacobite rebellion (mid 1750’s).  In that fateful and bloody battle, the British completely defeated the Scottish and banned them from wearing kilts.  They said this was a way to keep the spirit of the Scottish down, but really it’s because they were probably jealous knowing their men could never pull off a skirt and manage to look good doing it - likewise, they probably thought action figures were really considered dolls (take it up with England, men - not me!).  Fortunately the act was repealed about thirty years later.  The contemporary kilt we all know (and still love!) was actually created during the Victorian era.  They thought it was cool before Mel made it popular.  ;)

Now that I’ve already broken your fantasy of medieval barbarians slashing through enemies while wearing manly skirts, let me ruin another one.  I know, I know - I’m cruel like that.  The clan indicating tartan that all of us with a semblance of Scots’ blood flowing in our veins hold so tightly to was actually not clan specific until the late nineteenth century.  Tartans were region specific and had to do with a completely functional purpose.  The dyes used for the wool were taken from their own backyards and thus resembled the plants, berries and other miscellaneous dye-ables (see my article on woad dying under worst jobs in history review) in their immediate area.  This was not only practical as it kept them from traveling great lengths to obtain the dying materials, but it also helped them blend in with their surroundings more easily; perfect for hunting…and fighting.

Onto the question now of WHY? Of all things to adopt, why would it be a skirt for men?  Honestly, I have no definitive proof, but I can imagine it would be for comfort and ease of movement; kinda like how men nowadays like the freedom of boxers to briefs. I mean, they didn’t have jeans back then nor did they have the elastic type materials we have now.  Their pants, trews, would have most likely limited their movement and been constricting. Even me, who wears spike heels, understands the value of comfort (oh comfy pants, how I love thee…).

So next time you hear someone call the kilt a skirt and make fun of it, you can spout off all this newly found knowledge and watch their eyes glaze over. :) You’re welcome.

P.S. Action figures are still dolls. That is all.

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