Kilt variants

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Kilt variants are any of a number of garments in some ways similar to the traditional Scottish kilt, but differing therefrom to a measurable degree.

The word kilt is used today to refer to a wide variety of different types of garments. The principal usages are:

  1. The modern form of the traditional Scottish garment (see kilt);
  2. The historical form of this same Scottish garment (see History of the kilt);
  3. Various other national forms of the kilt, such as the Irish kilt;
  4. The modern, or contemporary kilt;
  5. Certain types of school uniform skirts or other skirts for girls.

Since it is the form of the kilt with which people are most familiar, this article, in what follows, will take as its standard the modern form of the traditional Scottish kilt as typically seen at modern day Highland games gatherings in Scotland and elsewhere throughout the world. The other types of garments which are often referred to as kilts will be described below, followed by a discussion of how they are similar to, or different from, the Scottish kilt.

Historical kilts

Historical kilts differed in several particulars (some quite substantial) from the modern-day kilt, even after the introduction of the tailored kilt in the late 18th century.

The earliest surviving kilts (or remnants) are regimental kilts dating from this period. In contrast to the most common form of the modern Scottish kilt, these kilts were box pleated, not knife pleated, garments with the pleats extending all the way around the circumference of the garment. Thus they did not have the characteristic wrap-around construction with the overlapping front aprons of the most common form of the modern Scottish kilt.

In addition, since these kilts date back to a time prior to the introduction of the modern system of clan tartans, the patterns in usage at the time are those of the regimental tartans of the day, such as the Black Watch tartan.

Kilts of this type are seen today mainly as reproduction kilts where effort is made to be as faithful as possible to the historical forms, sometimes extending even to using the same techniques of construction and vegetable dyes.

National kilts

Contemporary kilts

Recent years have seen the introduction of a number of new styled, contemporary, or casual kilts catering to the Scottish market. Typically, these garments will use the word kilt in the name of the garment either directly or as part of a compound or hyphenated term. In some cases, the name under which the garment is sold will be trademarked in addition to using the word kilt as part of the name. All of these new types of garments differ markedly in several respects from the traditional Scottish kilt.

Among the most obvious features by which most of these contemporary kilts are differentiated from the traditional Scottish kilt are;

  • First, most of them are made out of plain colored fabric, lacking the traditional plaid patterns associated with the Scottish clans; and
  • Secondly, most of them are not made from tartan wool, but rather utilize a variety of different fabrics, including denim, canvas, leather, and polyester, or a poly viscose blend.[1]

In addition to the above, these newer kilts often exhibit significant differences in design and construction techniques. Some, such as the NeoKilt™ do follow closely the same design pattern of the traditional kilt (wrap around construction with overlapping front aprons and stitched-down pleats around the sides and back). Others follow their own construction design. The UtiliKilt™, for example, is made to fit the hips with the waist being cinched tight by a belt in contrast to the Scottish kilt which tapers the pleats from hip to waist.

Some of the advantages of these kilts stressed by the manufactureres are their durability, ease of care and the significantly lower cost which is possible.

As a result, these garments have achieved a considerable degree of popularity especially among Highland athletes who might be reluctant to subject an expensive and more care demanding garment to the hard usage of the athletic arena.

They have also been widely accepted within the Scottish community as a whole where the manufacturers can be seen vending their wares at many Highland games events.

Girls' skirts

In another category, we have a class of garments manufactured specifically for girls. These garments date back many years prior to the introduction of the contemporary kilts described above and, in the past, at least, were never or very seldom referred to as kilts of any kind.


A kilt-skirt (or kilt styled skirt) is a wrap-around skirt with overlapping front aprons, the rest of the garment being pleated (almost always knife-pleated) around the sides and back and displaying a plaid pattern of some kind. Thus, the kilt-skirt resembles, in its overall visual appearance, the look and feel of an authentic Scottish kilt. Such a garment is sometimes marketed to schools as part of a uniform for the female students.

Some school uniform manufacturers offer a style of uniform skirt for girl students which is referred to in their catalogues simply as a kilt, but which is in fact a kilt-skirt as defined above (though occasionally these garments, still called kilts by the manufacturers, do not exhibit plaid patterns).

In spite of the overall appearance of these garments, there are significant differences in design and construction when compared to the Scottish kilt. The Scottish kilt is individually tailored to fit the body proportions of the wearer. From the waist to the widest portion of the seat, the pleats will be stitched down (though at least one manufacturer has been known to glue them down). From there, the pleats, which are pleated to the stripe or sett and not angled even slightly, will hang straight down and not flare out. The school uniform skirt does not have stitched down pleats and thus, since the seat is generally wider than the waist, it will tend to flare out.

Although in some cases the plaid patterns of the kilt-skirts very closely resemble those of official Scottish kilts, sometimes differing only in the alteration of a single colored thread in the pattern, they are never identical to the clan tartans of the Scottish kilt.

Some other differences between a kilt and a kilt-skirt, are:

  1. unlike a skirt, the kilt is not hemmed, but is instead made on the selvedge;
  2. a kilt will have belt loops, whereas the kilt-skirt almost never does;
  3. on a kilt, the front aprons overlap left over right whereas on a kilt-skirt they overlap right over left;
  4. the kilt pin is not fastened through both layers of the kilt fabric, while the similar device on a kilt-skirt (also called a kilt pin) is usually fastened through both layers.

"Assault on a tradition" or "Evolution of fashion"?

There is widespread confusion and sometimes honest disagreement over the question of just what is - and what is not - a kilt and how the traditional Scottish garment of that name differs from a skirt or a kilt-skirt. In fact, this confusion has at times erupted into controversy. Recently, for example, the European Union, for purposes of establishing trade regulations within the EU, classified the Scottish kilt under the same category as skirts (that is, as a form of women's wear), resulting in a protest from outraged kilt manufacturers! [2] In addition, many Scotsmen take offense at the kilt being referred to as a skirt, or vice versa (with certain types of skirts commonly - and confusingly - being referred to as "kilts").

This question has become even more topical in recent years with changing trends in fashion as more and more manufacturers are producing a line of outerwear for men which cannot be clearly differentiated from skirts. Some of these manufacturers have opted to call their products kilts, or to use a term which employs the word kilt in some hyphenated or compound way.

Critics consider this to be merely a marketing ploy by manufacturers attempting to piggy-back on Scots traditions in order to gain market share for their products. For their part, the advocates of these newer designs retort that the "traditionalists" (sometimes using the term derisively) are themselves merely defending a marketing brand - Scotland the Brand, as some have termed it[3].

Along with the newer contemporary kilts, such as the NeoKilt™ or the Utilikilt™, some manufacturers are offering a line of garments, sold as kilts, one of the main features of which is their significantly lower price. A traditional handmade Scottish kilt can cost anywhere between 600 and 800 US$, whereas these garments are sometimes sold on the Internet and elsewhere for a little as 50 US$. The price differential is due to their manufacture in countries with cheap labor as well as shortcuts in the tailoring and design, for example, in their use of a significantly smaller amount of fabric (some with as little as 2 - 1/2 yards of fabric) of a lower grade.

Another recent development is the "men's fashion freedom" movement, which champions men's social rights to adopt skirts as wearing apparal. Inter alia, they sometimes employ the term kilt to refer to any garment with either styling or color patterns similar to a traditional Scottish kilt. That could include any wrap around skirt with overlapping front aprons, or any plaid, pleated skirt.

Advocates of Scots traditions decry this as a degeneration of the term kilt which tends to deprive the term of meaning. in response, it is argued that just as men's fashions have otherwise evolved over the last two centuries, fashions in kilt wear, had the tradition not been artificially frozen (so it is said), would have evolved and the modern garments and usage of the term are what would be the result of natural evolution of the tradition had such taken place.


  1. Poly viscose is a common fabric used for these new style or casual kilts. It is a soft, smooth, and lightweight, fabric which, to all but close iinspection, looks somewhat like wool. It also has easy care characteristics.
  2. News item in The Guardian regarding EU classification of kilts as womenswear
  3. The term is a takeoff on the name of the stirring bagpipe tune "Scotland the Brave"