Kilt Jackets – A History and Guide Part I

Highland wear, unlike many other forms of national dress and traditional costume, has evolved with the times — it is a true wardrobe and system of dress. Two factors inform this evolution. First, we are a stubborn and somewhat romantic lot, so we like to hang on to old-time fashions and decoration. This is why Highland dress has a “timeless” feel to it. Second, our fashions have long been intermingled with military clothing. Quite obviously, this is due to the proud Scottish tradition of warriorship and Scotland’s long history of military service to the British empire. Our genius lies in taking the best of whatever might be fashionable at the time and blending it with the tartan kilt — the immortal garment of our kin. Outer upper body garments — jackets, vests and the like — have always been the most changeable. We have toyed and tinkered with them constantly and this is why today we have some of the greatest variety and style in menswear. It’s also why it is so damned confusing. This is the first of a two-part article to help break it all down for you.



First came the “doublet”, which is actually an ancient term dating back to the 16th century, at least. Below is a typical 17th-century doublet as worn throughout Europe. At first glance, it may seem far removed from what we think of as a doublet today; usually a pipe band uniform. But the doublets of King James I’s time left us certain elements — the “tashes” (also called tassets or Inverness flaps) and the shoulder decoration, which would evolve into the “shells” or “wings” on military doublets. In non-Highland dress, the doublet would diminish over time and become the waistcoat. Overcoats worn over the doublet would slowly morph into suit coats. In the picture on the right, we see a slashed doublet — a fashion made popular by Louis XIV. it didn’t last too long. Do note the lace on the outfit. Lace cuffs and neck wear (“jabots”) were popular throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and were retained for formal wear in the 19th. Scotland is the hold-out. Even today we sometimes still wear lace cuffs and the jabot for formal attire (see Montrose jackets in Part II).


 On the left  we see two typical 18th century doublets. Note that the red one on the left has epaulettes – a military convention for wearing the baldric (sword hanger). In the center, we see a common suit jacket of the 18th century rendered in a Scottish style. Later on, this highland wear fashion would become known as a “Highland Jacket”. It was a more “civilian” or gentlemanly look of the period, especially when made from tartan as in this portrait of John Murray, 4th Earl Dunmore (1765). Clearly, the more “military” doublet was a more practical fit when worn with the copious fabric of a Great Kilt, or any kilt for that matter. It’s easy to see why shorter jackets have been generally preferred while longer designs have fallen by the wayside.


The 18th-century military “coatee” shown on the right would later be the inspiration for the civilian Prince Charlie Coatee (See Part II).

And to the far right, you see good old Ben Franklin. Why? To reinforce a point about gauntlet cuffs. Gauntlet cuffs, as we see on our modern doublets and “Argyll” jackets, began as an 18th-century suit jacket fashion found all over Europe. Like many other aspects of Highland ornamentation, it is arguable that if these had not been retained by the British military, beyond their civilian popularity, they would not have been retained by the Scots.



 As with so many other aspects of Scottish dress, the 19th century saw the greatest level of development in jackets thanks to the Victorian passion for all things Scottish and the steady growth of Scottish national pride. Highland dress took on more modern stylings and was rounded out as a system for Victorian gentlemen. Various “new” renditions of layered garments evolved for different situations; day wear, hunting and sporting, formal evening dress.  A wide variety of elements were incorporated from past centuries and military dress. And yet the main goal was, as is is the case now, to adapt contemporary garment types to work well with the timeless kilt. Many of these fashions have since become conventional; more or less set in stone as “bog standard” wear.


 One obvious example of a hold-over from the 18th century was the so-called “Highland Jacket” which was cut long, single-breasted with no lapels and a row of six or more buttons. It did not remain popular into the 20th century, however. And in fact the gentleman pictured here is not even Scottish, but Frederick III of Germany (the boy is the future Kaiser Wilhelm).

Victorian civilians wore both doublets and ordinary “sack jackets” with their kilts. Sack jackets, as seen below, were a less formal suit jacket type universal to the period ( as opposed to the long frock coat used by professional classes like lawyers). Our modern business suit jackets evolved out of it.  Sack jackets were particularly common for sporting activities held at one’s “Country place” like hunting or hiking. The simplicity, coverage, and comfort made them an easy option and to the upper classes who had to wear more formal gear in the city, tweed sack jackets felt less stuffy.  Their length varied, but generally became shorter over the years.




 Very quickly, a hybrid of the sack jacket and the traditional doublet developed and became a standard. This is the origin of both the tweed and barathea-wool jackets we commonly refer to as “Argyll style” today. They could be made for use as day wear or evening wear. True doublets of various sorts were still worn, but were increasingly thought of only as formal evening highland wear.



 Simultaneously, uniform doublets of the Scottish units of the British army continued to evolve. Below: Trumpeter John Rennie, 72nd Highlanders (1856), Highland regiment rifleman (1860s or 70s) , piper of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (1899).

Clearly the roots of Scottish highland dress run very deep indeed. And perhaps we can thank the Victorians most for providing us with a wide variety of options for every occasion. In the next segment, we will cover the evolution of 20th century formal dress and go over contemporary fashion options.

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