Clothing of the Ancient Celts;Myths and Tips

A couple of popular myths about Celtic costuming that trip up reenactors

Myth: The Kilt was worn by the Ancient Celts

Actually, the kilt, in the form of the breacan feile, or belted plaid, seems to have come along around 1550 to 1600 AD. Previously, the Gaels of Scotland, like the Irish, wore a linen or wool tunic (leine) and a large cloak (brat). For more information on the development of the kilt, see Scottish Clothing, ca. 1100 - 1800 AD. The modern kilt seems to have been invented around 1745 or so. There are several stories as to who invented it. One is that a blacksmith had his tailor cut off the 'top' part of the breacan feile, and stitch the pleats into the kilt, as a way to make a less cumbersome garment; the other is that a factory owner wanted a less cumbersome or voluminous garment for his workers, and asked a tailor to make up a smaller kilt. Personally, I prefer the former. Moreover, McClintock says that some nobles had the pleats sewn into their belted plaids, for greater ease in putting them on every day; it is a simple step to cutting off the cloth above the waist and using the remainder as the feileadh beag (small kilt). There are several 'reconstructions' of a man's garment based on a piece of cloth from about 750 BC that supposedly consists of a piece of cloth wrapped and tied around the waist, and attached with straps over the shoulders; however, the piece of cloth this is based on is actually too small to substantiate this reconstruction. So, there is no early sarong-style Irish 'kilt'.

Myth: The word 'Kilt' comes from 'Celt'

The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word kilt comes from Middle English, and is probably of Scandinavian origin, probably from the Danish word kilte, meaning 'to tuck up.' The term kilt is a Scots term (Scots is an English dialect), not the Gaelic term for the belted plaid. The Gaelic term for a kilt is breacan feile for the belted plaid, or feileadh beag for the modern kilt. (Breacan means 'the tartan cloth'; feileadh means 'wrap', and beag means small. McClintock, p. 37.)

Myth: The term 'Tartan' comes from 'Tartar', and tartan cloth was introduced by trade with the Tartars / The ancient Celts didn't have Tartan. OR -- the Ancient Celts lived in China.

The word 'tartan' comes from the French word tiretaine, which probably refers to linsey-woolsey cloth. This is the word that English writers used to refer to the Scottish cloth. The Gaelic word for tartan is breacan (variegated). The Celts have worn many-colored and checked fabrics from time immemorial (as did some of the surrounding cultures). Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, is described as having worn a gown of many colors, and checkered cloth has been found in the Salzburg salt mines (which the Celts mined for salt). The recent find of the Mummies of Urumchi has stirred up a lot of interest about the tartan-style materials found in some of the graves. Unfortunately, this has led to some speculation that the mummies are the remnants of a long-lost Celtic tribe. This is NOT the case -- the mummies are mostly members of a group called the Tocharians, which split off from the core Indo-European language group at about the same time the Celts did, so they retained some characteristics (linguistic and textile) similar to those retained by the Celts. However, the language they spoke was not Celtic. Other Indo-European groups such as the Scythians (who also were not Celts) wore checked fabrics that might be called tartans; and a garment called the Thorsberg Mantle has been found in the Baltic region which has a blue-and-white check -- but it was made by Teutonic/Nordic people, not Celts. So the very idea of tartan or checked cloth is not unique to the Celts; the Celts simply took the idea and carried it down to modern times, whereas other groups either stopped using it (presumably other Indo-European groups like the Greeks and Romans, who split off the core group much later than the Tocharians and Celts) or didn't have it to begin with. Some checked fabrics have also been found in South America, but that doesn't mean that the Mayans were Celts, either. It's a simple matter to have two colors in the warp of a fabric, then put two colors in the weft, and wind up with checks -- then to elaborate on that idea. It stands to reason that this type of textile would arise in various places at different times.

Myth: Everybody in Ancient Times wore drab colors

Actually, the very poor often did wear clothes dyed in colors that were easy to obtain and easy to keep clean; but natural sources for colorful dyes were readily available for the taking. Colors were very popular and widely used. See Dyes for more information. A note of caution, though: one of the worst things I've seen was a leine in a very bright canary-yellow cotton. The color is all wrong; only an aniline dye can make a yellow so obviously unnatural. For a better idea of what shades are available using natural dyes, check out a book on the subject in your local public library. Lastly, the Romans noted the Celts' fondness for brightly colored clothing.

Myth: The medieval Irish leine's sleeve had to have been pleated or gathered to accomodate the huge amount of fabric used.

The historical costuming list has had a lot of discussion over the years about the construction of the late-period Irish leine. The general consensus is that the sleeve is neither pleated nor has a drawstring along the top -- it's shaped more like the long sleeve of a Japanese kimono, but more rounded at the lower end. The practice of either sewing in pleats or a drawstring comes from an attempt a few decades ago to figure out how to incorporate 6 or more yards of material into the leine. However, given that the material used was probably only about 30 inches wide -- well, that makes a big difference in construction. You could easily use two yards of 30" wide fabric in each sleeve, and another three to four yards in the body of the garment, and not have an overwhelmingly large garment. Moreover, only the very wealthy would have been able to afford lots and lots of extra fabric in their leine. See the last illustration on this page for a good look at the sleeve of a poor man's leine -- it clearly isn't as full as some of the other sleeves on this page, and is shoved up a bit at the elbow.

Other Tips:

DON'T use buttons if your persona is prior to about 1300. They weren't introduced into England prior to that; and I'm still tracking down a date for their introduction into Ireland. DO use brooches, toggles, ties and lacing to close garments and attach items. (It's easier than stitching buttonholes, anyway.) DON'T use polyester/synthetic materials, especially if you're going to be out in hot weather and/or near any kind of flame, even if it's just a candle. DO use natural fibers like wool, linen and cotton. Natural fibers 'breathe' better in hot weather, and they don't stick to your skin if you accidentally catch your garb on fire (polyester does stick to the skin, and can result in much worse burns). Real wool doesn't burn as quickly as linen or cotton; it smoulders first, which gives you time to notice that something's amiss and remedy the situation. A wool/poly blend may be ok, since the wool content might retard the burning tendencies of the polyester, but burn a swatch to see what it does if you're unsure. Cotton wasn't introduced to Europe until the Middle Ages, and even so was horrendously expensive until the invention of the Cotton Gin in the 19th century made the cotton fiber process cheaper, so it isn't quite 'period' for early Celtic, but it has the advantage of being inexpensive, so you can work out the details of your costume before making a final version in more expensive wool and linen. You can also find cotton/linen blends, which will pass for linen (well, they drape slightly differently) but cost less. Real linen costs more than cotton, but worth it if you've got a pattern that works well for you, since it wicks moisture away from the body better and wears a lot better over the long term than cotton does, and gets more comfortable the more you wear it. A cotton garment will wear out in just a few seasons of moderate use.

Other Pet Peeves:

That under-boob bodice that lots of people wear -- it's WRONG. Nobody was wearing a bodice like that until the Victorian era, when people started coming up with all kinds of folk-costumes that had tenuous connections at best with what people wore in the past. The only bodice that went under the bust is the type worn by Flemish working women in the 15th century over their woolen kirtles -- which gave them enough structure and bust support that their breasts weren't exposed. If you want to look like a fantasy wench, fine, but it's neither authentic nor attractive. It's 'Keltic,' not 'Seltic', dammit! The Celtics (with an 's' sound at the front) are a basketball team. The Celts (with a 'k' sound at the front) would have pronounced it as a hard 'c'. Copyright Notice: The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies. Clothing of the Ancient Celts - Copyright 1997, M. E. Riley and 2002, Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved.

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