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A note to the ladies about gentlemen in kilts

There’s a lot of talk right now about men invading women’s personal space, thanks to recent high-visibility touching by John Travolta and Vice President Joe Biden. It is definitely an issue, despite Travolta saying that the whole Oscar routine was planned and rehearsed. Surprisingly enough, I understand how women feel about this. Yes, I’m a guy, and I get the problem. Why? Because I wear kilts.

David Beckham

See this? This isn’t me.

Imagine, if you will, me walking up to a woman and asking her what she’s wearing under her skirt. Imagine if I tried to lift her skirt and peek, forcing her to grab my hand and make me stop — and then trying again. Imagine if I made comments to a woman at a bar about her dress looking comfortable because it lets the wind blow through her private parts.

I’d get slapped. A bouncer would throw me out on the street (and not gently). I might even be facing sexual assault charges.

Yet women do all of these things to me on a regular basis when I’m wearing a kilt.

I’m an average-looking happily-married guy in my 50s. I’m not out picking up chicks; I don’t look like David Beckham. I don’t think these women are hitting on me. They’re just playing around, and they don’t seem to understand why there’s anything wrong with it. But there is.

I feel like I should point out that I’m not wearing tight clothes or showing a lot of skin, but that’s silly. That plays to the old argument: “Look at how that girl is dressed! She’s obviously asking for it.” I don’t care how that woman is dressed — you don’t walk up and touch her and you don’t make personal comments about what undergarments she might or might not be wearing.

Gary and Kathy

This one is me, at a party with my wife, Kathy.

When you see a man in a kilt, he could be wearing any number of things under it. Boxers, briefs, bicycle shorts, a speedo, or nothing at all. It’s really none of your business. [The only exception to this rule is when men tell me they’re getting a kilt and ask what they’re supposed to wear under it. My response: whatever feels comfortable.]

I’ve brought up the issue of women lifting men’s kilts at various times, and one of the very common responses is, “you’re obviously looking for attention, or you wouldn’t be dressed like that.” You could, of course, say that to any sharp-dressed man, but let’s flip this around for a moment and pretend the comment was addressed to a woman.

Is she looking for attention? Possibly. Maybe she does want to be the belle of the ball. But if her outfit includes a tight sweater, that doesn’t mean you can walk up and ask if she has a bra under it! The attention she’s looking for is probably a comment like, “wow, you look great tonight,” not having random dudes lift up her dress.

And that’s exactly the issue.

Junior high school was a miserable time for me. I was very tall, which made me a target for all of the bullies. I didn’t like sports, which made it worse. They looked for ways to humiliate and embarrass me. I was tripped, slapped, and spit on. My books were knocked from my hands. Things were thrown at me in class. And, of course, as the ultimate humiliation for a junior high school boy, I got pantsed.

For my readers not familiar with the term, being “pantsed” usually happened during gym class (a.k.a. “PE”). Since gym shorts don’t have belts, it’s very easy for another kid to creep up behind you, grab your shorts, and pull them down to your knees. Boys and girls had separate classes, but were often in the same gymnasium or on the same field together.

What are you doing when you lift a man’s kilt? The same thing that those bullies were doing back in junior high school when they yanked down his shorts. It makes no difference what’s under the kilt or gym shorts. It’s embarrassing. If you never got pantsed as a kid, you wouldn’t understand how that memory can come flooding back when someone grabs the kilt.

A final comment: When I’ve grumbled about kilt comments in the past, women have often told me that it’s just not the same for me as it is for them. I get that. A 120-pound (55kg) woman isn’t likely to feel safe when a man twice her size is giving her unwanted attention. There’s a sense of vulnerability that I just don’t feel, because I’m 6’5″ (1.95m) tall and I don’t view the woman that’s grabbing my kilt as a physical threat.

That’s very true. But I understand harassment and humiliation. And you might want to keep that in mind the next time you get curious about what’s under the kilt.

Kilts vs. Lederhosen

I have always seemed to identify more with my father’s Scottish ancestry than my mother’s German ancestry, and I’m not sure exactly why. I have three kilts representing two different versions of my clan tartan, and a wide variety of accessories. As Oktoberfest approached this year and my wife & I decided to set up a stand selling soft Bavarian-style pretzels, I decided to get more in touch with my German side. This, of course, meant purchasing lederhosen.

Since I’ve obviously covered all of the really important subjects of our time in this blog, I decided to share with my loyal readers how I feel about these two very different outfits.

Lederhosen and Kilt

In the picture on the left, I am wearing my Clan Gunn weathered modern kilt and a Prince Charlie at a Rabbie Burns supper in 2008. I have absolutely no idea why I was holding my beer like that. I must have been making an important point.

In the right-hand picture, I am wearing my new Bavarian lederhosen at an Oktoberfest celebration. My lovely wife is sporting a traditional dirndl. I have absolutely no idea why I was not holding a beer in this picture. It was Oktoberfest, for goodness’ sake.

I think the best way to rate these two traditional outfits is an issue-by-issue comparison, summing up the points to determine the victor at the end. Let’s get down to it.

1. Cost

Kilts are really expensive. A proper traditional tartan kilt will run hundreds of dollars. By the time you add in kilt hose, ghillie shoes, flashers, sgian dubh, sporran, dirk, belt, buckle, and lace-up ghillie shirt, you’re probably at $750. Make it a Prince Charlie jacket, waistcoat, and tie, and you’re well over $1,000. You can get started with lederhosen, on the other hand, for under a hundred bucks. If you already own an appropriate button-down shirt and halfway reasonable shoes, all you have to add is some long socks and you’re golden. Sure, you can spend a lot of money on lederhosen and accoutrements, but you don’t have to.

The point goes to the lederhosen.

2. Comfort

Kilts are very … freeing. Lederhosen can bind. They’re made of leather, after all. For general walking around, the kilt wins. No question. On the other hand, when wearing lederhosen you don’t have to worry about your clothes when you sit, squat, climb a ladder, or do the keg-toss at Oktoberfest. That’s a big advantage.

Nonetheless, this point goes to the kilt.

3. Bathroom breaks

The point goes to the kilt. This should not require any explanation.

4. The ladies

Women don’t tend to ask what’s under your lederhosen. Nor do they try to peek and find out. You might consider this either an advantage or a disadvantage. When you add in the fact that women at German events wear dirndls, it makes the decision pretty obvious, though. Dirndls are clearly the sexiest indigenous native garb on the planet.

St. Pauli Girl beer label

You might argue that it’s easier to pick up girls in a kilt. This will depend entirely on where you are and how you look in the outfit. Since this isn’t exactly a scientific comparison, I’ll go ahead and quote the Wikipedia article on lederhosen:

“Lederhosen have remained regionally popular and are popularly associated with virility and brawn.”

Virility and brawn! Got that? I’m going to give this one to the lederhosen.

5. Authenticity

Both outfits are authentic garb of their native countries, and neither has a history as long as folks would like you to think they do (see my “History of the Kilt” post).

I’m going to have to call this one a tie.

6. Hats

Hats are entirely optional both with a kilt and with lederhosen. The hat I’m wearing in the picture above may not look all that German, but shortly after the picture was taken, I added a feather and a beer bottle cap to the hatband. My fedora immediately became an authentic Bavarian hat. So there.

Another tie.

7. Pronunciation

I’ve heard quite a few people struggle to pronounce “lederhosen.” I’ve never heard anyone mispronounce “kilt.”

Pretty minor issue. Half a point to the kilt.


This was a tough contest, but the kilt won by a half a point. And it’s a good thing, too, because I need to go convince my wife that I need a new pair of kilt hose and a new buckle. I’ve been eying this awesome new sporran, too…

The History of the Kilt

Renaissance Magazine issue 81 coverTime to pull another fun one from the archives! This article first appeared in issue #81 (November 2011) of Renaissance magazine. None of the photos here appeared in the magazine — they own their pictures.

There is no more recognizable symbol of Scotland than a man in a kilt. If you wish to celebrate your Scottish heritage at the next Renaissance festival you attend, a kilt is the obvious choice, and we all know the ladies love a man in a kilt!

If you look up one of the many suppliers of Celtic garb, you’ll find a dazzling array of tartans, and a length of accessories as long as your arm. Kilt hose, gillies, flashers, sgian dubh, sporran, kilt pin, belt, clan buckle, dirk–and that’s just what goes below your waist. If you have the cash, a modern kilt is easy to find, comfortable to wear, and easy to accessorize.

The problem is that the entire ensemble is an invention of the 19th century. If you wish to dress true to period, then you’ll need to dig a bit deeper into the history of the garment and the fabric it’s made from.


A tartan pattern, known as a “plaid” in the United States, consists of alternating colors at right angles to each other, creating anything from simple checkered patterns to complex collections of colored bands.

Tartans have actually been around at least as long as the Celts, and many centuries before Scotland existed as a nation. A proto-Celtic population known as the Hallstatt culture produced textiles similar to modern tartans. The earliest-known tartan in Britain dates back to the third century. Known as the “Falkirk tartan,” it was found in a pot full of Roman coins near the Antonine Wall in what is now Stirlingshire, Scotland.

The Falkirk tartan was a basic checkered design using natural (un-dyed) dark and light wool in an alternating pattern. It is less complex than modern tartans, but it shows that the tartan was, indeed, worn well before the Renaissance began.

Not much is known about how the tartan evolved or how it was worn through most of the early history of Scotland. The earliest known picture of Scottish men wearing tartan fabrics is a woodcut from the early fifteenth century.

Modern tartan cloth is made much the same way today as it was made centuries ago. The wool is spun and pre-dyed. Generally speaking, when the loom is set up, the same pattern of colored thread (known as the “sett”) is used for the warp and the weft. The threads for the warp are arranged and stretched, and the weft follows the same pattern. Where threads of the same color cross, a solid color results. Where different colors cross, a diagonal pattern of a blended color emerges.

In some tartans, the sett is simply repeated across the width and length of the fabric: so many threads of the first color, followed by so many of the second color, and so forth. In most tartans, though, alternating setts are reversed so that the tartan looks the same when reversed or rotated.

Master weavers developed their signature tartan using natural dyes found in their area, and the tartans came to identify specific islands or regions. By looking at a tartan, you could tell where it was made. Men made no effort, though, to dress like their kinsmen. Early paintings show that not only did groups of Scots not all wear the same tartan, but each Scotsman was likely to wear more than one tartan at a time, depending on his taste.

It was not until the Victorian era in the mid-nineteenth century that tartan registries were established and the clans chose tartans that were unique to their members. Each clan today is likely to have at least two registered tartans. The “modern” tartan uses synthetic dyes with bright colors, and the “ancient” tartan either uses authentic natural dyes or synthetics with muted colors to simulate aging. Some clans will also have a “hunting” tartan with more earthy or subdued colors, and occasionally a “dress” tartan, where one of the prominent colors in the sett is replaced with white.

What does all of this mean to you? It means that matching your highland garb to a particular era does not require selecting a tartan to match a clan, or even a region. Choose what you like, as long as you go with an “ancient” tartan pattern. Avoid the bright colors, especially bright green, which was difficult to produce. Natural colors (gray, brown, beige) were very common, as were yellow, red, purple, and blue.


Gary in Robert the Bruce mail

This picture of me from the Robert the Bruce museum wearing the Bruce’s crown and mail has nothing whatsoever to do with this article. I included it because I like it.

If you have seen the Mel Gibson movie, “Braveheart,” about Scottish patriot William Wallace, please forget everything you saw. The common garb of Scottish and Irish men in the late 11th century would have been a saffron-dyed knee-length tunic known as a léine. In colder weather, they would add a cloak known as a brat. There were no kilts at the Battle of Stirling in 1297.

The brat was a cumbersome heavy woolen garment. It may have been plain wool or tartan, and some men used fur or leather. Typically worn over the shoulders, it could be pinned in front or draped loose.

At some point, probably in the 1500s, someone came up with the idea of draping the brat around the waist and fastening it with a belt, and thus was born the “breacan an feile” or belted plaid, typically known today as a great kilt. The first written reference to the great kilt comes from 1594. By that time, the Scots had a distinctive look, no longer the same as the Irish.

Looms of the day typically produced fabric about 25 to 30 inches wide. To make a belted plaid, they would start with a piece of fabric about nine yards long. The actual unit of measurement then was called a “Scottish ell,” and was about 37 inches—the length of a man’s arm. They would cut the fabric in half and stitch it together to form a piece 4-5 feet wide and roughly 4-1/2 ells long.

To wear a belted plaid, men would lay their belt on the ground or on a bed and spread the fabric over it. They then gathered the center of the garment into pleats. The word “kilt” is actually derived from the old Norse word “kjalta,” which means pleat or fold. These distinctive pleats down the back of the kilt are what differentiate it from earlier garments. Once enough fabric had been pleated, the remainder could be wrapped over the front and the belt fastened.

Upon standing up, the upper part of the kilt would fall over the belt, creating double thickness of fabric and leaving the léine uncovered on the upper body. In warm weather, the highlander would leave it this way, or gather the ends of the upper fabric and tuck it into the belt to create two big pockets. In cooler weather, he would pull the upper fabric up over one shoulder and pin it. In rainy weather, it could be pulled all the way up as a hood.

If you are dressing for the latter part of the Renaissance era, the belted plaid is the most appropriate form of kilt to wear. As I mentioned above, there’s no need to worry about the particular tartan. Choose one that you like, or be a true Scotsman and find a cheap one on sale!


Gary toasting haggis at 2008 Rabbie Burns

Your humble author in a Prince Charlie with a Clan Gunn weathered modern kilt, toasting the haggis at a Rabbie Burns supper in 2008.

A short kilt, known in Gaelic as the feilidh beag (meaning “little wrap”), was effectively the bottom half of a great kilt. It was most likely developed sometime in the late seventeenth century. The name was Anglicized to “philabeg,” an inexpensive and lightweight alternative to a great kilt. They were still untailored, with the fabric loosely gathered, pleated, or folded in back.

In 1746, following the Jacobite uprisings, the British Parliament enacted the Dress Act, which forbid the wearing of kilts or tartans, along with other aspects of Highland culture. When the Act was repealed in 1782, the tartan kilt became the de facto official outfit of Scotland.

The kilt as we know it today came about shortly thereafter. The Scottish Tartan Society has a kilt from 1792 that is tailored, with the pleats stitched down. If you are attending a fantasy faire or a ren faire that doesn’t worry much about historic accuracy, a philabeg is probably your cheapest alternative, as it only requires half the cloth of a great kilt and uses no tailoring. A good modern kilt is substantially more expensive.

The term “short kilt” does not refer to the length when worn. Whether you have a great kilt, philabeg, or modern kilt, it should come to the middle of the knee. Above-the-knee tartan skirts are for women only.


Highlanders in the Renaissance were poor people. Few could afford shoes, and those that had them wore them only in cold weather. Traditional shoes or boots for a Highlander were thin leather with no heels, and may have either leather or cloth uppers laced together. The sporran of the era was a simple pouch strung around the waist.

The question most frequently asked when I’m wearing a kilt is what I have on under it. Much is made of the “correct” way to dress under your kilt, but there is no mandated answer. It’s like asking a modern man, boxers or briefs? On a warm day, you may wish to wear as little as possible. On a cold day, you’d want a bit more for warmth. Scottish athletes almost always wear undergarments to avoid exposing themselves.

My advice is to wear what you’re comfortable with, and if the ladies ask what’s under your kilt, ask them what’s under their dress!

New and upcoming magazine articles

Acres USA May 2011 coverJust in case you’re keeping track, these are my latest three magazine articles.

  • “Easy Keepers” (Corriente cattle) in the May issue of Acres U.S.A. [read now]
  • “History of Kilts” in the September issue of Renaissance [read now]
  • “Internet Caption Delivery” in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Court Reporting
    (the publication of the National Court Reporters Association)

UPDATE: I added “read now” links to the articles that are now available to read on my blog. By agreement with the publishers, I don’t post the articles here until after they’ve appeared in the magazines.

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