It’s a kilt Jim, but not as we know it

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When you put on a kilt you are making a statement: creating an identity for yourself, or at the very least – like to believe you look smart in it no matter what age you are. I interviewed Scotland’s most radical kilt designer, Howie Nicholsby, to get his take on the Highland dress of the past, present and future.

•Howie Nicholsby, pictured centre, at Edinburgh Castle wearing a Country tweed jacket and brown leather kilt Photo: Malcolm Webster

By John Slavin, Piping Today #41, 2009

I met Howie in his shop just behind the hustle of Edinburgh’s Princes Street, in a little area of calm.  On approaching the 21st Century Kilts shop I was reminded of a designer clothes boutique as it just oozed quality.  Inside the impression continued with racks of garments in various textures and warm muted colours made from the finest tweeds and wools. 

Howie was on the phone, so I had time to take in the celebrities on the walls, the Mario Testino fashion shoot photos from the Vman magazine, and a poster of Vin Diesel wearing Howie’s personal leather kilt when he presented the MTV awards.  Howie was dressed in one of his signature kilts complete with pockets front and back, kilt socks pushed down around his leather boots, and a brown short sleeve shirt combined with functional looking leather strap across his back which hung at either side of his arms.

We took a seat in a wee snug, strewn with tweed and tartan cushions, which I guess is used for relaxing his customers with a glass of something, and Howie sat down with a big bundle of kilt socks which he constantly paired throughout our interview.

Howie started in the family business of Geoffrey (Tailor) when he was 18 and marketing and PR was the direction in which he was heading.  As he was going to be working in the kilt industry he wanted to know how a kilt was made.   So he decided to experiment, which led him to a real labour of love and he ended up with a proper high-waisted, hand-sewn, eight-yard PVC kilt.  “I still want a kilt to be able to be called a kilt,” said Howie.  “A lot of my early kilts, including the first camouflaged ones, were eight-yard, hand-stitched kilts.  Though most people looking to buy a camouflage kilt are not looking for it to be hand-stitched or eight yards. But they are made in Scotland, six yards, and will last 15 to 20 years even with very regular wear. 

“For me it is about making the kilt a realistic piece of clothing and not a joke.  The kilt has become so popular that people have seen a gap in the market to sell a £50 kilt, and the people who are buying them, like football fans or even guys buying them for one wear at a wedding, should know better — they look a mess.  They are making the kilt a novelty garment, and young guys, tourists or people with Scottish roots looking into Scotland to buy a kilt are seeing these cheap kilts and are being put off.  

“I wanted to be at the higher end of the market, using Harris tweeds, really nice silks, and good quality plain wools that would normally be used for Prince Charlie or tweed jackets.  I then came up with the concept of the kilt suit which took away all the restrictions of kilt wearing: got to wear a sporran; socks need to be at a certain height, got to wear a belt if not wearing a waistcoat — and it is more like you were just wearing a pair of trousers or a suit.  It is formal and edgy, but based on the masculine side of kilt wear.

Photos: Shaune McLauchlan

“Everyone who comes to me for a kilt also gets a kilt pin and a pair of chunky socks.  I am a big believer that a kilt pin on the front right side creates a comfortable feeling that it is a kilt.  With a kilt pin and chunky socks you are ready to wear it anywhere in the world, it is all about looking strong and masculine. I like to think that everyone who comes to my shop for a kilt can leave the shop wearing it, regardless of the footwear they have on — a pair of scrunched down chunky socks, a kilt pin that looks a bit like a weapon, pockets on the kilt — and you don’t even need a sporran.”

Howie does stock some nice sporrans made by Sporran Nation in Inverness, but they do look very funky and I doubt you would get away with wearing one at the Northern Meeting.  

Apart from the chunky socks and kilt pin, the one other aspect that Howie has taken from traditional Highland dress is the short-cut jackets.  “Although my kilt suit jacket looks like a normal suit jacket, it is much shorter cut like an Argyll, so it shows off the back of the kilt.  I do get customers who want to wear a normal suit jacket with a 21st Century kilt and it just makes the kilt look too short and kills the look.”

Howie now wears a kilt every day, and he has grown into that mindset over the last nine years.  “I have a pair of combat shorts that I wear if I’m doing the recycling or other rough work.  Most nights when I get home dressed like this, I just lounge about the couch in my kilt till I get to bed. All the kilts that I wear have outside detachable front pockets.  My kilt range now comes as standard with two back pockets and an inside pocket — even the tartan kilts — and there is also the option to have the detachable front pockets.

“When you buy a traditional tartan hand-sewn kilt from me it is not just for wearing with a Charlie or an Argyll, it should be able to be worn casually with a denim jacket, t-shirt, chunky socks and boots — and you have pockets for your wallet and mobile.  Even if you do have a sporran on, you don’t want to fill it with too much or it will wear away at your kilt. I don’t really want to sell a Prince Charlie outfit, I don’t like shiny buttons and I hate white socks.

I’d love to start a campaign, ‘Burn All White Socks’ — even with pipe band uniforms.

“I’d love to start a campaign, ‘Burn All White Socks’ — even with pipe band uniforms.  It was established in the 70s and 80s, when all pipe bands wore white socks and it was perceived as being really smart and uniformed, but it was the 70s and 80s and no one really had that much taste… No, I’m teasing, I’m teasing!  When kilt rental became really popular in the 80s the ‘shortbread’ image had already been established, and the kilt hire companies, including my mum and dad chucked in white socks with every outfit.  It never made sense to me, as you were wearing a pure white shirt with cream socks and something was always wrong with it. If you look back to Victorian times when Highland dress was avant-garde and only really for lairds and lords the socks were green, blue or black for during the day, and if you were wearing the kilt formally the etiquette was for tartan hose.

“I’m a big campaigner that your sock colour should match your jacket — you wouldn’t wear white socks with a black suit.  If your socks and jacket match it balances your outfit and makes it look more masculine. To me, white socks belong on a shortbread tin and they make the whole outfit look top heavy.

“Shirt colour for pipe band competition, or even a wedding day, should be white or cream with a nice tie that tones with the tartan.  This will help bring out your skin colour for photos and is much more formal and smart.  The length of sleeve, I would say, depends on the weather, and if I was buying shirts for a pipe band I would get short and long sleeve for practicality.  Though on a hot sweaty day I kinda like a sleeve to just ‘go for it’ (as he wipes his brow with his arm) and I do prefer a smart rolled-up sleeve rather than an actual short sleeve.

Socks being worn too high is another problem you often see with pipers, and within the kilt hire industry

“Socks being worn too high is another problem you often see with pipers, and within the kilt hire industry.  Too many guys wear their socks pulled right up to the bottom of the knee the way a footballer would wear their socks.  The sock should really be framing the calf about three fingers width down from the knee, so you are showing a good bit of leg.  Then, if your kilt drops slightly when you are marching you still have a bit of leg showing.

“Belts with waistcoats is another faux-pas, as is cravat ruche ties.  If you are wearing formal Highland dress and the waistcoat is fitted correctly then you will only see a tiny bit of the belt.  Plus, if you are piping in Glasgow in August and are getting all hot and sweaty, a belt is just going to add more weight to carry.  Etiquette is all about practicalities, and if you are wearing a waistcoat the belt becomes null and void.  Ruche ties are English morning-wear mixed with Highland dress and I hate it.  English morning-wear is very wide: top hat; wide leg trouser; long jacket and the ruche tie gets lost in it all — and it’s nice. What you are trying to do with Highland dress is to get your body to go V-shaped then out again with a quite a solid base.  If you fill it up with a big, fancy ruche tie it starts to get top heavy and brings you down the wrong way. Ruche ties are really naff, even when piping at weddings.

“What I find now with Highland dress, is a lot of people who take it a bit too seriously and sit on forums discussing the proper way to wear a kilt, and they research it all and become experts without actually buying and wearing it.  It is a piece of clothing that is meant to be worn,” added Howie.

“The Norwegians claim original ownership of the kilt, but I think it has more of a Danish origin, as the word ‘kilt’ translates from Danish, or old Norse, meaning ‘to tuck or pleat’ and the word ‘tartan’ comes from old French ‘tertaine’ meaning ‘woollen cloth’.  So all these cultures have had a hand in the evolution of the kilt, and I see myself as part of the evolution — radical evolutionist is what I would call myself.  Radical by taking it back to its original roots, but evolving it to modern everyday life.  It is all to do with life concepts, I’m not just selling kilts, it is a lifestyle choice by saying ‘I want to wear something different as a man, and I don’t care what anyone says — and I don’t care if I’m Scottish or not’.  For most of my customers, or at least foreign customers, it is not about Scottish identity. They just think Scotland does this well and they want to wear something different.”

Just then we were interrupted by a friend of Howie’s coming into the shop to see if he was ready for lunch. “How long are we going to be John, 10 minutes?” asked Howie, “I’ll give you a buzz Ken, I’m ready for a wee… break”.  With that, I finished off the interview, thanked Howie very much for his time, and let him get across the road to the Thistle Street Bar. Pairing socks is obviously thirsty work.