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Highland Dress Guide: The History & Attire

Highland Dress Guide: The History & Attire

Imagine a type of clothing that's not just your average attire, but a distinctive emblem of clan bonds, local connections, and life's milestones. It's not just about looking good; it's about heritage, with patterns and colours that recount tales of battles, partnerships, festivities, and everyday existence. Sounds intriguing? Well, welcome to the world of Scottish highland wear.

In this concise guide, we're here to untangle the intricate layers of this traditional clothing, leading you through its history, core elements, and lasting impact in today's world. Whether you're considering renting a kilt or simply curious about history, this guide offers a glimpse into the realm of highland wear.


Taking us back to the 16th Century, traditional highland attire was a formal declaration of authority and prosperity. Initially sported by estate owners and their staff, these outfits were like ceremonial uniforms that set apart individuals based on their skills, which could range from playing musical instruments to singing.

Each clan, essentially an extended family, had its distinct tartan – a specific arrangement of intersecting horizontal and vertical stripes. These tartans were more than just decorative; they symbolized the identity, pride, and unity of each clan.

The colors and patterns within each tartan held significance, often linked to regional dyes or important clan events. These designs were historically tied to specific geographical regions and later evolved into symbols of family heritage and allegiances.

Distinguishing between clan and universal tartans is essential. Clan tartans are exclusively associated with specific Scottish families, representing their lineage, while universal tartans are open for anyone to wear, representing broader themes or causes. And yes, all the tartans at Rathbones Tailor are universal, free to be embraced by all.

Preserving this legacy is the Register of Tartans, which documents every tartan pattern, ensuring the authenticity and meaning of each design endures for generations. Remember, these tartans aren't just patterns; they encapsulate Scotland's rich cultural heritage.


Highland wear is more than just clothing; it's a celebration of intricate details and cultural depth, encompassing various elements, each with its unique significance. As we explore this section, we'll unravel the essentials that define this iconic attire, shedding light on its history, practicality, and symbolism.


At the heart of highland wear lies the iconic kilt. Traditionally crafted from wool, the kilt boasts a tartan pattern – an interwoven tapestry of colors representing different clans or regional connections. Over time, kilts have evolved from the grand kilts, which were larger and draped over the shoulder, to the more familiar tailored version worn around the waist.


Trews, the tailored trousers of Scottish attire, started as a winter alternative to kilts. Initially adorned with tartan patterns, they have roots in military wear and have now become popular for formal and semi-formal occasions. Often paired with a highland jacket, trews effortlessly capture Scottish heritage while infusing a contemporary touch into highland fashion.


The Prince Charlie jacket, considered the Scottish equivalent of a black tie, is a formal highland wear staple known for its waist-length cut, polished buttons, and satin lapels. Designed for evening events like weddings or dinners, this 20th-century creation complements kilts or trews, accompanied by a wing-collared shirt and bow tie, blending modern design with traditional Scottish elements.


Given that kilts lack pockets, the ingenious Scots introduced the sporran – a decorative pouch worn around the waist. Beyond its ornate charm, the sporran serves a practical purpose, providing space for essentials like money or personal items. Sporrans range from simple leather designs to more intricate versions adorned with fur and metallic finishes. The choice of sporran often reflects the formality of the occasion, with grander designs reserved for special events.


No exploration of highland wear would be complete without acknowledging the unique footwear that complements the attire. Ghillie brogues, with their open design and laces wrapped around the ankle, are the most recognizable traditional footwear. Their distinctive design offers both comfort and homage to Scotland's rugged highland terrain.


Accessories are just as vital to highland wear as the primary garments. The Sgian Dubh, a small dagger, traditionally finds its place tucked into the sock, symbolizing protection and valor. Meanwhile, intricately designed kilt pins serve a dual purpose – adding a decorative touch while also keeping the kilt's front flap in place with a touch of weight.


Now that we're familiar with the history of highland wear, let's explore the occasions that call for this remarkable attire.


On January 25th, Scots celebrate Burns Night in honor of Robert Burns, the national poet. This event is marked by traditional music, dance, and recitations of Burns' poetry. Attendees often embrace kilts, tartans, and other highland accessories, adding an authentic Scottish touch to the festivities. Expect a haggis supper complete with the iconic 'Address to a Haggis' at a Burns Night gathering.


Scotland's New Year's celebration, Hogmanay, is a lively affair filled with fireworks, processions, and parties. Highland wear takes center stage, particularly in the traditional 'First-Footing' custom. The first person to enter a home after midnight brings gifts for good luck, all while proudly showcasing their highland garb.


A Scottish wedding isn't quite complete without the groom, groomsmen, and often guests donning traditional highland wear. The attire, typically chosen based on the clan's tartan or family tradition, adds elegance and cultural significance to the ceremony. From kilts and sporrans to the Sgian Dubh tucked into the sock, each element holds symbolic importance, making the union all the more meaningful.


From the lush landscapes of Scotland to the global fashion scene, the evolution of highland wear is nothing short of remarkable. Seamlessly blending tradition with innovation, classic kilts are now often fashioned from contemporary materials like leather and denim, harmonizing heritage with modern aesthetics.

This resurgence is magnified by pop culture and celebrities. When a music icon rocks a tartan on stage or a prominent figure graces the red carpet in a kilt, it solidifies highland wear's broader appeal and recognition.


Selecting the right highland wear involves more than just looks; it's about finding the equilibrium between tradition, comfort, and personal style. For those stepping into this realm, here are some pointers to ensure you make the ideal choice.

First and foremost, consider the occasion, the attire's significance, and your personal style preferences. Are you preparing for a formal event or a casual gathering? Understanding the context will guide your selection, striking the balance between tradition and modernity. Getting the sizing and fit right is essential. Highland wear, particularly kilts, should sit comfortably – not overly tight or too loose. The length of the kilt is crucial, traditionally falling around the middle of the kneecap. Proper fit enhances the overall look of the attire while ensuring you move with ease.

Lastly, the decision between purchasing or renting a kilt deserves thought. Owning a kilt offers a custom fit and longevity. However, with handmade kilts starting at £500, renting brings numerous benefits. It's cost-effective for occasional wear, sparing you a hefty investment for infrequent events. Rentals often offer a variety of styles and tartans, providing flexibility for specific occasions. Renting also eliminates the need for kilt upkeep and storage concerns. For many, the convenience of renting is a compelling choice.


Scottish highland wear is deeply woven into the fabric of the country's history. It's not merely clothing; it's a symbol of clan bonds, regional connections, and significant moments. Each piece, from the ancient Celtic cloaks to today's celebrated tartans, carries profound meaning and culture, representing unity, pride, and identity.

Modern interpretations harmoniously blend with tradition, introducing fresh styles without compromising cultural significance. Whether donned at grand events like Burns Night and Scottish weddings or embraced by celebrities on a global stage, the enduring appeal of highland wear remains steadfast.

If you're considering highland dress for your next occasion, explore our collection of kilts, trews, and Prince Charlie jackets available for hire.