As a Scot who once neglected to wear a kilt at a local girl’s wedding, I know from personal experience the emotional power of sartorial nationalism. On being subjected to bitter scorn for rejecting Scotland’s national dress, I had not only betrayed a local tradition but my country’s sense of identity too. Although anyone walking around Scotland today is unlikely to see any men wearing kilts on their way home from Tesco. The Highland veil of tears is nowhere to be seen on the high street and Scottish citizens wear the same jeans, t-shirts and dresses as everyone else.
Germans describe the purpose of clothing as Schutz, Scham and Schmuck – protection, modesty and ornament. Clothes are essentially a non-verbal language and wearing a kilt has always been a clear demonstration of Scottish identity. Ironically there has always been a long tradition of anti-Highland satire throughout Scottish history. Lowland poets such as William Dunbar and Sir Richard Holland caricatured the Highlander as being feckless, violent and stupid, while his costume, the belted plaid (see above) was an object of ridicule. The use of tartan to symbolise a pan-Scottish identity rooted in antiquity still resonates today but it is grossly unrepresentative of everyday life.
As illustrated in Niall Ferguson’s recent televised series Civilisation: Is the West History?, the advent of mass consumption has now consigned traditional dresses to the laundry basket. Previously there had been a spectacular variety of styles all over the world. In 1909 the millionaire French banker, Albert Kahn, set out to create what he called an ‘archive of the planet’. The 72,000 photos he collected reveal an astonishing variety of costumes and fashions.
All over the world it was clear that clothing defined national identity. However, with the rampant power of American consumption leading to an unprecedented convergence of Western fashions, people are simply no longer what they wear. Even some of the most ornamental fashion scenes in London’s trendiest districts are grounded in uniformity.
Anyone walking down Brick Lane on a Sunday afternoon will see thousands of young people listening to lesbian Bulgarian folk music and drinking Chai Lattes. Invariably middle-class and well-educated, the young gentleman on display will be wearing second-hand jeans as oppose to anything on sale in Top Shop. Meanwhile their female counterparts will be snapping up colourful vintage dresses from pop-up shops throughout the city’s alternative style mile.
Seemingly original at first but when thousands of people start re-buying old clothes on a mass scale. Even self-styled individualists begin to look very familiar, especially when they all congregate in the same street. No more so than outside British railway stations, where teenage skate-punks loiter outside in the identikit black uniforms imported on mass from the United States of America.
Superficial groups may appear to diverge away from the majority culture but compared to the astonishing ethnic and regional diversity captured in Albert Kahn photographs. Everyone in the West wears the same uniform cottons on a truly unprecedented scale. Sartorial nationalism still manifests itself in a post-modern fashion, where countries such as Scotland celebrate their national identity by wearing kilts on formal occasions. Uniformity of course provides a feeling of solidarity, which I discovered to my cost when I wore an English tuxedo at a Scottish wedding.