A fly plaid was originally part of the large piece of cloth called The Great Plaid (Féileadh Mòr). The roots of that garment reach Roman times, and the most “archaic” version was the tunic and a cloak (a “brat”) worn by Celtic warriors. Later on, when wool was more accessible, the cloak grew in size (up to 9 yards!) and became gathered up, belted and finally pleated. The additional length made it possible to drape it over a shoulder and use it as a kind of a shawl and hood. It could also be used even as a camping blanket – the size didn’t only indicate the wealth of the wearer, it also enabled multi-functionality. As centuries passed, The Great Plaid eventually lost its practicality, got smaller again and took shape of the small kilt – the fèileadh beag – with the fly plaid evolving into the separate garment that we know today. However, one of the most troubling questions is: when to actually wear it?
The opinions differ. First, you must learn how to wear a fly plaid! It’s not only about draping it correctly and being careful with the pins – you should develop an actual “sense of flying”, as the name of this cloth wasn’t given without a reason. Certainly you wouldn’t like to knock all the glasses from a table with one clumsy move, would you? Let’s just say that wearing a fly plaid requires a certain amount of skill, and you simply have to get used to having it on. Try to practice where to pin it – if it’s not done properly, you’ll be forced to fiddle with it all evening, which is both annoying for you and inelegant. You may use a sizeable pin or run it through an epaulette if you have one to make sure the fly plaid is secured and always in place. You may also try pinning it to the waist or tucking it into the belt at the back to prevent it from whipping around, tangling or becoming a menace to unattended stemware!
The next consideration is the dress code for particular events. One of the most popular comments on this issue is that a fly plaid is suitable for the so called “black/white tie events” – the most formal and elegant ones. A fly plaid is a popular choice to finish off the Scottish outfit at your own wedding – undoubtedly a groom is one of the two most important people on that day and a fly plaid won’t be regarded as over the top. But remember that for daytime weddings it is advised that only the groom can pull this look off – even the best man should wear something more modest. During other events it is advised to be careful – it’s easy to have an “exaggerated” or old-fashioned look. If you’re going to attend some kind of an official celebration, perhaps contacting the organisers with a question about the expected attire would be a wise move. This is the case especially if you are not a central figure during the actual event (coming back to the wedding issues, it would be a serious faux-pas to sartorially outshine the groom). You may hear the opinion that the fly plaid is much too formal by contemporary standards unless royalty or the Nobel Prize Awards is involved, or even that the fly plaid looks a bit like a costume accessory of the idealised Scottish outfit. Regardless of these opinions though, the fly plaid is a well-established part of Highland clothing, and you must judge for yourself the appropriateness of wearing it in any given situation.
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And what is our advice on what not to do with a fly plaid? It certainly is not frequently seen as an everyday garment. If you’re wearing a casual kilt it will look bizarre to pin a large tartan cloth to your shirt, not to mention it will probably be extremely uncomfortable! Remember that casual kilts have been designed to make them easier to wear, they are tailored with less fabric and therefore are lighter – there is no point in ignoring their design and pairing them with inappropriately formal accessories! There is also a dispute over if the fly plaid is acceptable when not kilted, but simply worn as an accessory with trews. Some have given it a try, but others regard it as too extravagant and associate the fly plaid with proper Highland kilt outfits only. There are certainly differences between fly plaid etiquette in the UK and the USA; Americans are likely to wear it to events that Brits would view as too informal for that type of attire.
The discussion over whether to wear a brooch is also lively. As wearing a brooch is very popular in the States, it has grown in popularity in Europe. However, in more traditional circles it is sometimes regarded as suitable only for the ultimate formal occasions, being too flashy to look good at more somber events. The suggested alternative for these cases is to use a plain pin, hidden in the folds of fabric, to secure your plaid, or to simply thread it through your jacket epaulettes and adjust as needed to keep it in place. Sometimes you may also stumble upon the so called day plaid – also known as the Laird’s Plaid – which is simply folded lengthways into a rectangle and slung over the shoulder, without any brooch attached. It also shouldn’t be tucked into anything – just flapping loosely. These are not seen frequently, but are occasionally worn to less formal events where the wearer is playing an important role, such as Highland Games or Clan Gatherings. As is hinted at in the day plaid’s alternative name, these are often worn by Scottish lairds or clan chiefs at these events.
If you like the overall look, but you are not attached to the idea of wearing a fly plaid itself; a day plaid may well be a safer and more versatile option. They are certainly less formal, and a day plaid can be put on along with an everyday Scottish outfit, they are marvelous with a casual or semiformal jacket, such as a tweed argyle!
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To sum up, the best way to decide what to wear and what to avoid, is to ask the organisers or past attendees about acceptable attire and figure out the details of your outfit from there. But, as you might have noticed, everyone has their own idea of what is elegant, so don’t get too bogged down in listening to other people! If you are assured that wearing a fly plaid will not be a breach of good manners, simply make your choice from the available options so you yourself feel attractive, comfortable and confident. There are also various help books covering the issue of fly plaid etiquette – reading one of these might be helpful too. The plaid in all its forms has a rich past in Highland wear, and the potential to set off an outfit beautifully if worn under the right conditions. Elegance, formality and tradition are the key words for wearing a fly plaid – and ones which you should never forget!