Originally the preserve of clan chiefs and their retainers, ceremonial Highland dress was regarded as a marker of wealth, power, and sophistication within medieval Gaelic society. By the early eighteenth century, improved travel and commercial ties across Scotland had fostered a general preference for Lowland fashions that transcended geographical and cultural boundaries. Despite this, Highland dress costume remained an important aspect of aristocratic display in the Highlands and spoke to the ingrained warrior traditions of the region.
Our collections contain a rich array of Highland dress costume and tartan fashion from the Georgian era. In the pages below you can explore twelve outfits in detail with 360° spins (available on desktop and coming soon to mobile) and image galleries. They range in date from c.1760 to 1830.
Dr Rosie Waine's book, 'Highland Style', examines the period c.1745 - 1845 and the fashionable origins of modern Highland dress culture. Buy it now from our gift shop.Buy Highland Style
When Highland dress was proscribed in the wake of the last Jacobite Rising of 1745-46, the form, function, and symbolisms of the costume were changed irrevocably. The kilt and plaid were retained for use by Scottish soldiers serving in the British army, effectively transforming what had been a marginalised regional dress into a glorified symbol of the state. The ban on civilian use would not be lifted until 1782.
Inspired by the Romantic movement then gathering apace in Europe, Highland aristocrats, gentlemen and military officers formed a number of lively clubs and societies across Britain, dedicated to preserving the cultural traditions of the Scottish Highlands.
Members of these clubs re-envisioned Highland dress costume for the modern age, but with an eye towards the past. They looked to the material worlds of previous generations for inspiration, incorporating what they observed in surviving objects, portraiture and oral tradition.
The subsequent ‘revival’ of Highland dress at the turn of the 19th century was not without controversy. There was disagreement on what constituted an authentic Highland costume and who had the ancestral right to wear it. What one deemed accurate, others saw as a series of embellishments that wilfully burlesqued the character and habits of a region.
It also proved increasingly difficult to ignore the paradox created by Highland elites outwardly celebrating the clan society of their forefathers, while also enacting schemes of economic and agricultural improvement on their lands that upturned the lives of their tenants. In this fraught context, the elaborate costumes commissioned, worn and promoted by members of Highland clubs and societies during the closing decades of the Georgian era came to represent an uneasy meeting of excess and loss, of material fact and historical fiction.
While many aspects of Highland dress culture were viewed as distinctly Scottish, it was not isolated from the wider landscape of European fashion. Despite its characterisation as ancient by those who sought to preserve and promote its use throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, there was much about the Georgian style of Highland dress that was materially modern.
It was a reactive and highly adaptable mode of ceremonial costume, steadily altered to reflect the cultural preoccupations and sartorial preferences of its wearers. The adaptiveness of Highland dress ensured its survival as a living tradition well beyond the Georgian period, cementing its place within the pantheon of Scotland’s national iconography.
The early 19th century saw an evolution in elite male tailoring. Inspired by archaeological discoveries made in Italy and Greece at the close of the 18th century, British tailors began to cut, piece and manipulate cloth in ways that played with the athletic and statuesque qualities of the human form. In fashionable menswear, inventive shaping techniques were employed to give the illusion of fuller chests, broader shoulders, toned thighs and slim waists.
Woollen fabrics came into favour, as their natural strength and flexibility complemented the vogue for form-fitting garments. The resulting silhouette sought to celebrate a classical ideal of the 'masculine' shape. These changes were reinforced in the pages of professional tailoring manuals and further refined by the invention of the measuring tape. Now a standard piece of equipment, its introduction in the late Georgian period enabled tailors to take swift and accurate measurements of their clients for the first time.
It was during this era of innovation that a more formulaic approach to Highland dress outfitting began to appear. The voluminous swathes of the belted plaid gave way to the structured little kilt. Even as they worked to modernise it, tailors sought to reference the medieval origins of Highland dress by emphasising its status as a regional, martial costume.
They achieved this by incorporating fabrics and motifs that spoke to a romanticised vision of clanship, famously popularised in the early 19th century by the state visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822 and the literary cannon of Sir Walter Scott.
Certain features of cut, construction and accessorising became accepted practice within a relatively short period of time. Family tartans, heraldic buttons and badges, and military embellishments such as bullion ribbon and braiding took centre stage. These elements still lie at the core of how Highland dress is imagined and marketed today.
A piece of ‘fancy’ tartan, c.1790. The pattern uses 8 solid colours to create a busy cloth of 36 interweaving shades (H.TTC 1.1)
A sample of ‘Caledonia’ tartan, c.1822. Collected by the English antiquarian Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick, this patriotic pattern was claimed as the Macpherson clan tartan by the Chief, Duncan Macpherson of Cluny in 1816 (H.TTB 8)
A sample of ‘Abercromby’ tartan, c.1822. Collected by the English antiquarian Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick, it is a commemorative tartan created in honour of General Sir Ralph Abercromby. (H.TTB 8)
A sample of Chisholm clan tartan, from a bound collection of 58 clan setts dating from the early 19th century. Each sample in the volume is edged with silk and meticulously labelled, suggesting it once belonged to a textile merchant or manufacturer (H.TTB 11)
A sample of Buchanan clan tartan, from a bound collection of 58 clan setts dating from the early 19th century. Each sample in the volume is edged with silk and meticulously labelled, suggesting it once belonged to a textile merchant or manufacturer (H.TTB 11)
Beyond the realms of Highland dress tailoring, Scottish tartan emerged as a popular fashion fabric in Georgian Britain. The cloth found its way into a variety of everyday and occasional garments, such as women’s cloaks, gowns and children’s clothing. Initially regarded as the distinctive cloth of the Highlands, by the end of the 18th century it had garnered a reputation as a desirable Scottish product characterised by its multicoloured elegance.
As tartan grew in desirability, weavers took inspiration from the ritualised heraldry practiced by Highlanders in the past to fashion an array of setts assigned to specific clans. With a controversial history now more than 200 years in the making, the extent to which clan tartans can be considered a valid avenue of personal, familial, and national expression remains a source of controversy among contemporary Scots.