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Highland Ladies Wear

Breaking away from tradition and putting a new spin on what's Ay'been


It's time to talk about the role of women in the tartan and kiltmaking industry and also Scottish National Dress both past and present for ladies. Both the fashion and media worlds have played a part in more and more women donning tartan and their take on kilts There is a swing from Scottish National Dress being iconically menswear to, now, being much more androgynous and interpretive.


So let's start from the start...

Early highland dress saw men and women dress fairly similarly, simple materials created locally or even at home, shoes were rarely worn until later - common traits of many earlier settlers dress across Europe and Scandinavia. Dressmaking developed over time from primitive smocks and shawls for warmth to tailored, fitting garments. While menswear in Scotland progressed into the iconic kilt, womenswear was on the whole, not largely different from the attire of the rest of the UK.

This Scottish spin on things is called the arisaid / earasaid. There are definite parallels to the Feileadh Mor - the loose fit, the drape, the cloth. The arisaid fell to the ground and was pleated like the kilt and would often be buckled at the chest with a silver or brass brooch, reflective of the status of the wearer, or a leather belt. It is widely accepted that the arisaid was not tartan, but instead plain white, sometimes striped or plain with a detail around the edge.

Outlander created an accurate portrayal of the use of tartan plaids by the women folk of the Clan and Highlands. The adoption of wearing a plaid came a little later then the airisaid.

Highland wear presents a bit of a bad deal for women. Men strutted around in tartan splendour while womenswear was in comparison pretty drab. Over time tartan did appear in womenswear also, often referred to as a tonnag women sometimes wore a tartan shawl over the arisaid in perhaps the colours of her family or husband. Womenswear was warm and practical, it was designed to be worn in the rough Scottish climate and landscape, protect babies wrapped up inside and even came in handy if you fancied a sly nap in church according to research by the Scottish Tartans Authority... Married women also adopted further methods of wearing tartan which likely inspired the development of sashes we see women wearing today for formal occasions.


One of the finest examples of Scottish womenswear is an 18th century wedding dress worn at the wedding of Isabella MacTavish to Malcolm Fraser in 1785. At one point it was thought this dress was made from a pre-existing plaid however further research and dye testing proved that the cloth could have been created no earlier than 1775. This dress therefore, serves another purpose in questioning the extent to which tartan was woven during the Dress Act following Culloden - regimental tartan was still being created but perhaps more commercially used tartan was in production than was previously accepted.

The cloth for the dress was handwoven and the tartan is of an a-symmetric, very large sett (this means the sett doesn't mirror in every direction, more on this another time). Weavers in different areas had different preferences, and so it is likely whoever wove this cloth incorporated their weaving style into the design. Equally, matching setts are very hard to join successfully in tailored garments and so a non-matching sett was, when the dress was made up, much more easy on the eye if the design went a wee bit off - If you look closely at this garment, the twill directions change when the pattern pieces come together in a bid to recreate the sett as best as possible.

The finish, longevity and vast amounts of red dye used in this garment shows it was an expensive gown for its time. It is likely the cloth wasn't woven specifically for the dress and perhaps started out intended for a feileadh mor (great Kilt). Isabella and her family may have liked the cloth and decided to create something from it. The tartan is widely accepted as a red Fraser tartan. The original dress was on display as part of the 2019 National Museum of Scotland's Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland exhibition and it is certainly beautiful, mesmerising and in stunning condition.

Another beautiful example of women taking on tartan is a surviving gown which belonged to Queen Victoria. The dress dates from between 1835-37 (Queen Victoria became monarch in 1837 so she would have worn this as Princess Victoria of Kent). The tartan is MacDonnell of Glengarry created in a beautiful velvet silk. Although not traditionally what we think of as tartan, this velvet gown in a tartan design is no less a beautiful twist on what it meant to dress as a Scottish lady. Victoria and Albert championed the wearing of tartan during it's romantic hey-day of the 19th century.

I think it's fair to say, although it took a while for women to make tartan their own and forge their own highland dress, it's womenswear that have arguably opened up tartan and kilts to a contemporary audience. Fashion has played a huge roll in this. The work of Alexander McQueen springs straight to mind. His collections showcased tartan on the female form in a powerful and flattering way - this is women's Scottish National Dress, its tartan, its iconic, its powerful in silhouette and structure. While history shows mens highland dress informing women's highland dress, the tables turned in fashion, where McQueen's womenswear informed menswear.

Alexander MacQueen Widows of Culloden 2006 informing a later menswear collection


Right now, in 2020, the high street is full of tartan. It pretty much stays in fashion despite season and year - it's certainly had a very good run the past few years both in mens and womenswear. On a number of occasions, here and Gordon Nicolson Kiltmakers, women from other countries question in disbelief why Scottish men "dress so much better than the women"...from a front line industry perspective, in the past year we have seen the number of women asking for kilts in the same style as a mans (not the billie skirt style) and looking for tartan trews in a traditional fit rise a great deal. The following image is of champion of all things Scottish and a true icon of women showcasing Scottish attire in all it's glory, Solveig wearing Kerr Modern military style trews by Gordon Nicolson Kiltmakers - @solveiginscotland

This shift in what is accepted within the confines of National Dress is extremely exciting. In the 21st century women are staking their claim on these iconic Scottish looks, a nod to tradition but unafraid to put their own contemporary and powerful twist on it.


In terms of the hands behind the kilts...it is primarily and consistently women who make handmade kilts. There is, sadly, some fracturing in this industry in regards to support and co-operation - this is, though, changing, through the camaraderie between students at the Edinburgh Kiltmakers Academy, a growing presence of Kiltmakers on instagram and a general feeling of change brought about by a desire to be respected artisans. What we must remember is each and every kiltmaker worth their salt is a talented and dedicated individual with a passion and skill they have put time into cultivating. We are striving to bring the community, made up primarily of women, together positively. To create a network of women (and men too!) who justly respect each other and also demand respect for their skill.