Today, August 5th, is National Underwear Day, so proclaimed, apparently, by Freshpair.com, an online retailer of intimate apparel. This is the ninth year for the sort-of holiday, and Freshpair is celebrating by giving away 5,000 pairs of underwear. (Go ahead and enter — you have nothing to lose but your nakedness.)
The concept of underwear brings to mind a mind-boggling array of potential historical topics. There’s the history of underwear itself, and how it’s changed through the ages. There’s the study of loincloths, brassieres, and hosiery. There’s the fascinating world of codpieces. (Did you know Henry VIII started the custom of padding one’s codpiece? The padding may have been medicated, it seems.) There are hoop skirts, crinolines, bustles, and farthingales. There’s the story of the feminist Amelia Bloomer, and her eponymously named garment. Union suits and long johns (named after the boxer John L. Sullivan). The Temple Garments of the Mormons. And how about those chastity belts?
In the end, I decided to concentrate on a topic that has fascinated womankind for ages. What does a Scotsman wear under his kilt?
Before we can answer the underwear question, we need to examine the history of the kilt itself. It really doesn’t go back as far as you might think. It first appeared at about the end of the 16th century, and not in the form we think of when we think of kilts today.
The first kilt was known as the Breacan an Fheilidh (the “belted plaid”) or the Feilidh Mor (the “great plaid”). It evolved from an earlier form of woolen cloak that had been worn by the Celts as far back as Roman times.
The Great Plaid was a large rectangular piece of woven wool. It could be as wide as 60 inches, and as long as nine yards. The lower portion of the fabric was gathered up into pleats and fastened with a leather belt. The upper portion could be thrown over the shoulder or shoulders to form a cloak, or brought all the way over the head in inclement weather. At night it could be used as a blanket for sleeping on the ground. In cold weather the wool could be dampened, to keep out the wind.
Under the plaid, the Scot would wear a leine, a long sleeved tunic, usually of linen or canvas. (Linen was, at times, cheap to obtain from nearby Ireland.) The leine was sometimes soaked in goose grease to keep make it waterproof. In times of battle, the Scotsman would remove his plaid and fight in his tunic.
Somewhere around 1720, the modern kilt came into existence. Its invention is usually credited to Thomas Rawlinson, a Quaker from Lancashire who owned a charcoal business. He was looking for a garment that his Scottish workers could wear while cutting wood in the forest. He asked his tailor to invent a more practical form of clothing, and the tailor responded by cutting the plaid in two. The modern kilt was born.
It would take more than the charcoal works to make the kilt truly fashionable, however. That was the work of King George II, who enacted the Dress Act in 1746, prohibiting the wearing of Highland dress. The law was a response to the Jacobite Uprisings, a series of attempt to restore the Stuart kings to the thrones of England and Scotland. Those found wearing Highland garb could be sentenced to a prison term of six months for a first attempt, and seven years’ transportation for a second. The only exception to the ban against Highland dress was for use in the military.
Naturally, Scottish dress became a popular form of rebellion against authority, and the Highlands acquired a romantic aura throughout the country. After the ban was repealed in 1782, all of Scotland was enamored of Scottish “traditions”. Some of these traditions were brand-new, such as specially designed garments for the Lowlanders, and the identification of certain tartans with specific clans. Before this, tartans were associated with particular regions.
As I mentioned earlier, the military had been given an exemption to the Dress Act. After the Jacobite Uprisings, several Highland regiments had been set up, in part in an attempt to give the Highlanders a constructive outlet for their energies. The regiments were permitted to choose their own dress uniforms, and they selected the kilt. Different regiments were given different tartans, as a means of identification.
The kilt continues as a part of the Highland military uniform today. As recently as World War I, troops wore the kilt in battle. During World War II, it was decided that they were impractical for action, although there was a case of a Highland piper — in kilt — piping on the battlefield on D-Day.
All this brings us to the question of what should be worn under the kilt. It’s generally said that a “True Scotsman” is one who wears nothing at all under it. In fact, this was formerly a military regulation. As recently as the 1960’s some sergeants would inspect the troops by walking the ranks holding a cane with a small mirror attached, to make sure the men were in a state of regulation undress.
It’s not quite clear where this tradition came from. Some claim it’s derived from the Scottish regiments’ need to be ready for anything — whether it be dysentery or an opportunity for fornication.
Today, at least, there is no official policy regarding the wearing of underwear by Scottish military units. Nevertheless, the terms “going regimental,” “military practice,” and “True Scotsman” are all expressive of traditional military dress.
Participation in Highland Dance is another story. The Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing requires underwear of both male and female dancers. It should be dark or color coordinated with the kilt, they say, but never white.
The Scottish Tartans Authority, a group dedicated to keeping the public informed about all things Tartan, has come out squarely in favor of wearing underwear under your kilt. According to them, it constitutes “good common sense.”
McCall’s Highlandwear, one of the foremost providers of rental Scotswear, became concerned about the increasingly filthy condition in which their kilts were being returned. Since 2004 they have, as part of the rental agreement, required renters to wear underwear. But then, you’d really want to with a rental — wouldn’t you?
Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_5; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underwear; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kilt; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_kilt; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_Scotsman; “When a blue moon has more to do with the wind-chill factor,” The Sunday Herald, January 14, 2001; “Scots tradition hit by cover-up warning,” The Times, August 2, 2004; Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing, sobhd.com; “Draft guidance: a kilt needed underwear,” The Telegraph, August 5, 2011; http://albanach.org/articles.html?http%3A//albanach.org/kilt.html; http://www.scottish-history.com/kilt.shtml; http://www.kilts-n-stuff.com/celtic-history/great-kilt-history.html; http://www.your-kilt.com/history-of-scottish-kilts.html; http://www.siliconglen.com/Scotland/12_3.html; http://www.scottish-wedding-dreams.com/kilt-history.html.