The Fashion Legacy of the Highlanders after Waterloo, by Eliza Shearer

The Fashion Legacy of the Highlanders after Waterloo, by Eliza Shearer

I took up my Residence in a romantic Village in the Highlands of Scotland where I have ever since continued, and where I can, uninterrupted by unmeaning Visits, indulge in a melancholy solitude my unceasing Lamentations for the Death of my Father, my Mother, my Husband, and my Freind.

Jane Austen, Letter the 14th in Love and Friendship, part of her Juvenilia

 

Jane Austen never traveled to Scotland, but the country always had a place in her heart. As a teenager she was a great admirer of Mary, Queen of Scots, great-grandniece of Henry VIII. She also shared a romantic fascination for the Scottish Highlands, as can be seen in the Juvenilia excerpt above.

The Rise of the Romantics

The first decades of the 19th century were a time of intense change in Britain. Against the upheaval of the industrial revolution, many yearned for simpler times. Romantics like poet Lord Byron (pictured right) offered exactly that.  

The romantic movement was all about rediscovering wilderness and nature, and reconnecting with raw and authentic emotions. The stars of the show were the power of the natural world and the drama of bravery, heroism and unwavering loyalty. 

The Romance of the Scottish Highlands

The Scotland Highlands had everything to fuel the romantic imagination: rugged and windswept landscapes, dreamy and turreted castles, and to top it off, fearless heroes with long fighting traditions. 

Writers such as Walter Scott were quick to spot this. Already a famous poet, Scott published his novel Waverley anonymously in 1814. A gripping tale of war and love against the dramatic backdrop of a rebellious Scotland, Waverley became a bestseller. 

The Highlanders in Waterloo and Beyond

At the same time, Highland regiments such as the renowned Black Watch distinguished themselves at Waterloo, with accounts of their exploits fuelling their reputation as brave soldiers.

Following the Waterloo campaign, for a few months Paris was occupied by troops from Prussia, Russia, Austria and Britain. They all wore different uniforms, but there was one that caused a particularly great sensation: that of the Highlanders 

As well as their reputation in battle, the Highlanders had the added interest of wearing a very peculiar and immediately recognisable type of dress.

Highlanders and Tartan as Unlikely Fashion Icons 

Kilts were unlike anything else worn by other soldiers, and they became a source of fascination for Parisian women, as this satirical print from The Black Watch Museum attests. 

Print showing Parisian women admiring Highland soldiers in their kilts

The presence of the Highlanders also drove a fashion for tartan, which became a popular choice for gowns, shawls, fans, ribbons and accessories. Tartan was becoming more popular, but after Waterloo it really took off. (Interestingly, the first attempt to codify clan tartans, detailing the colours worn by the different families, dates back to 1815.) 

The trend became established in following decades, with Queen Victoria as a firm devotee. Since then, tartan has come in and out of fashion every few years, and I dare say it will continue to do so for many more. 

 

Have you worn any Scottish-inspired tartan in your life? Perhaps a pleated skirt or a hair ribbon in a Douglas or MacDonald print? I’d love to hear your stories! 

 

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9 Responses to The Fashion Legacy of the Highlanders after Waterloo, by Eliza Shearer

  1. My maiden name was McIntosh and my father was quite proud of his Scottish ancestry. He got my brother, sister and me clothing made of the McIntosh plaid. I remember as a child thinking how itchy that wool was! He also plaid the bagpipes in a Pipe and Drum band. He wore full regalia but I don’t know what family his uniform tartan was associated with.

  2. As a small child one of my favourite skirts was a tartan kilt with a proper pin. It was blue and green with yellow and white as far as I remember. I have no idea of the clan but I loved it.

  3. Until COVID, our community hosted a Highland Games during the first weekend of June. We haven’t had one in several years now. The way things are going, I wonder if we ever will again. Heavy sigh.

    My father’s family name is Wallace and I wear their colors proudly. In fact, 3M uses that tartan as part of its logo. The black and red blocks look pretty sharp.

    Although the movie Braveheart was off somewhat [OK, a lot] historically… you have to admit that Mel Gibson looked terrific in a kilt even if his face was painted blue.

    The main point of interest on my bucket list is a visit to Scotland [Stirling Castle especially]. Oh, when I hear bagpipes, I go weak in the knees. Glasgow KY is a sister city to Glasgow Scotland.

    Thanks for sharing your information with us. This was fascinating. Blessings.

    • I very much hope you will get your Highland Games in KY back (I had no idea – it’s pretty remarkable!) and that you get your wish to visit Stirling Castle in Scotland. I agree, some men look fantastic in a kilt – in this respect I sympathise with the French women who were apparently so taken with the Scottish regiments! So glad you enjoy the post.

  4. My husband’s father is from a wee hamlet in Scotland (now swallowed up by Edinburgh). Sadly, we do not know if their family had a family plaid. However, my mother’s family is McFadyen, and I was told we are part of the Fraser clan. (No… I cannot claim Jamie Fraser *sigh*) I have never felt brave enough to claim/wear their plaid, but it is fun to search your history. Thanks for this fun post.

    • How intriguing… (and the Jamie Fraser bit made me laugh out loud!). If it’s of any consolation, many Scottish men simply pick the tartan they like the most for their kilt. Not all surnames can be linked back to a clan, and in a case or two I know they simply don’t like the colours!

  5. My husband has a kilt and all the accoutrements that he wears on special occasions. The Scottish national kilt registry is fascinating in that it is open to new tartans for communities that don’t have traditional tartans. So there is an official Sikh tartan (pretty colours!), Ukrainian tartan, Jewish tartan, etc. He could wear the MacGillivray if he wanted, but he chose the Jewish tartan for his kilt.

    • That is fascinating! I knew about some of the special tartans, but hadn’t heard of the Sikh or Jewish ones. It just goes to show you, there’s a lot more to tartan than meets the eye – even for an Edinburgh resident like myself! By the way, I’ve just searched the Jewish tartan and it’s gorgeous – what an excellent choice!

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