Spotlight: Tartan Trousers

(Ralph Lauren ad, 1994)

Having reviewed plaid accessories and plaid dinner jackets I would be remiss if I did not mention the final and rarest plaid alternative: trousers.  Or, more specifically, trews which are close-fitting tartan trousers that form part of Scottish Lowland Dress along with a Prince Charlie jacket or a dinner jacket.

Sartorially adventurous Americans have been copying the trews and dinner jacket pairing at least as far back as 1950 according to a Life magazine article from April of that year:

For country-club clansmen who don’t want to leave their tartans home, Chipp [a New York tailor], whose plaid apparel ranges from garters to golf slacks, is turning out cummerbunds, jackets and “trews” that can be worn dining out.

Original caption: “Highlanders’ trews, plaid pants tapered in to the ankle, are worn with a white dinner jacket, cost $45. These are in best-selling Gordon tartan.” (“Life”)

Trews are even more informal than the tartan dinner jacket as they lack the silk trim that characterizes evening suits.  Therefore their use (by non Scots) should be confined to the most informal of formal occasions, namely a private dinner at home or the club, and they should always be worn with standard black-tie accessories. It also probably wouldn’t hurt to observe the etiquette described in the same 1950 Life article: “They are worn only by a host, never by a guest.”


  1. Cygnus

    Being a fan of things Scottish (due in equal measure to genealogy and general interest), I would be remiss if I didn’t comment, once again, on this fantastic post.

    Trews, historically, were a skin-tight Highland garment worn instead of a kilt when riding a horse. Because only the wealthiest clansman could afford a horse, trews came to be associated with the gentry. Following the popularization of tartan and things Scottish in the mid-19th Century, many lowlanders adopted tartan but chose to wear it as trews rather than in the form of the highlanders’ kilts. Because of this, the trews have come to be associated with lowlanders, though they originated in the Highlands.

    And I would dispute the point made about trews being less formal due to the lack of silk braid or ribbon on the outer leg. Properly-made trews actually have no outside seam (as well as a fishtail back), each leg being made from a single piece of cloth. I find this to be at least as elegant as the “hidden” seam of evening trousers, though I still wouldn’t be likely to wear them except in less formal situations or an event with a Scottish theme.

    Thank you for taking the time to discuss these little-known (and less-worn) options.

    1. Peter Marshall

      Thanks for the information. I tend to tread cautiously when it comes to the formal dress of other cultures for fear of propagating popular misconceptions. Consequently, I’m always happy to hear from those more well-versed on the topic than me.

  2. Jezza Rae

    At a recent dinner of the Bar Yacht Club, held at the Middle Temple Bench Rooms at the heart of legal London, two gentlemen amongst the eighty or so present wore trews with their dinner jackets: the guest of honour, a Scot who was commodore of the Royal Ocean Racing Club, and an English barrister of Scottish descent (myself). We were both pleased to remark upon the coincidence.

    In England trews with dinner jackets are most seen during the early months of the year, perhaps because Scottish dancing is most usual around Burns Night in January. Although the association of tartans with clans is primarily commercial, wearers generally have some claim to their tartan. The dark “hunting” greens and blues predominate; for example a McLeod may well forbear from wearing trews in his striking yellow colourway at a formal occasion. At a Burns Night party, of course, anything goes.

    Miltary officers’ dress trews are elaborately tailored, almost necessarily made to measure, and are probably too tight and heavy for ease (unlike the service trews worn by some lowland regiments). Informal trews along the lines of pocketless trousers are more comfortable. The loud tartan golfing trousers favoured by Americans might seem inappropriate to a gentleman in a dinner jacket.

    Scottish gentlemen wearing dress kilts are likely to favour wing colours,and perhaps by asociation both of us were doing so. The real Scot had a matching tartan bow, and I think waistcoat, whilst I wore a black tie and cummerbund.

  3. Pingback: Plaid or Tartan Dinner Jackets | Plaid or Tartan Dinner Jackets | On classic men's style, elegance and the beautiful life.

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