Dressing for a Scottish formal has changed since the traditional days of swords, dirks and hunting horns. These days, dressing for a Scottish formal has become much more simplified. While the tartan still plays a large role in men's evening dress, decorations are subtler (and far less dangerous) than the classic weapons once worn to Scottish balls. Ladies' evening dress traditionally simply represented the fashion of the time, though in recent years women, too, have started to embrace the symbols of their Scottish heritage.
Find a kilt, perhaps the most important item of Scottish formal dress for men. The kilt may be made of any tartan and often represents the man's clan. There are no real formal tartans, with the formality of the tartan determined by the rest of the man's outfit. A good quality kilt is important, as this dress wear is also functional. Dances like the Highland fling, common at some Scottish formal events, require a good kilt in order for the men to participate.
Choose an appropriate dress jacket. For most formal occasions, this means the Prince Charlie, a black formal jacket with tails, a short front and silver buttons for decoration. The Prince Charlie may be worn for events from a wedding to a night at the theatre. For more casual events, you may opt for the Argyle jacket, a single breasted dress jacket with more of a sport's coat cut. For very formal events (white tie or perhaps if you are the groom at a wedding), you may choose the Montrose Doublet, a double-breasted black jacket that ends at the waist, worn with a belt and usually a lace jabot (piece of lace that falls from the neckline) and a plaid on the shoulder. Another very formal jacket is the Sheriffmuir, a short jacket with flaps (Inverness Flaps) extending from the sides that does not button in front and is also worn with a lace jabot and often a vest.
Find an appropriate sporran. A sporran is the term for the pouch worn around the waist over the front panel of the kilt. Fur sporrans are most appropriate for formal events and should have a cantle top made of chrome or silver, rather than a more casual flap closure. Leather sporrans are also acceptable, though you should stick to black leather.
Select your hose and shoes. For formal events, Argyle hose matching your tartan is ideal. If you do not have Argyle, choose a solid colour that complements a dominant colour in your tartan. Avoid white, as many do not think white hose is appropriate for formal wear. Any black leather dress shoe is acceptable, though gillie brogues and buckle brogues are usually the shoes of choice.
Pick your accessories. While you are now properly dressed for any Scottish formal, many men like to add certain accessories to their basic formal attire. These may include a Glengarry or Balmoral cap (though these should not be worn to any formal event indoors), a plaid, a lace jabot, a sgian dubh and various medals. A plaid, made in the same tartan as the kilt, is common for men to sport over their formal jacket. This is usually draped over one shoulder and wrapped around the waist but may also hang from the shoulders at the back of formal attire. The plaid is quite formal and hot and constricting to wear so may not be comfortable for certain occasions. The lace jabot, as previously discussed, suits certain very formal jackets and is really only suitable for white tie occasions. The sgian dubh, or black knife, is a common ceremonial weapon, tucked into the right kilt hose with just the shaft showing. The sgian dubh has replaced the dirk as ceremonial weapon of choice. Medallions, especially those representing family honour and history, are acceptable to wear on the breast to a Scottish formal.
Choose a dress. For formal occasions, women have many options. You may simply choose an evening dress in fashion at the moment or you may have a dress made out of a particular tartan. Only in recent years have women participated in the wearing of the tartan and, like men, often choose a tartan with some clan significance. If you choose a tartan dress, you need not wear a tartan sash.
Select a sash. This step is optional and only applies to those not already wearing a tartan gown. Many women wish to represent their own Scottish heritage through the tartan sash, worn from the shoulder and wrapped around the waist. This may also be done with a tartan brooch. Many women furthermore select the same tartan as their dates, so that they may complement each other at formal occasions.
An alternative to the tartan dress or evening gown is the kilted tartan skirt, worn with a blouse or sweater. This is acceptable for semi-formal occasions but can look to casual for an event like a ball. The kilted skirt is worn mid-calf, often with a kilt pin. Sporrans are never worn by women.
Scottish formal wear can be very expensive. If you cannot afford to buy both casual and formal sets of Scottish attire, opt for the more formal set, as you can always dress down Scottish wear with, for example, a sweater instead of a dress jacket.
Always check the dress code of the formal event to determine if it is black tie or white tie. White tie events are more formal and you should dress accordingly.
Tips and warnings
- Scottish formal wear can be very expensive. If you cannot afford to buy both casual and formal sets of Scottish attire, opt for the more formal set, as you can always dress down Scottish wear with, for example, a sweater instead of a dress jacket.
- Always check the dress code of the formal event to determine if it is black tie or white tie. White tie events are more formal and you should dress accordingly.