Traditional Scottish Dresses for Women

Written by wendie pecharsky
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From the late medieval period onward, women in Scotland wore fashions very similar to those that were being worn by their neighbours in England, France and elsewhere in Europe. The one distinguishing characteristic of Scottish women's traditional dress is the long, floor-length rectangular piece of fabric they wore as a hooded cloak.

The Dress

Working class women would wear a simple white shift that doubled as a nightgown underneath a set of stays. Over these she would wear a solid, striped or printed petticoat and a long-sleeved garment, such as a day jacket or a short gown. Sleeves were billowy and gathered at the wrist.

The Arisaid

Usually white with a few bright lines or stripes on it, the arisaid (pronounced air-i-sayed) was a cloak made of undyed wool (dyeing of wool was an expensive process usually reserved for men's kilts). It would be gathered into folds, fixed around the waist with a belt, wrapped over a woman's shoulders and secured over her chest with a brooch of silver, brass or copper. Enough material was left to form a hood that could be pulled over the head in cool or wet weather. Warm and comfortable, the arisaid was perfect for wrapping babies against their mother's body. A tartan shawl called a tonnae was often worn over the top of the arisaid. Later the arisaid evolved into a gathered skirt with a separate plaide (Gaelic for "blanket").

The Bodice

The bodice began as a functional support garment worn on the outside of the clothing. Later it morphed into a vest-type garment usually made of dark velvet.

Head Coverings

Appropriate head coverings were required of all women, except for the young and unmarried. One popular head covering was the kertch, a square headscarf made of white linen or cotton that was folded into a triangle and then rolled into a thick band and pinned into the hair to keep it in place. Unmarried women wore what called a snood, which is a length of ribbon that passed under the girl's hair at the back of her head and tied in a bow on top. More fashionable women might have worn a frilled bonnet called a mutch.

Leg and Foot Coverings

In the 18th century, Highland women wore leather or wooden shoes with long, sometimes pleated stockings (called osain) and garters. Many of them went barefoot and turned to gillies (tongueless flat lace-up shoes) when the weather turned cool. It was common for women to only wear shoes to church, putting them on at the door so they would not be damaged by the elements.

Fun Facts

The kertch, a square headscarf, was donned by a woman on the morning after her marriage as a sign she was "taken." The square was arranged into a triangle, a symbol of the holy trinity, which was believed to govern the young woman's behaviour.

In the late 1500s, the wearing of plaid by Scotswomen was forbidden by the English, as it was said to represent a person of loose morals.

In the early to mid-1600s, the church of Scotland ordered women not to cover their heads with their arisaids because many would sleep through the sermons hidden beneath them.

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