Most of us first realise we need a kilt for some special occasion, such as a wedding. And this thought is quickly followed by a second question… whether to hire one for the day, or buy your own. I thought it might be helpful to share a few considerations, to help your decision. So here are a few points to ponder:
- Outfit Choice
Price - will it cost more to buy or hire a kilt?
I’ll come to this first, as it’s probably your first thought. And your instinct is probably that hiring will be cheaper than buying your own kilt. After all, a made to measure garment using eight yards or more of high quality woven wool fabric (provided you get it from a reputable producer) is not exactly an impulse purchase for most of us.
But pause to reflect for a moment. After all, even kilt hire is not exactly cheap. The kilt hire outlets have to hold large stocks which can only realistically be sent out a limited number of times before they get too shabby to market. And once you add on the costs of fitting and service, plus cleaning costs (hopefully… see below!) the saving is less than you might think.
But more importantly, it’s important here to think long-term. The exact differential will depend on many things, but as a rule of thumb if you’re likely to want to wear a kilt more than three or four times in your life, it’s probably going to be a good investment to buy your own.
Fit - will your kilt look good on you?
As we’ve already said, mostly you’re going to be wearing your kilt on special occasions when you really want to look your best. And it’s important to understand that a kilt should really always be made to measure garment - this matters much more than, say, for a business suit. A custom-fitted kilt should fit you like a glove, designed to hang from your waist, over your hips, down to your knees - with measurements to the nearest inch, or even half inch. First time wearers describe the feeling in glowing terms that they’ve never experienced before. But the garment will also look far more impressive than anything in stock sizes.
Of course, the kilt rental companies can’t possibly stock (or have available at busy times) a full range of sizes… that would mean holding thousands of items, when they can realistically usually have a few dozen at best. So their solution is to keep just a few mid-range items, with large increments (e.g. 2-3 inches) at every turn. Hire kilts tend to be made with longer straps, to suit the needs of the hirer rather than the customer, which inevitably mean the kilt won’t hang quite right. And if you’re outsize (or they’re out of stock of ‘your’ size at a busy time) you may well end up being told to accept ‘strap extenders’ which only make it look even worse.
And please don’t start me on the off-the-shelf “kilts” you’ll find on ebay or from the ‘tartan tat’ merchants that target tourists. These are really more like cheaply made ladies’ skirts. And trust me, you don’t want to turn up to a wedding or graduation wearing one of these!
Tartan - your own family plaid?
The Scottish tradition is of course to wear your own tartan. This may mean a family or clan tartan, of which there are thousands of names recorded (or, of course, you can design your own tartan!). But equally it can show an affiliation to any group with which you identify - so there are regimental tartans, regional, national, and city tartans, business tartans, and so on. The important thing is that it’s meaningful to you.
Of course the hire companies can stock only a tiny range of tartans, or else they’d need a stock room the size of a stadium. So you’ll normally find, oh, Black Watch… and Royal Stewart… maybe a Buchanan… and if you’re lucky one or two more. The result is that you’re likely not only to turn up wearing the same tartan as other guests who hired from the same place. You’ll also miss out on the tradition and inner pride of wearing your own unique heritage. And you’ll lose the fantastic conversation-starter that a kilt in your own tartan instantly becomes.
And it’s not just the choice of tartan pattern that you don’t get from kilt hire outlets. You’ll normally find their rental garments are available only in the coarser heavier weight fabrics. There’s a good reason for this. They’re more durable, and so can go through more hire cycles. But customers who purchase their own kilts mostly prefer a medium weight fabric that’s less tiring to wear. So this may not be ideal for you, especially if you’re going to be dancing at a hot wedding reception!
Hygiene - who last wore that kilt, and has it been cleaned?
Until recently, in my naivety, I myself had assumed that the kilt hire companies would always dry clean their kilts before renting them out to another customer. Well, wouldn’t you? But then I read this article. If you skip past the tiresomely pompous opinions about how you should be allowed to wear your own kilt, there’s a rather startling admission below from a Scottish hire company that kilts can come back “too unhygienic for staff to handle”. And to me this reads as saying that if the visible residue isn’t so bad, they may send the next customer out in the same garment without cleaning!
Now, maybe this doesn’t trouble you one bit. But bear in mind that quite a large proportion of kilt wearers DO prefer to ‘go commando’. Maybe for you this doesn’t conjure up unsettling images of nasty wee beasties crawling around inside, patiently awaiting the proximity of the next punter’s privates. But for me? Ewww!
Outfit - your choice, or theirs?
A kilt isn’t (usually!) worn on its own, of course, but as part of an outfit. Exactly how you put together your ensemble will depend on the occasion it’s for (formal, casual, etc.) on the impression you wish to make (restrained, impressive, etc.) on any affiliations (e.g. clan accessories) and not least on your personal taste. A full outfit can include up to a dozen or so components, including major items such as a jacket and vest, down to small accessories like the kilt pin and sgian dubh. There are a fantastic range of styles and finishes for each of these pieces, ranging from traditionally conservative to strikingly contemporary.
The advantage of owning your own kilt is that you can build up your own outfit, exactly as you want. And what’s more, by introducing additional items at relatively low cost (another more formal dress sporran, for example, you can assemble a great choice of items to ring the changes from your original daywear sporran perhaps) to give yourself a wardrobe suitable for every occasion or mood.
When you hire, unfortunately, you’re pretty much stuck with the standard pieces they’ve chosen for you. And these will almost always be most common denominator options that fewest people will find objectionable, rather than those that are particularly striking or attractive. You may even be stuck with taking (and paying for) items you don’t actually want or need, but come as part of your hire company’s standard package. Oh, and the hose will almost always be those awful white ‘single use’ hire socks, which both look and feel about as good as they sound. So if all this happens to reflect your personal taste, and the way you’d actually wish to present yourself in public, then you’re pretty lucky.
Expertise - sound advice, based on experience?
If you shop with a kilt specialist dedicated to traditional quality, like Scotweb, you’re getting not just a garment, but access to decades of specialist knowledge, experience, and advice. In fact any authentic traditional kiltmaker has most probably got into that business in the first place due to some personal enthusiasm for the traditions, and so will probably be committed to helping you take your own first steps on that wonderful journey of discovery. They’ll want to help you discover your roots, choose the right tartan with which to express your own identity, find the right fabrics and other outfit components to suit you both practically and in terms of the impression you want to make, and ensure it fits you perfectly… and so on. They have little vested interest in whether you choose one tartan or another. And crucially they’ve probably been doing this for years, and so will have built up a great deal of experience which they can share with you.
But frankly kilt hire companies have never had to do all this. Their job is ultimately to maximise the usage of their stock, to get an adequate return on their capital outlay. Let me put this simply. Who would you trust more for the best advice?
Legacy - an heirloom, to hand down?
This may or may not matter to you, especially if you’re relatively young. But it’s long been part of the Scottish tradition that a kilt is quite unlike any other garment. It’s a possession of the family, as much as of the individual. And many is the young man who takes tremendous pride in wearing a kilt that once belonged to his father, or even grandfather. And this is also a fact to ponder for those who fear that as their waistline advances together with their years, the range of adjustment that comes with any kilt may exceed its limits.
Wouldn’t you like to have something so meaningful to bequeath to your heirs, encouraging them to discover their heritage and traditions in the same way that you yourself once did? And even if such considerations seem far over the horizon, just consider that one day you might be glad to have such a wonderful gift to pass down, lurking at the back of your wardrobe. So at least give this some thought, before you reach a decision.
Credibility, and self-respect - how do you want to look?
Again, this may or may not matter to you. But it seems to me that a major factor in why so many of choose to wear a kilt is because of the paricular prestige that such a striking garment bestows on its wearer. Whether you’re going to at a gathering surrounded by others in their own kilts, or whether you’ve chosen to stand out from the identikit suits worn by the rest, there’s just something incomparably impressive about wearing your own kilt, in your own tartan.
Will a hired kilt in a standard off-the-shelf package in one of the ubiquitous tartans that don’t quite fit (which anyone with an experienced eye will instantly recognise as a hire garment) stand you in such good stead? Does this matter to you? Quite simply, that’s for you to decide.
Pleasure - that intangible feeling
I’ve left this one until last. But, as the saying goes, it’s certainly not least. My problem is that until you’ve actually worn a kilt made especially for you, in your own measurements, in your own tartan, it’s practically impossible to describe the inner glow you’ll feel every time you do so. All I can suggest is that you ask around, of others who’ve already made that choice. I’ll wager you’ll find few of them who regret their decision, whether its days or decades since they made their purchase. That, perhaps, tells you all you need to know.
Okay, I admit it, I’m biased. I don’t expect to convince every potential kilt hire customer that they really need to spend several times more for a purchase that’s probably their largest ever outlay on a single garment. But I hope I’ve given you a few points to ponder before reaching your decision. Always remember the adage about those who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. Sometimes it’s worth thinking of the bigger picture.
And I can promise you, if you do decide to buy rather than hire, the process of choosing your kilt and outfit will be one of the most interesting and enjoyable experiences for a long time. And the day your first kilt arrives from the kiltmaker, ready for you to unpack and put on, will be an occasion you remember forever. So take a moment to ask yourself now… how much are such memories worth to you?