Scottish Women’s Plaids
The classic picture of Scottish women’s fashions is with a bit of tartan pinned to the woman’s shoulder. But according to Terry Griest, in his book Scottish Tartans and Family Names, tartan, and the wearing of plaids was out of fashion in the large cities of Scotland by the early 1600’s, especially for women. (Plaid, pronounced “plade” as used here was a Gaelic word for “blanket,” as opposed to its English usage as a checked or tartan pattern.) In fact, by 1631 Edinburgh, and other cities passed increasingly stringent laws against women wearing plaids. Edinburgh’s law made it punishable by a fine of five pounds (Scots) and the loss of the garment. By 1633 a new act required corporal punishment for any offending women wearing plaids over their heads.
According to Griest, these plaids in question were made of wool, and woven various colors and designs -striped, tartan, and even plain. Such plaids were still worn by the poorest class of townswomen, and by rural and poor Highland women. These mean garments were similar to a rough blanket that was arranged around the shoulders, and over the head. He suggests that it was the sometimes a poor woman’s only garment, and it often had to further serve as night clothing and bedding. In the countryside, this may have been acceptable attire; but when these poor women had to come into the cities, they faced harassment and disgrace due to their clothing, or lack of it. This makes a certain amount of sense, since it is said that the poorest men in the Highlands were sometimes clothed in nothing but a belted-plaid/ great kilt, and perhaps a shirt under it.
We can easily see how wearing nothing but a blanket might be unacceptable city wear, but I suspect that is not what the laws referred to. I have wondered if these restrictions may have been the result of a puritanical streak that may have disapproved of brighter colored, or tartan plaids used as outer wraps, and preferred a more somber colors. Even if Griest was talking about women wearing little more than a plaid, I would still suspect that these laws probably pertained to women who were wearing a just a plaid over a chemise, or shift with no overskirt and/or no bodice, as opposed to being naked under a plaid. Surely a rough, homespun chemise would not be beyond the means of anyone but the most destitute.
In any case, these laws suggest a distinction in women’s clothing that reflects a societal, or class difference. A countrywoman might be seen wearing her simple plaid as a shawl, or outer wrap, whereas the women in the towns were more likely to be wearing a more tailored cloak, or cape. Just as upper class townsmen and Lowlanders generally did not wear the kilt (except when roughing it or hunting in the Highlands) these laws suggest that upper class, or city women may have avoided wearing plaids, or arasaids so they would not be associated with their poorer country cousins.
For historical re-enactors, this is the sort of small detail that can be used in educational ways to teach the public about the periods portrayed at Renaissance fairs, or re-enactments, and can temper the stereotypes of Scottish traditional dress. An example of a brief educational moment in front of the public might include a wealthy Scotswoman who is wearing a plaid on a cool, or rainy day explaining that she’s embarrassed at wearing “just a rough plaid like a Highland peasant, but my cloak was stolen…” Or, from the other end of society, a poor, Highland lass could be accused of putting on airs (or arrested for stealing) when she wears a cape, or cloak instead of the rough plaid that was more within her reach. (I’ll leave it to your imaginations if there is a connection between the two women.)
For a few contemporary quotes describing Scottish men’s and women’s clothing see this website: http://historicgames.com/Scottishstuff/scotsattire.html
For interesting information dispelling myths about Scottish and Irish historical attire see: http://reconstructinghistory.com
See the selection of sashes, shawls and arasaids in the “Ladies’ Wear” area of the Celtic Croft.