Women Wear the Sash

Most of what gets written concerning Highland attire is geared towards the men. This is just a fact of life. There is nothing that can quite compare with the romance, mystique, tradition, uniqueness and flare of the masculine kilt. The kilt is synonymous in many people’s mind with the traditional Highlander. And then there are all those accessories that go with it, most of which are utterly foreign to typical men’s clothing. We have the sporran, the hose, the garters, the sgian dubh, the kilt pin, the bonnets, the crest badges, the special belts, special jackets, fly plaids, doublets, and on and on. No wonder books have been written about the subject!

But when it comes to the ladies, it seems they don’t get to have near as much fun. Or at least that is one way of looking at it. I like to remind the lassies of their relative freedom when it comes to donning the tartan. They can wear a tartan skirt, if they like. Unlike the men’s kilt, it can be pleated or not. It can be knee length, or any length they like, from micro-mini to full length hostess skirt. Or they can wear a plain skirt, dress, or even pants with a simple tartan sash.

Which usually leads to the next question — how does one wear the sash? My answer is always the same. Wear it however you like, depending upon what looks good with your particular outfit. Now I will admit that my answer has not been the norm for the past several decades. Many would consider it downright heretical!

Let’s examine for a moment the advice given by J. Charles Thompson in the standard reference, So You’re Going to Wear the Kilt. Written originally in 1979, he writes that the Lord Lyon has “recently” adopted this code for women wearing the sash. All women should wear their sash pinned on the right shoulder with the following exceptions. 1) Ladies who are chiefs or chieftains in their own right. 2) The wives of chiefs or chieftains. And 3) women who are married to colonels of Highland regiments. Thompson then goes on to explain the different ways the sash may be draped depending upon whether a woman is married outside of her clan or not, but frankly I’ve always found these instructions too complicated to remember, and unpractical to say the least!

The question at hand is whether or not these restrictions on who may wear the sash on what shoulder are binding at all. It is my assertion that they are not. According to the above instructions, the vast majority of women would wear their sash on the right. However, the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society has always instructed female dancers to wear their sash on the left, and Thompson acknowledges this exception to the rules in his chapter on the subject. The reasoning seems to be that dancers need their right arms more free for movement. My thought is that if dancers can make an exception to the rule for the sake of utility, why not all women?

The Lord Lyon that Thompson makes reference to is most likely Thomas Innes of Learney, who was Lord Lyon from 1945 to 1969. Our present Lord Lyon makes the statement on the Lyon Court web site that there are no strict rules concerning with wearing of tartan. And, as we pointed out in a recent column, the Lord Lyon’s jurisdiction is over heraldry in Scotland, and tartan is not heraldic. Thompson himself even admits in his book that the Lord Lyon’s opinion in this matter is not binding.

My personal theory is that the idea of there being a “proper shoulder” for women to wear the sashes on is a very modern innovation. Here is my logic. For a good part of the twentieth century (and even continuing on today) male Highland attire was thought to be fraught with rules and regulations — shoulds and should nots dictating the “proper” way for a man to wear the kilt. This was by and large a product of the Victorian era, and the adoption of much military fashion in civilian Highland dress.

It is telling that we first start seeing books written on “how to wear the kilt” beginning in the late nineteenth century. Since when has a man needed a book to tell him how to dress? But the wearing of the kilt had grown more complicated. And while many kilt wearers today are freeing themselves of many of these burdensome restrictions, the idea of propriety has a certain attraction.

To put it colloquially, it’s rather “neat.” We only have rules about things that are important, and the notion of a special set of rules for wearing the kilt made the kilt wearer feel that he was really taking part in a very special tradition. It is not surprising, then, that the idea of prescribed rules for wearing the tartan should bleed over into female attire, as well.

But, as with any such made-up rule, one has to ask if it makes sense. And I believe this restriction on how to wear the sash fails the common sense test. For one, it has no historic precedence. It seems to date from the middle of the twentieth century and no earlier. For another, it forces most women, who are right handed, to wear the sash on a shoulder that is not comfortable for them.

When men wear the fly plaid, it is almost always worn pinned at the left shoulder. This is a fashion of function, as most men are right handed, and this leaves the right arm more unencumbered. So why doesn’t the same logic apply to the ladies?

It would seem that it originally did. One of the first references to be found on women wearing the sash is from The Kilt: A Manual of Scottish National Dress, written by Loudon M. Douglas in 1914. He writes, “It is desirable that ladies who wish to encourage the Scottish National Dress should wear sashes of tartan, with evening dress. These should be preferably worn over the left shoulder and fixed by a circular brooch. Other applications of the tartan in connection with ladies’ costume must be left very largely to personal taste.”

And I think it should be left at that. When women ask me whether someone might criticize them for wearing their sash the wrong way, I always ask what boar would dare tell a lady how she ought to dress! Truth be told, at Highland Games and other Scottish events (at least in the American southeast where I live) one sees women wearing their sashes in all manner of ways, depending on personal taste and fashion. And that’s just fine by me!