* United States boys clothes: kilts

United States Boys' Clothes: Kilts

Figure 1.--This American boy is unidentified. This photo came from the Ferry Seed Estate in Detroit Michigan. This photo was most likely taken in Santa Cruz California, the paperwork in the box of photos shows the photos were developed in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Santa Cruz California and dated 1889. It is a rare 19th century snapshot. Most photographs of American boys wearing kilted skirts show them being worn with suit jackets and often vests. This boy perhaps because of the heat is wearing is kilt-skirt with a white blouse. Note that he is wearing long stocking rather than knee socks which were worn with real Higland kilts.

A very popular outfit for younger boys in the late-19th century was the kilt suit. We have created a section on kilt suits and much of the information is about America where the style was most popular. We have a more limited section on American kilt suits. The kilts associated with kilt suits were almost always worn as suits. We note, however, a few images of boys wearing just the kilt skirts without the jacket and just a blouse. Actual Highland kilt outfits were less common, although boys from wealthy families like Franklin Roosevelt might wear them. While Highland outfits were not very common, they were worn. We even note one Highland outfit that one mother seems to have brought home from London, only with knee pants rather than a kilt.


Scotts began coming to the early English colonies from the very beginning. The first English colony was founded in Virginia (1609). That was after the Engkish anf Scottish crown was combined in the person of James I, James VI of cotland (1603). As far as we can tell, the number of Scotts was very limited. This did not begin to cahnge until the Act of Union (1707). But really important number of Scots did not become coming until the defat of the Scottish Army at Culloden (1746) and the beginning of the Higland Clearnces. We do not nelieve that many Scots or their children in America wore kilts to any extent. We need to confirm this, but it is our general impression. Many of the Scotts who came to American were not the afluent classes, but rather the Scotts-Irish fleeing James I supression of the Ulster Plantation and the cotts fleeing the Clearances. This was a very anti-English immigrant group. And they would play a very imprtant role in the Revolution. Given that they came to Ameica with limited resources, actually many a indentured servants, fashion was not high on their agenda. And vthey gravitated to backwood areas, often seeking land. Images were much more limited in the 17th, 18th, and early-19th century before the advent of photography (1839). This changed at mid-century with theadvent of photography. We see some limited Scottish influence in the 1840s, but much more in the 1850s. As far as we can tell, the Scottish influences are the fashion impact of Queen Victoria dressing the prince in kilts and nit the impact of the Scottish ethnic population in America.

Types of Kilt and Kilt-like Garments

The kilt is a fairly simle garment. We note mothers in the 19th century, however, turning it into a wide range of different garments. Some had little connection with a kilt other than both were skited garments, but American mothers seemed to prefer to call them kilts because the kilt was a male garment. We are not sure just for whom this was a selling point. We don't think that mothers had to be convinced. And except for boys nearing school age or begnning school, it probably was not an issue. Perhaps it was useful for the fathers who may not have been as enthusiastic about delaying breeching. The standard Highland kilt seems to be the least common of the various permutations and the only one not worn with long stockings. The most common was the kilt suit which in many cases seems to be more of a skirt suit although as far as I know was never called this in advertising for boys. We also notice boys waring the kilts without the jackets during the summer. While they may have been called kilts, many if not most look more like skirts. This included both plaid and pleated skirts. A further complication is jacketed dress. Some of these look rather like kilt suits. It is not always posible to destinguish the two in a photograph. The various kilt outfits were all boys' outfits. Girls wore similar garments, except for Highland kilts, but they were never called kilts. Only in the 20th century did this change to a limited extent.

Destinguishing Kilts and Skirts

Many American mothers simply created plaid skirts for their sons kilt suits. A kilt, however, is not the same as a skirt, although admittedly the difference is not clearly established. A British reader writes, "There is no simple way, without resort to artificial or social conventions, in which the kilt can be clearly defined and easily differentiate from a skirt. Quite a range of garments can be refeered to as a kilt. Tghe two words are often used to destinguish a male or female garment, but this does no provide any charaacteristic features. For HBC we see skirt as the generic term for the bottom part of a dress or a garment worn without a bodice and hung from the waist. Younger girls might wear susper skirts as younger boys wear suspender shorts. The skirt is a continuous garment in which the front and sides are identical. It can be made pleated, partially pleatted, or unpleated. We see skirt as a generic term for all kinds of skirted garments garments hung from the waist. The kilt is a specialized type of skirt. Unlike skirts, kilts are always pleated or partially pleated. And they are made as a kind of wrap-around garment, rather than a continuous sewed together skirt. The front of the kilt is often done differently than a skirt. A common convention is to create an unplleated pannel in the front.

Confusing Outfits

Our analysis of boys' clothing attempts to delineate desrite stuyles so they can be studied. Actual garments are not always destinctly styled. In fact we find garments that are a bit of a muddled, combining features of different styles. Here kilt outfits can be confusxing. The kilt suit which was popular for several decades seems to be a case in point. There were dresses made to look like kilt suits. We see all kinds of jackets and blouses worn with them as well as a variety of kilt-skirts. Many skirts had no kilt styling while some to futher confuse the sitiation had mock kilt styling.

Ethnic Clothing

We also note some American boys wearing kilts as part of ethnic outfits and ethnic dancing outfits. This was most common with children of Irish and Scottish ancestry. Greek children also wore kilt outfits. This seems to have been a elatively minor phenomenon. We do note Scottish kilts in the 19th century. This was probably because on the 19th century, Scottish immigrants were the most established of these groups. In addition, Queen Victoria had helped to populsrize the Scottish kilt by dressing the prionces in them. This lent the Scottish kilt a trendous fashion cachet. Most of the Irish and Greek kilts we note seem more of a 20th century phenomenon, primarily after Worlld War II when second anf third generation immigrants families began to look back at their immigrant roots.


The black and white photography of the day provides few clues as to the colors of these kilts and kilt-like garments. The Scottish kilt was usually done in plaid, some times bright plaids, as many as these garmrnts were. Kilt suits were, however, done in either muted plaids or solid colors. And we are not sure just what these colors were. One source of information is tinted photograophs, but few studios would take the time to tint plaids nor was it even possible with abny degree of accuracy. We do have vintage clothing hich provides us some information. We note a kilt suit done in medium blue. And we hve found a Fauntleroy kilt-skirt done in red with other plaid colors.

Scottish Styles

The Scotts are one of many ethnic groups that are woven deep into the bulding of America. The original settlers were primarily English, but by the 18th century we begin to ee the Scotts (including the Scotts Irish) coming in large numbers, especially given the reltively small Scottish popultion. The Scotts-Irish in the back country played a crucial role in the Revolution. As far as we know, the Scotts never dressed to any extenbt in Scotts fashions like kilts. Here are informtion is limited, but we have not noted Scotts style in the 18th century and early-19th century. After supressing the Scotts including even the kilt, the British monarchy as a result of Queen Victoria's fascination with all things Scottish helped introduc Scottish styles in children's fashions. This began by dressing the young princes in Highland kilts (1830s). We are not sure just when Scottish styles made the transition to America. Interestingly, photography appeared at about the same time that Victoria dressed Prince Bertie in Scottish kilts. We do not see mamy American boys wearing Scottish styles in the early photographic record -- Daguerreotypes (1840s-50s) or Ambrotypes (1855-early60s). We see a few American children wearing Scottish styles, but a first the number was small and seems to be limited to affluent families which were the families most connected to fashion trends which at the time came primarily from Europe. Actual Scottish ancestry does not seem to have been an important factor. We do begin to see Scottish styles with the introductiion of albumen prints (CDVs and cabinet cards) which quickly reolaced the earlier formts (1860s). While kilts are the best known Scottish garment, there were other Scottish garments like caps (Balmorals and Glengarys) and items in plaid like vests. Higland styles never became very important. What did become important was the kilt suit. Much later plaid skirts becanme a classic girls' item.


Almost all of our umages with boys wearing skirted garments are studio portraits. As a result, we do not have very much information about actual usage. We do not know what bioys wore for everyday or around the house. The studio portraits are presumably a good indication as to what boys wore wore when they were dressed up for formal occassion. And this mean a good deal more time than is the case today. Formnality was much more prevalent in the 19th and early-20th centuries than is common today. Until after World War I we so not begin to see the begonning of informality in dress. This covers the entire period in which kilt and kilt-like garments were commonly worn by boys. There was a concession for younger boys in that they were allowed to wear blouses without jackets in warm weather, a touch of informality. While virtually this entire period occurred after the development of photography, there was a short window when family snapshots appeared abnd before kilts and kilt suits finally disappeared for boys--1900-05. The Kodak Brownie appeared in 1900 and was soon followed by similar systems. Thus instead of a few scattered snapshots in the 1890s, we suddenly have a deluge of family snapshots beginning in the 1900s providing more intimate scenes of family life. Kilt suits by this time had declined substantially in popularity, but still existed. Thus we do not see nearly as much of them as we would have seen in the 1890s, but still there are images providing valuable insights.


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Created: 2:52 AM 12/30/2004
Last updated: 12:46 AM 6/1/2019