Originally Published August 8 2001.
Author: Ceilidh Lerwick
Celtic Clothing Part 3
The following is the third article in a series about Celtic clothing. The term “Celtic Clothing” is as broad a statement as “American Clothing” or any other culture for that matter. If you were to look at what you are wearing right now and then compare it to what a person in your situation would have worn 100 years ago or 500 years ago, the differences would most likely out number the similarities. There are also regional variations that can throw a wrench in the works as well (like how a Texas rancher would dress vs. a $500/hour NY City Attorney). Please keep in mind that is published in this newsletter is correct to the best of my knowledge. I try very hard to be accurate and true and to specify when it is my opinion and when it isn’t.
Similarities Between Historic Celtic Dress and Asian Styles
To recap the last newsletter, the Celts were fierce warriors and among their favorite spots to raid was Greece. The first known raid on Greece is in 279BC, but Celtic burial sites have revealed Greek treasures that date earlier than 500BC. The earliest known clothing of the Celts dates to about 500BC and has been described as modified versions of the Greek.
There are also some amazing similarities between Celtic dress and Asian styles, specifically Japanese, and also some interesting archeological finds proving at least a potential link between the Ancient Oriental and Ancient Celt.
Unfortunately the biggest deterrent to discovering the history of the Celts, any history of the Celts, is their oral and not written tradition, coupled with their lack of pictorial evidence; i.e., no statues or drawings of people. Barring the few mummified corpses that have been dug out of bogs, the only evidence we have for Celtic history, especially clothing, is taken from other cultures. These cultures were mainly Anglo and British-who were not really interesting in separating Scots from Welsh and Irish from Gauls, not to mention the lack of importance for them to really get to know their neighbors. There was not much tolerance among the Conquering Brits, nor was there a real love for the people.
And so, we are left with a very vague picture of what these ancient Celts looked like. We are also left with the idea that a Celt was a Celt and they all looked alike. This is a generally accepted idea but one which I personally have hard time accepting. Why you may ask?
Just look at the world around you today. Look at what people wear just in your own city based on their income, heritage, part of the city they live in, affiliations, and personal taste. When I was in High School we moved from Minneapolis to a small town in South Dakota, just 5 hours away. The basic style of Blue Jeans and a T-shirt still held true, but there were definitely differences-and this was just 5 hours away by car!
The ancient Celts are believed to have come from Asia Minor and spread themselves out to populate pretty much all of Europe and the British Isles. This is an area over 3,750,000 square miles! Today we have powerful connections to almost everywhere else in this world, and still clothing styles are different, even from one part of a city to another. With that in mind I have a hard time believing that, in ancient times, with not even a quarter of the connections to other parts of the world, that everyone would still dress the same-even if they were all Celts.
So, with this in mind, we enter back into the topic of Kilts (from Article 1) and specifically the Irish Kilt.
The basic theory of the kilt is that until the late 16th Century AD, the Scots and Irish dressed the same-in a liene (shirt) and trubhs (pants) and a brat (cloak) which were optional. Then someone in the Highlands of Scotland got it in their head that if they used more wool in their brat it would keep them warmer, and if the brat were pleated it would be less cumbersome to wear than just wrapping it around his body several times. And so the first kilt, or Great Kilt (Fileadh Mhor) was born.
First let me remind you of my previous doubts that the Irish and Scots dressed the same to begin with. Similar, yes; same, no.
Secondly let me remind you of a note in a previous article concerning the verb “to kilt”. To kilt merely means to pleat, and usually the kind of pleating seen in most modern kilts, knife pleating, and not the box pleats.
And so, to the Irish Kilt: The subject of the Irish Kilt is a bit volatile. For some reason scholars and others wish the concept of a kilt to be Scottish and Scottish alone. While I do not wish to take a point of pride away from the Scots, I think there is enough evidence to support at least a crude version of the modern kilt in ancient Irish history.
In Celtic societies much of their clothing was pleated. This was a status symbol. The more fabric involved in the garment, the more wealthy/powerful the person was. The leine, which we discussed in the second article in this series, was heavily pleated around the neck and often worn with a tight fitting vest or jerkin over it. This would definitely produce a fully pleated skirt like look, not at all unlike a modern man in kilt and Prince Charlie Jacket.
There is also some record, although hard to verify, of the men wearing a pleated skirt like garment over their trubhs, but this had gone out of fashion in Ireland by the time the first Great Kilt was donned in Scotland.
And so, we are able to form an equally possible theory as to the development of the modern Kilt. The Celts pretty much kilted everything and especially their main garment, the leine. Wearing a “skirt” or “dress” was commonplace to them. When the Irish Celts moved into Scotland they, of course, took this knowledge and fashion with them. Fashions stayed similar between the Scots and Irish, but not the same, each borrowing from the other and from the contacts that they gained in their unique situations.
The modern Scottish Kilt developed when some Highland Scot decided to kilt the brat instead of just the leine. Interesting to note here is that originally the main garment, the leine, was pleated; all other garments were optional. Soon this new pleated brat became the main garment; all other clothing being optional.
The mainstream historians and scholars would have you believe that the Scottish Kilt is a new invention, never before seen among the Celts and certainly not among the Irish; mainly because there were no belted brats in Ireland. It is the belting of the Brat that constitutes the beginnings of the modern Kilt, or so the scholars and historians say.
Take the following points already outlined in this article:
1-Pleating (kilting) and belting the main garment was traditional for hundreds of years. The Highland Kilt wearing Scots merely used their brat as the main garment. You could almost say, based on construction, that the Great Kilt is merely a leine without any sewing involved.
2-A Celtic man, any Celtic man including Irish, wearing a “skirt” was the norm until the late 16th to early 17th Centuries, when the Scots started belting their cloaks and the Irish started wearing pants and smaller, less full shirts on a regular basis. In fact a man in a leine and a jerkin looks much like a man in a kilt and jacket.
It is my opinion that the Modern Kilt, stemming from the fileadh mhor or Great Kilt, is really just a development of the leine or kilting in general and not a “new fashion” that suddenly appeared in Scotland. I would say that this mainline theory about the beginnings of the modern kilt are correct, to the extent that, if you choose to mark the belting of the brat as the instigating moment, then that point seems to be as good as any. However, I personally only see this as a turning point, and not an initial point.
If you would like more information on the topics covered in this issue, please see the following sites: