December 26, 2012

Why Not On-The-Job Tartan Kilts and Suits?—the Case Against Plaid at Work and in Nature

Like the colors that animals display in nature, whatever we wear on the job has various impacts and cost-benefit implications, apart from the purchase price: The male peacock’s full-fan display dazzles the ladies, but is a huge encumbrance. The suit makes the man look cool, but feel overheated in the summer and the office.

If you’re a woman, high heels make you look taller and more dominant, accentuate the sexy arch in your back, make your legs look attractively longer, but are not the most comfortable design and make your gait seem rather awkward, unnatural and somewhat hobbled (especially during fire drills), thereby creating a tension between looking like a dominant superior and a cute inferior.

For most clothing and other things we wear, as with tattoos, there are never benefits without costs.

So, what about a kilt? Setting aside any male shyness to be overcome or the psychological buzz from any clan-pride display, are there any good professional or other reasons to drop the trousers (so to speak) for a kilt? More precisely, under what circumstances, if any, would wearing a kilt yield a net gain, after all costs, including any negative perceptions of it, are factored in?

Office Tartan Kilts: as Rare as a Plaid Duck

Back home in Canada, and—according to the locals—even here in Inverness, Scotland, workplace tartan kilts and plaid suits are as rare as plaid animals, plaid plants and plaid rocks (apparently none, in most of these latter domains). But, in 2008, at least one U.S. postal worker (shown in his self-designed postal kilt in the cited article) seems to have thought there should be more of them, and went on the record for change. reported then that male mail carrier

“Dean Peterson, 48, of Lacey, Wash., is asking members of the National Association of Letter Carriers meeting in Boston this week to approve a resolution allowing for a change in the group’s uniform regulations, The Boston Globe reported Monday’ The reasons Peterson cited were obvious: ‘They are far more comfortable and suitable to male anatomy than trousers or shorts…’”

More recently (and again a UPI story), in August 2012, a Tulsa, Oklahoma auto shop owner and one of his workers adopted kilts for the hottest months. Adding that with the benefits come a kilt’s own challenges, David O’Brien, owner of O’Brien Auto Performance, advised, “Keep your knees down and your feet crossed; then everybody’s happy and safe.”

Such sensible considerations accepted, a question must be asked: Why, despite the obvious benefits in terms of physical comfort, are tartan men’s kilts in the workplace almost as rare as tartan (a.k.a. “plaid”) fish, ducks, potatoes and rocks?

The facile reply, “They are formal, ceremonial or festive wear” or are “girlie”, begs the question by assuming that’s what they must be (especially in light of the extreme masculinity of the clansmen and Scottish regiments that have made them icons of maleness). But the now ubiquitous office sport coat was once just that—a coat for sport, e.g., hunting. So it may or could go with office kilts.

Why Rare in Both the Office and in Nature?

For me, the fascinating spinoff question is whether there is any connection between the scarcity of tartan kilts in the workplace and the virtual absence of tartan, plaid patterns in nature.

The so-called and only marginally plaid “tartan hawkfish” shown here is the only example of another tartan-bedecked creature besides man I could find—and then only tartan in the minimal sense of having a 2-color square design. (Apparently, its red squares-on-white pattern is camouflage to blend in with the red “gorgonian fan” corals in its habitat.)

Here in Inverness (where, for about a week, I’m currently doing my writing), kilts, as both formal and less formal attire, are centerpiece boutique items, with several shops within very close proximity to each other on the High Street selling and custom-tailoring them.

However, I have yet to spot anyone on the street wearing one (or even a plaid suit), much as tuxedo sightings are rare or zero in any U.S. or Canadian business district or supermarket, and the locals I’ve asked tell me I’m not likely to, either.

Sartorial Exclusion of Other Humans and Other Animals

The interesting thing about kilts as formal, on-the-job or festive clothing (and tartan suits) is that they embody designs that, unlike stripes, spots and many other fabric patterns, appear to be exclusively and excludingly (i.e., clannishly) human.

Apparently, without modern knowledge of the biophysics and biochemistry of animal and vegetable coloration, or of that of rocks, the earliest Scottish creators of tartan kilts chose a fabric pattern unreplicated anywhere else, including all of nature, and for that very purpose.

Not bad as an attempt to create a unique clan identifier.

Further ensuring their virtual uniqueness as modern male fashion, they made them look like dresses for men. Somehow the search for sartorial uniqueness of pattern, even though uninformed by deep science, has been successful for the Scots (as well as for manufacturers of madras clothing, famed for its colorful, equally unique, bleeding-plaid casual garments).

But, is it possible in that attempting to make their clans, regiments and kilts unique, the Scotsman has ensured they will also remain as rare in the office as their plaids are in nature, and possibly for the same reasons?

One Grandmotherly Scottish Tailor’s Take on Plaid and Plaid Animals

Before evaluating reasons for and against tartan or plaid kilts in the workplace (and regarding plaid patterns in nature), let’s get clear on the key terminology.

The sweet grandmotherly kilt-shop owner (in addition to the manager of the hostel I’m staying at) here in Inverness, Scotland, gently corrected me: “Plaid” is never and nowhere a pattern, she said, and insisted it’s only a length of cloth—contrary to what most dictionaries say, including the second, third and fourth American Merriam Webster entries for the term: “a fabric with stripes or bars of various colors and widths that cross at right angles… any pattern of this kind…(adjective) having a pattern of plaid”.

Evidencing a charming, clannish and stubborn pride, she and other locals, also, again, contrary to Merriam Webster and British dictionaries, also “corrected” my pronunciation: never and nowhere “plad”, only “played”.

That same singular pride and stubbornness kicked in when I gently asked her why it seems there are no “plaid” animals. Again, correcting me, she said it’s because “plaid” is a piece of cloth, not a pattern and, more importantly, because “tartan” (the only “correct” term) is a clan concept that can never apply to animals and plants, because they are not clansmen. (Yes, she really said that, endearing her to me even more.)

Presumably, with amazing foresight, creatures evolving millions of years ago did not want to provoke the wrath of fierce clannish clansmen eons down the evolutionary road by foolishly appropriating tartan patterns for themselves, even allowing that biologists might end up giving them a different name.

Despite her protests and since, according to her, “tartan” patterns can have as few as two colors, e.g., the well-known Rob Roy red and black, I concluded that tartan hawkfish (shown in the photo above) has earned its name, however marginally.

So, the focusing question becomes this: What are the arguments for and against tartan/plaid kilts in the workplace and, as a pattern, in nature—and do any of the considerations against plaid that apply to the natural world also apply to office tartan kilts?

Keep in mind there are two ways for clothing to be rare in the office: by offering fewer benefits than competing garments or by having greater detriments. So, how does the tartan kilt stack up?

Obviously, and in general, there are three objections to and therefore drawbacks of on-the-job men’s kilts: the “feminine” short length and skirt-like wrap-around design, and the frequent and scary lack of undergarments. But, apart from the “problem” of the hairy-airy look, what about the pattern itself—the tartan/plaid?

Why There are No Plaid SWAT Teams or Plaid Ducks

Fitting the color (as well as the comforts) of a tartan kilt into a biological framework, how does the tartan pattern stack up against other color configurations and designs in nature? For example, camouflage works very well for both human soldiers and various birds and insects. Black SWAT uniforms are helpfully intimidating as well as good night-camouflage.

Other fashion designs, such as high collars that create the illusion of a masculine, thick neck, or black casual clothing, which creates a slimming look, can pay off professionally—in the workplace—and socially, by making the wearer look more dominant, mysterious or attractive. But what about plaid?

From this perspective, it doesn’t look good for plaid, at least, not psychologically: I recall reading a psychological analysis years ago that claimed that those who wear plaid have a weaker sense of self and less well-defined ego boundaries than others (characteristics that, in virtue of standing out against all backgrounds, plaid may compensate for, if not eliminate).

Following the implications of that conjecture, it becomes tempting to see the tartan kilt or a plaid suit as an attempt to shore up clan or personal identity—but that is extremely speculative. But, to the extent that this correlation is largely unknown and unsensed, it should have no adverse impact in perceptions of and relations with coworkers.

(Against this conjecture, I have to wonder why, if it were correct, no-self Zen monks prefer solid saffron or burgundy to plaid or whether the plaid-clad Masai warrior-herdsman at work has identity issues, despite a robust tribal identity and the stories several told me about intimidating lions with the pattern, which, they claim, the lions associate with them as feared hunters. Perhaps in the case of the Zen monks “on the job”- plaid is not necessary because a “self” isn’t either.)

Plaid in the Jungle and the Workplace: a Comparison

If the workplace were a jungle, how would the plaid tartan or colorful tartan suit stack up against other forms of animal coloration? Not so well, it seems.  The case against the unique tartan/plaid design as a natural or useful pattern for both employees and animals in the wild is strong in many respects.

Interestingly, the case against plaid in nature overlaps the case against a plaid kilt in the office (although not entirely, since almost all of the resistance to a kilt relates to its resemblance to women’s clothing and to the frequent lack of nether garments). The overlap is instructive to the extent that it makes a case against plaid itself.

The Tartan Kilt and Plaid Suit: Short on Benefits?

A tartan (plaid) kilt, when compared to other forms of animal coloration and human clothing patterns and designs, comes up short in both nature and the office, because it is

  • Not camouflage (unlike concealing white moth wings on white bark or black on-the-job SWAT uniforms on night raids, since it blends in with nothing natural. Moreover, unlike office nylons that can conceal stubble, a short kilt’s length reveals all too much, while the plaid calls attention to the kilt.)
  • Not a form of protective mimicry (since, unlike harmless black-and-yellow hover flies mimicking similarly colored dangerous wasps or proliferating intimidating military-style uniforms for police, there is no fearsome creature to copy by wearing plaid, except the fierce clan warrior himself)
  • Not an example of mimesis (resemblance to other objects, unlike stick insects that resemble twigs or guys in hamburger costumes that look like the burgers they are hawking. Again, nylon stockings are attractive because the mimic the baby-smooth skin of a baby. Plaid mimics nothing. As for the kilt design, to the extent that it mimics a woman’s dress, it may impose a cost on males wearing it in some office cultures.)
  • Not a gender-specific courtship signal (unlike the pattern of a male peacock’s dazzlingly iridescent feathers or a female office assistant’s plunging necklines, since both males and females wear kilts)
  • Not motion dazzle (unlike any pattern on micro-miniskirts in motion or zebra stripes that apparently confuse predators when the zebras bolt)
  • Not startling (unlike a secretary’s faux-leopard-skin slacks or the “eye spots” on butterflies that startle snakes and birds when suddenly displayed, although possibly startling in the kilt case if the wind catches it in a Marilyn Monroe street-vent moment)
  • Not countershading (unlike the contrasting dark colors on the backs of deer that create a deceptive illusion of flatness against a highly illuminated backdrop. Also it’s unlike the use of countershading on fabrics to create a slimmer look, e.g., by means of a dark-light color gradient.)
  • Not an intimidating warning signal (unlike the threatening on-the-job SWAT uniform or coloration of a coral snake or the turned-up polo-shirt collar that deceptively signals “thick neck-strong bite”. Since they are worn at happy, festive occasions, plaid kilts are not inherently intimidating, in social or biological terms. Interestingly, one study done years ago unearthed a correlation between New Zealand’s All Black soccer rugby team’s black uniforms and the team’s title as all-time leading scorers.)
  • Not a temperature regulator (unlike the Brazilian frog Bokermannohyla alvarengai, which helps to control its temperature by changing its skin color. Wintertime heat-absorption by dark-plaid colors of the tartan fabric is more than offset by the cold air circulating under the kilt, in contrast to the light colors of loose shirts and blouses employees wear in the summer and the dark layered ones worn in the winter.)

No Knit Benefit?

Given objections as numerous these, it is probably safe to say that these are more than enough to raise doubts about any net (pronounced “knit”, if you are a Scot) on-the-job benefits of the tartan pattern in a kilt or plaid suit.

These doubts are especially warranted in light of the the currently and largely unacceptable short length of men’s kilts in the workplace (which overrides the latter’s skirt-design-based summertime temperature regulation and physical comfort).

To attempt to add any further considerations against workplace kilts is unnecessary and would merely amount to….


Read more in Organizational Culture

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).