For any of our blog readers who take an interest in fashion, you will have noted that this season, tartan, checks and plaid are among the key looks for autumn/winter 2013. As with all things fashion, the trend is cyclical; but perhaps one of tartan's finest hours (sartorially speaking) was during the First World War, when Paris fell head over heels in love with the kilted soldiers of the Highland regiments.
The kilt was a subject of fascination among the French, who were unused to the novelty of men in skirts. It helped too that regiments such as the Black Watch had a reputation for hardy bravery. Charles Inman Barnard described troops arriving in Boulogne in August 1914: 'The prettiest girls in every town throw flowers and kisses to these stalwart British lads...Highland regiments wearing the kilt have stupendous success with the blushing young women of France,' while Helen McKie, a staff artist for The Graphic described in the magazine how, 'one highland soldier in a street in Paris...was followed by an admiring little crowd, and people of all classes stopped to shake hands with him, much to his good-natured embarrassment.' Inevitably, the Highlander's kilt proved irresistible to illustrators and cartoonists who plundered its comic and romantic potential. An illustration by Eduardo Matania, published in The Sphere in 1918, shows the arrival of the kilt in Italy caused just as much, if not more, ripples of excitement among the locals!
George Studdy's play on the Greek legend, 'The Judgement of Paris,' (centre above) shows one such bashful French maiden choosing to bestow her favours on the man in the kilt, while Highland uniform featured in what were often rather ribald postcards from the period.
Inevitably, the craze for the kilt filtered down to the ateliers of Paris where couturiers took inspiration from it. Military styles worn by the Allies began to influence women's fashion and as early as their 14 October 1914 issue, The Tatler featured a striking outfit of Celtic-inspired checked or tartan material with a cap and cape by Maison Lewis and Maison Dolnillet (second image below). A number of other flamboyant ensembles influenced by the Highlanders were suggested in various magazines we hold here in the library.
Our final picture here, a photograph of a chic Parisian woman admiring with a wry smile the kilt worn by a soldier from a Highland regiment, sums up the sensation caused by this historic garment, though we can't help thinking that the pair are sharing a little joke. What exactly that joke is, we will leave to your imagination!