From the moors of the Scottish Highlands to the street style in the streets of Manhattan, the kilt is taking the world by storm.
Street style As one of the quirkier trends for fall, the kilt is having quite a moment. To what do we owe this Scottish staple’s resurgence? Well, the BBC kicked things off in January by declaring an end to “Scottish Cringe,” the postindustrial sense of inferiority that had long plagued the northern half of the United Kingdom. Those negative feelings were most eloquently summed up by Ewan McGregor’s character in the 1996 cult classic Trainspotting: “It’s shite being Scottish.” At the time, the outlook was pretty bleak: Unemployment was high, and expressions of cultural identity were often met with embarrassment. High School Uniform
Two decades later, Scots are once again embracing their national identity, both at the polls (hello, independence referendum!) and on the runway. The renewed sense of pride and far-reaching influence are particularly palpable on this side of the pond, thanks not only to current fashion (we haven’t been this excited since Marc Jacobs sported pleated plaid), but in large part to the hit TV series Outlander. Baseball Caps For Women
Starz’s atmospheric drama (windswept moors, looming castles, torrid sex scenes) about time-traveling WWII nurse Claire Randall Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) and her hunky Highlander, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), has held the attention of about 5 million Americans per episode. The show, based on the eight-novel series written by PhD ecologist–cum–romance novelist Diana Gabaldon, casts Claire as a feminist heroine and was recently renewed through season four.
For me, though, Outlander’s lure is strictly sartorial. I’m partial to pleats—during years of donning Catholic school uniforms, the biggest fashion decision I had to make was: Knife pleats or box pleats? Navy, khaki, or Black Watch? Forget the show’s thickly accented, hunky men; the real star of this series is the kilt. Call it kismet that Outlander’s success coincides with a crop of Scottish designers who are bringing Caledonian influences back to fashion’s main stage—from Samantha McCoach’s Le Kilt to Scottish model Stella Tennant’s heirloom-worthy collection of cashmere sweaters and tweed skirts for Holland & Holland. Even Alessandro Michele took up the cause by sending highly decorated kilts down the runway for Gucci’s resort 2017 collection, shown at Westminster Abbey in June in an elaborate exercise of that classic British fashion trope: mumsy eccentric. Baseball
A month earlier, during Tartan Week in New York, Saks Fifth Avenue had decorated its parade-facing windows in full Scot style as thousands of Scots and Scotophiles marched and piped their way through Manhattan, led by Heughan. In the crowd was young Scottish designer Siobhan Mackenzie. Upon eyeing Mackenzie’s alternating tartan–and–solid-color kilt (one of her signature designs, £450), a stylish New Yorker approached and “wanted to buy it right off me,” the designer says. Unwilling to disrobe street style on the streets of Midtown, Mackenzie arranged to meet later with the eager customer, who ordered two bespoke kilts.
When I saw Mackenzie in New York, she was quick to point out that a kilt is so much more than just a pleated skirt. Dating to the 16th century, when it was worn by soldiers who needed to be able to move quickly and wade through water with ease, the garment requires some eight yards of tartan fabric (different patterns distinguish between military regiments and clans) and can weigh up to 20 pounds in its traditional form. Mackenzie was inspired to take up kilt design during an internship with a master kiltmaker in her senior year at Manchester Metropolitan University in England. Her own deep Highland roots—her clan, Mackenzie, was an inspiration for Gabaldon’s series and can trace its roots to the 12th century; its seat, Castle Leod in Strathpeffer, was the author’s model for the fictional Castle Leoch—also had something to do with it. She launched her eponymous company, Siobhan Mackenzie Ltd., only five days after graduation with the aim of bringing kilts into the twenty-first century and supporting Scottish industry. She did so by lightening up and using a combination of nontraditional fabrics, such as sequined panels, leather, and ultralight wool for warmer climes. “I needed to understand it inside and out before beginning to tweak the construction,” the designer says. When she suggested I visit her in Scotland to see the castle and surrounding mills, I wasted no time booking my ticket. Baseball Caps For Men
I spent most of the overnight train ride from London to Inverness last May happily dressed in my schoolgirl Barbour jacket and L.L. Bean boots, with my trusty kilt (a surprise from Siobhan) safely tucked away in my carryall. The clash of cultures in the dining car was something to behold: floppy-haired English boys with cut-glass accents heading back to university in Edinburgh, retirees on walking holidays, and a group of 12 rowdy Scotsmen (who depleted the haggis stores within an hour) returning home after a stag party in London. Daybreak revealed a blazing sun and a quiltlike green countryside punctuated by bold yellow patches, thanks to gorse and oilseed in full bloom. It was easy to imagine where the early weavers got their inspiration.
After being greeted at the Inverness train station by Mackenzie and her friend, photographer Tommy Cairns—who, it turns out, is a bit of a Scottish street style star and once modeled for one of the country’s oldest bespoke tailors—we headed to nearby Strathpeffer to be presented to clan chief John Ruaridh Grant Mackenzie, Fifth Earl of Cromartie, and his wife, Eve, Countess of Cromartie, at their home, Castle Leod. Lord Cromartie answered the back door, suited and booted and looking every bit the part in a bespoke Siobhan Mackenzie kilt with alternating panels of Harris tweed and the Mackenzie tartan (£950), complete with sporran (the leather or fur bag traditionally worn by men wearing kilts, which have no pockets) and a lively spaniel at his side.
The red sandstone castle dates to the 15th century and boasts a Spanish chestnut tree planted in 1550 in honor of Mary Queen of Scots’ mother, Mary of Guise; I can see how the majestic surroundings might inspire more than a few intrigues. I headed back to reality with a visit to Johnstons of Elgin, the more than 200-year-old mill that manufactures knits for Hermès and Burberry, with whom Mackenzie is producing a capsule collection. “There is so much craftsmanship and heritage in Scotland,” Mackenzie says. “It’s really exciting to bring it up to date, yet it still has a place as a classic piece in a woman’s wardrobe that can be dressed up or down.”
Royal College of Art grad Samantha McCoach was inspired to rethink the classic as well. The young founder of Le Kilt grew up in Edinburgh watching her grandmother, who has been a traditional kiltmaker for 40 years, expertly pleat and sew the traditional tartan garments. “There were mills and kilt factories everywhere,” McCoach says. “Sadly, many have given way to tourist shops selling cheap kilts made abroad.” Wanting to appropriate the style for her own wardrobe, McCoach decided to punk up the kilt, piecing together a mix of bold tartans. When the requests started flooding in, she launched Le Kilt in 2014, named after a popular tartan-wrapped 1980s-era club in London’s Soho neighborhood that played host to Vivienne Westwood & Co. (around the same time that ELLE was featuring Jean Paul Gaultier’s sporty take on the Scot classic). street style, Shortly thereafter, Dover Street Market came calling, then Harvey Nichols; now McCoach’s London Fashion Week presentations are quite the hot ticket. (You may have spotted her designs on the Duchess of Cambridge.) For fall, McCoach added metal-studded waistbands (£500) and longer styles accented with shearling panels (£460). She’s also introduced “tam tam” hats and her own chunky-soled take on ghillies. McCoach produces only in the U.K., using British fabrics.
Also flying the flag for British textiles are friends Stella Tennant and former fashion editor Isabella Cawdor, who recently took the helm of Holland & Holland as co–creative directors. Though it is now owned by Chanel (as is one of the country’s most esteemed mills, Barrie), the thoroughly British firm has kept the hunting, shooting, and fishing set outfitted in the finest tweeds and handmade rifles since 1835. The duo’s debut collection has brought the aesthetic to town, thanks to the designers having one foot in the fashion world and the other firmly in the moors. Case in point: herringbone pleated culottes (£1,350) that offer the look of a kilt with the ease of trousers. “Everything should have a function,” says Tennant, whose own practical, slightly androgynous personal style has made her a fashion icon. “Holland & Holland aspires to both use and beauty.”
So just what about this traditional street style, history-steeped garment could manage to transcend class, age, gender, and five centuries of history—and attract spike-haired punks, Tilda Swinton, the Prince of Wales, and everyone in between? The kilt is as much a reflection of the dramatic land in which it was born as of the people who wear it: resilient, fiercely independent, and unapologetic, street style. Who wouldn’t want to buy into that?