6 Dos and Donts When Buying a Kilt

Kilts are part of the traditional national dress for men in the Highlands of Scotland (the northwestern region of the country) and date back to the 16th century. They are also part of the Welsh culture and were handmade and secured by kilt pins. Essentially a knee-length, partially pleated wrap skirt (although one is best off not calling it that), t was originally handmade yard by yard in a wool tartan material.

Once a common everyday garment, the kilt fell into disuse and was worn for many years only on holidays and other special occasions; these days, it has become more popular, particularly with those who wish to display their Celtic pride. While the subject of kilts and tartans have filled volumes, basic guidelines for beginners can be summed up in six simple do’s and don’ts. Buyers who familiarize themselves with these tips can find kilt selection to be easy, and combined with the tips on where to find kilts, buyers are well on their way to owning this distinctive garment.

Kilt-Buying Do’s

When buying a kilt, there are three rather broad tips that help shoppers know what to focus on: get to know kilt-related terminology, understand setts, and be sure to get a kilt suited for one’s personal measurements.

1. Do Know Kilt-Related Terminology

The following table defines the different parts of a kilt and kilt-related terms about which buyers should be knowledgeable.

Kilt Term

Definition

Apron The un-pleated layers that overlap at the front of the garment
Bumbee Slang term for a fashion tartan that is not assigned to any group
Great kilt A full-length garment, as opposed to the “small kilt” or half-garment with which most people are familiar; could be wrapped around the upper body as well
Kilt pin A decorative pin worn on the front layer of the kilt (not to keep the flap pinned closed, as one might assume)
Pleat Fabric that is folded over on itself; most have pleating on the sides and back
Sett Another name for the specific tartan plaid pattern on the kilt
Sgian dubh A knife worn partially concealed in the hose or knee socks
Small kilt A garment covering the lower half of the body from the waist to the knees, as opposed to the full “great kilt”. (Philibeg and walking kilt are alternate names)
Sporran A skin purse with the hair or fur still in place, worn on the front of the kilt
Strap Leather adjustment tab at either side of the waist

While some of these terms relate more so to kilt accessories, they are words that one comes across frequently in reading about and discussing kilts, so it is important to at least be familiar with them.

2. Do Understand Setts

The sett is probably the most important decision to make when choosing a kilt. Setts may be determined and named by clans, municipalities, geographical locations, companies, or clubs. Buyers who have a Scottish last name should ask elders in the family or look up their surname in a sett finder online. Examples of more common universal or neutral sett names, which are often used in mass-produced merchandise, such as shirts and skirts, are as follows: Black Watch or Campbell; Royal Stewart; Hunting Stewart; Mackenzie; Dress Thomson; and Dress Gordon.

While a few tartans are trademarked, most are registered. It is customary and a matter of etiquette to wear one’s own proper sett, but there are no legal restrictions on wearing most non-trademarked patterns. The safest bet is to choose a neutral tartan or a tartan with which one is linked to through bloodline. Many Americans who are interested in wearing kilts do have some Scottish, Irish, Welsh, or English ancestry and can trace their family tree back to a surname associated with a tartan pattern. There are even American tartans, even ones for individual U.S. states, so there is truly a tartan that everyone can wear proudly without raising eyebrows.

Keep in mind that there may be several tartans within a group, and these are named with different modifiers. Notice that in the list above, there is a “Royal Stewart” and a “Hunting Stewart.” The latter is usually produced in blues, greens, and browns. Most dress tartans feature some white. Tartans may also be described as modern or standard (not necessarily new versions but simply brighter colors), ancient, weathered, muted, old, reproduction, or antique. One may also hear of dancing and other less-common specialty tartans.

3. Do Know Your Measurements

Kilt wearers should realize that a proper kilt is not a tossed-on garment but one that should be carefully fitted to the person. A ready-to-wear kilt should still be tailored to suit someone. The waist should be measured farther up on the torso than where a modern pants waistband lies, usually around the navel. The hip measurement may also be required, something rarely needed for men’s garments. The length of the kilt is critical, since it should hit the middle of the kneecap if it is properly fitted. The rise (distance from waist to crotch) may also come into play. Before shopping for kilts, men who take the time to make a note of these measurements will have an easier time of finding their correct size and knowing what adjustments need to be made. Some kilt dealers can make these alterations before shipping the final product.

Kilt-Buying Don’ts

There are three main things to remember not to do when buying a kilt: namely, don’t skimp on quality, don’t skip wearing undergarments in certain circumstances, and don’t forget any necessary accessories such as kilt pins or sporrans.

1. Don’t Skimp on Quality

Buyers who are going to the trouble of getting a kilt should get the best quality tartan fabric that they can afford. A cheap-looking kilt is a fashion faux pas. A kilt should be viewed as a treasured piece of clothing, much like a wedding gown or an interview suit. It behooves one to get the best quality, because it may be worn more than once and often in front of others who know their kilts. Consider what shirts or jackets, like a traditional Argyle jacket (originally from the Isles of Scotland), should be worn with one.

2. Don’t Go Commando If There Is Any Chance of Exposure

While there is a common joke that real Scotsmen do not wear underwear with their kilts, keep in mind that kilts are centuries old and were likely worn at a time when men did not wear underwear with any of their clothing. In modern times, it only makes sense to be warm and hygienic by wearing briefs or boxers beneath one’s kilt.
Dancing, marching, and standing outdoors on a windy day can all result in offended onlookers, particularly in a mixed crowd. Kilt pins can help reduce some of the risk. Those who will be wearing their kilts indoors under normal conditions can take the risk, and this is when a heavy wool is a particularly crucial factor.

3. Don’t Forget the Accessories

Depending on where a person intends to wear the kilt, the accessories are just as important as the kilt itself. Proper national dress includes a variety of items, some of which have been defined above:

  • Jacket
  • Waistcoat
  • Shirt
  • Tie
  • Sporran
  • Kilt pin
  • Hose
  • Garter flashes (ribbons worn on the sock garters)
  • Sgian dubh
  • Gillie brogues (a certain style of shoe)

Casual kilts can be found in solid colors and more everyday fabrics, such as chino. These kilts are worn with regular street-wear and do not necessarily follow any rules of etiquette.

Where to Find Kilts

Because kilts are a type of cultural clothing, they are not available at most mainstream clothing retailers. There are specialty kilt shops in urban areas and areas that may have a high percentage of residents of British ancestry. Kilts may also be purchased overseas, either on a trip or online from foreign retailers. Online kilt sellers are the easiest option for those who do not have a brick-and-mortar kilt shop nearby where you can search for well-known brands, such as Argyle and Wallace.

How to Buy Kilts on eBay

Kilts are quite easy to find on eBay by doing a keyword search. Simply enter “kilt” into the Search box and narrow down the results. Kilts are available for men and women, and listing pages can be further filtered by using the categories on the left side of the page.

Conclusion

Whether a buyer wants a traditional tartan kilt for a wedding, party, or some other occasion, in all likelihood there will be other kilt-wearers present as well. Many old-timers are well acquainted with kilts and can spot a poorly made or poorly worn one a mile away. Kilt wearers should take the time to research the proper ways to wear one and ensure they present themselves well. The aforementioned six guidelines can help most buyers pick out a kilt to last them a lifetime.

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