Timothy McDowell, 59, sifts through racks of old clothing and fabric at Goodwill. He pulls out an old, black and red-checkered pattern tablecloth, does a quick measurement of the width and length and decides this is the one. “That fast I can figure out if the material will work or not,” explained McDowell.
McDowell has been wearing and creating kilts for more than 15 years. His family line originated from Argyll, Scotland, and he feels that by creating and wearing kilts he keeps his Scottish culture alive. “Everybody likes to have some kind of tie to the past,” McDowell said. “That’s part of why I like to wear a kilt, recognizing my ancestors and it’s very comfortable, far more comfortable than pants are.”
When McDowell walks into the room, many people stare and wonder: why the kilt? This doesn’t bother McDowell, as he flourishes under the eye of the people. Confidence is key when wearing something different from traditional society. “What I have found in the years I’ve been wearing [kilts] is that people kind of automatically assume you’re carrying yourself in a more dignified way,” he said.
Wearing the cultural garment in public means facing several questions and comments. McDowell doesn’t mind. He says that one must see themselves as ambassadors of culture and be confident when wearing it. He usually reacts to questions with humor or by making it an educating moment. “If you don’t know the answer to a question, learn,” he said.
Strength in Not Backing Down
When McDowell first began wearing kilts on a daily basis, he first wore one to church. He figured the church, being known as very forgiving and understanding, would be the best place to test the waters of his choice to wear his culture. Rather, he felt very judged when he wore the kilt to church. McDowell says the priest at his church was the first of many to ask, “Are you wearing anything under the kilt?”
McDowell then took on his next battle: wearing the kilt to work. Originally, he worked with the United States Department of Defense. Coworkers at the DOD were not very accepting of the idea of a kilted man in the office. His supervisor told him not to wear the kilt to work the next day. “People are going to challenge you because it’s different,” McDowell said.
After work, McDowell picked up his daughter from high school and spoke of the issue he had at work. Her reply was something he would never forget. “If you don’t wear your kilt tomorrow, wouldn’t that be giving in to peer pressure?” she asked curiously. McDowell realized that by not standing up for what he believed in he would not only would he be letting himself down, but also his daughter.
He decided to wear the kilt to work again the next day. He met with the commander of the base and asked if his attire was professional enough to wear to work. The commander approved his uniform. McDowell felt a victory had been achieved, as his kilts were now approved attire for work.
Although the commander had approved his kilt, his supervisor and coworkers did not hesitate to show their disapproval of the garment. “I like the belief that I have and I hold it firmly,” McDowell said. “We can disagree but we can agree to disagree, agreeably.”
McDowell’s family lineage can be traced back to 1763 and is one of the seven oldest that can trace back to Scotland.
In McDowell’s personal experience he has found that there is more of a following in the United States in terms of kilt wearing than there is in Scotland. “You don’t see as many people wearing them [in Scotland] as you do here,” said McDowell. “That’s because we are looking back and embracing our ancestry.”
McDowell says there are specific plaids to represent clans, but that usually isn’t the case. Although some forms of plaid are associated with clans, one is not limited to one plaid. The only plaid that you cannot wear is one of the three that are associated with the royal family.
With a kilt, most attach a sporran, which is a small purse-like bag. McDowell explains that in the United States, people associate the word purse as with femininity. In other cultures, the word purse is what we would call a daypack or a bag. “It doesn’t have the oddness in the rest of the world as it does to us,” he said.
A Brief History
According to Authentic Ireland, kilts have deep cultural and historical roots in the country of Scotland and are a sacred symbol of honor and patriotism for the Scotsman.
Authentic Ireland reports that kilts originate back to the 16th century, when Highlanders of northern Scotland wore full-length garments. The wearing of the Scottish kilt became popular during the 1720s, when the British military used it as their formal uniform. The knee-length kilt that we know today did not develop until the late 17th century.
Being Comfortable In Your Own Skin
Often, young children will question why McDowell is wearing a kilt. McDowell sees this as an exceptional educational moment. He has noticed that a large number of parents take it upon themselves to make this a teaching moment and educate their children that people of different cultures wear different articles of clothing. “Part of wearing [a kilt] is knowing that people are going to ask you questions,” he said.
McDowell says that there are times that he will overhear people making rude comments or laughing. This doesn’t bother him, as he knows that wearing something different will cause different reactions. He maintains confidence and is happy with himself and his culture.
McDowell’s confidence in himself and positive outlook on life are an inspiration to many. “What someone else thinks of you is none of your damn business and once you realize that, you realize that you are happy with me,” said McDowell.
McDowell wears a copper ring and a copper bracelet that he had made. The ring, which says “Om Mani Padmi Hum,” translates to “generosity, ethics, patience, perseverance, concentration and wisdom.” The bracelet, which says “Iokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu,” translates to “may all beings everywhere be happy and free and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in someway to that happiness and to that freedom for all.”
Sources & Contacts
Timothy McDowell: 318-918-0897
“A History of Scottish Kilts.” Authentic Ireland. N.p., 2017. Web. 13 June 2017.