Swish, Swagger and Swoon

By Judee Fong

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“When I first wore a kilt, I was immediately impressed with the comfort of the kilt and the attention that the kilt garners,” says Steve Ashton, Victoria-based designer and tailor of custom-made kilts. “The beauty of the kilt is its versatility. I can wear it with a T-shirt and boots for a casual look or I can wear a dress shirt, tie and jacket for a more formal look. Yet it’s the same kilt.”

Earning a master’s degree in engineering in 1978, Steve first designed large sailboats and yachts in Florida. Moving to Canada, he worked with a company designing and building kayaks. When the company closed, Steve cast about for new employment.

Examining a traditional kilt, he noticed a few problems. “I’m an ‘ideas’ guy because it’s the way my engineer’s brain works. There were no pockets in the kilt; it was entirely hand-stitched and it was made of wool. From an engineering standpoint, I felt I could make it better by bringing the kilt, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century!”

By moving interfacings, adding pockets and including machine washable fabrics, Steve and his team fashioned everyday, wearable, contemporary kilts. Casually slipping his hand into a cleverly hidden pocket of the kilt he’s wearing, Steve pulls out two bunches of keys, a pipe and a lighter - no bulge divulges the existence of a pocket.

Steve believes there is a huge reawakening in wearing kilts. Men are discovering the comfort, the practicality and the allure. Recently, he became the owner of www.xmarksthescot.com, which is the largest international online community for over 9,000 kilt-wearers. “You can blog or learn about traditions and stories behind the kilts,” says Steve. “Xmarksthescot has its own tartan, which I’m wearing, clan crest and our own clan plant. In the olden days, clans recognized other clans by the sprig of plant they wore on their plaid or bonnet. Because Xmarksthescot is an international organization, we chose the dandelion, which is everywhere!”

Steve’s claim to a Scottish background was an ancestor who stated on a census form that his father was from Scotland. “This ‘thing’ about the kilt is not necessarily Scottish anymore,” he says. “Yes, it is the recognized national dress of Scotland, but there are other kilts that do not belong to a Scottish heritage or clan.” Of the 7,000 registered tartans, only 1,000 are clan-affiliated. The others are regional, district, occupational and corporate tartans. There is even an official Scottish-Chinese tartan.

“There is a young man, Todd Wong, who lives in Vancouver,” says Steve. “He started the tradition of ‘Gung Haggis Fat Choy,’ which combines Chinese New Year with Robbie Burn’s birthday. It’s incredible having haggis as part of the dim sum! And, yes, Todd wears a traditional kilt.”

Tartan colours are meaningful only to the designers. Steve shows the “Victoria City of Garden” tartan he designed, which will be adopted as Victoria’s official tartan on January 14, 2010 by city council. “Mayor Fortin will be wearing the first Victoria City of Garden kilt at the 2010 New Year’s levee,” he says.

Steve took the six colours from the First Nation’s poles and combined them into his tartan design. The blue represents the ocean that surrounds the Island. The band of green is the trees and the city’s green space. The black lines are the roads that connect citizens; the red represents the bricks of Victoria’s heritage buildings; and the white and yellow lines are the splashes of colour from the city’s famous hanging flower baskets.

Steve’s kilts have found homes around the world and his kilt wearers have their stories and special requests. He recalls one gentleman who wanted a durable, hand-washable kilt with a specific arrangement of pockets. Apparently, he was an archeologist and needed a kilt to work in the fields.

He remembers another request for a kilt with 22 pockets. “This client was a Celtic musician who had an entire collection of 22 pennywhistles,” says Steve. “Before going on stage, he would select the pennywhistles he would need and snapped them onto his kilt. As he swings into his musical numbers, the pennywhistles swirls around his various kilt pockets. It’s quite funny to watch!”

Every kilt wearer cringes when asked the age-old question. “If I asked a woman what she wears under her skirt, I would get arrested, so what’s the difference asking a man what he wears under his kilt?” Steve says. “It’s nobody’s business but your own.”

However, Steve has had his embarrassing moments. “We have a large pear tree in the front yard and we let people pick the pears when they are ripe. My neighbour came over and couldn’t reach a few pears, so I got my stepladder. I was halfway up the stepladder when two of the legs sank into the soft ground and knocked me off. I did a complete flip in the air, landed on my head and answered The Question for everyone!” Steve laughs.

Steve has made kilts for clients as young as six months to the oldest at 94 years.

Serious first-time male kilt-wearers are often between 45 and 55 when they make that major decision to purchase their kilt.

“If you’re going to have a mid-life crisis, purchasing and wearing a kilt is a lot cheaper than buying that red convertible,” says Steve.

By middle age, kilt-wearers have acquired enough maturity to feel comfortable and confident wearing their kilts. The biggest obstacle to overcome is the fear that people will ridicule them for wearing a skirt-like garment.

“The reason the kilt is so attractive to women is because a man shows confidence wearing it,” says Steve. “A man who wears a kilt walks proud.” Smiling broadly he adds, “Remember, ‘Swish’ plus ‘Swagger’ equals ‘Swoon!’”

For more info, contact Steve Ashton at 250-386-5458 or steve@freedomkilts.com

The online forum for kiltaholics is www.xmarksthescot.com





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