A World of Color: Gems, Jewels, Treasure & a Great Big Plaid Brooch
Embracing Color in Scotland’s Era of Empire
Color has always played a tremendous role in traditional Celtic dress and has continued to play a tremendous role in traditional Scottish dress to this day. Tartan, after all, is practically synonymous with Scotland. (So ubiquitous in fact that some Scots feel tartan has just gotten too touristy…)
We think of Scottish style as being rooted firmly in the past. And, in fact, the Kilt is one of the oldest forms of “folk dress” worn in the British Isles. And as for tartan? Well… the historical evidence is scattered but tartan, or a tartan-like material dates back at least to the time of the first Ceasars… and may pre-date written history in the West. When the Celts were the dominant tribe of Central Europe, tartan was their cloak of choice.
However, despite the ancient roots of Scottish Tartanwear, today “traditional” Scottish dress is very much rooted in the formal world of the Victorian era. The sewn-down pleats of the modern Kilt, the form-fitting men’s jackets, even the hard-soled Ghillie Brogues and quasi-military style hats still worn today, were all fashion innovations of the 19th century.
We think today of the 19th century as somehow more black and white than our own age, a murky mix of sepia and silver tones, dominated by stern men in stovepipe hats and a Queen in perpetual mourning. But the 19th century was, in fact, an extraordinarily colorful era and an era when color would play more of a role in men’s dress than it has at any time since.
But the ladies weren’t alone in a world of forgotten color. The men of the 19th century –particularly the Scottish men of the 19th century– also lived in a world of color. And their, ahem, jewelry –Plaid Brooches, cufflinks, Belt Buckles, and other “furnishings”– was of a scale and style that seems startling in our far more conservative twenty-first century.
Many of the “furnishings” a gentleman might have worn for a formal event in the 1870s has fallen far out of fashion. But for formal Scottish events the “furnishings” of the 19th century are still very much en vogue. And no piece of “furniture” is more necessary or more iconic for a kilted man at a formal event than a formal Plaid Brooch.
By the mid 19th century “Scottish Dress” or, as it was known at the time, “Highland Wear” had become Victorian-ized. In fact most of the modern rules of Scottish dress were enshrined during the Scottish Revival of the 19th century. For the well-to-do the Victorian age was an era of codified dress. Formal wear, Morning wear, Sports wear, Evening and, eventually, white tie and black tie.
Among the elite the old Highland habit of simply wearing one’s “best” for an event disappeared. The new codification of Highlandwear in the Victorian age coincided with the continued expansion of the industrial revolution –which helped to commercialize dress and accessories in a way that had never been possible before– and the expansion of Victoria’s Empire. For the Scots, in particular, the Empire provided a chance to re-assert their Scottish identity.
Service in the new “Highland” Regiments provided the Scots with a way to reclaim their warrior identity after the collapse of the Jacobite cause. It also gave many Scots a path back to prosperity and respectability. The sons and grandsons of the Scots who fought at Culloden who joined the King’s –and then the Queen’s– Regiments had an opportunity to earn the Crown’s trust and, perhaps, regain lands and titles lost in the aftermath of the Culloden defeat.
And, as the 1850s progressed and well-to-do Englishmen and women traveled north to enjoy their Highland vacations, many Highlanders travelled overseas to battle for the fast expanding Empire.
Fairly early in the 19th century the Scots adopted the idea that for “dress wear” or “evening wear” a Plaid Brooch with a stone –real, fake or obviously glass– was the must have accessory. But… as the century changed and the Scots became far more worldly –in fact many Scottish military families would traverse the globe in the 19th century– the gems that were incorporated in a Scottish gentleman’s “furnishings” evolved and became far more exotic.
The Scots had always loved color. And in the 19th century a world of gems opened up to them. The 19th century Scottish Revival coincided with the rise of the British Empire and the era of the Raj and some of the best Scottish-made jewelry of the 19th century features Indian Rubies, Sri Lankan Moonstones & Burmese Jade.
To modern eyes the colors used in 19th century Scottish dress often seem hopelessly garish, unnervingly gaudy. (The well dressed Scottish man of the 1850s was as liable to pair his kilt with a form fitting silk tartan jacket and a velvet cape as he was to don the now traditional black wool.)
Fakes –or man made stones– also found a place in Victorian era Scottish jewelry. For modern shoppers trying to find an “authentic” stone can be a bewildering experience. In many ways we have a far too narrow view of Victorian fashion and a far too narrow view of what is and is not authentic. The 19th century Scots were not constrained by the conviction that they had to wear an authentically “Scottish” stones. They were authentic Scots –who in their own way were recreating what it meant to be Scottish in an era of industrialization, war and Clearance. Thus we recommend in the twenty-first century to shake free the rules we have imposed on ourselves, remember that although all of our photographs of our great grandparents may be in black and white that those people, our ancestors, lived in color. And thus we recommend that when shopping for a Plaid Brooch to remember the world of color of the ancient Celts, the world of color of the Victorians, and the world of color of our own age.