Boiling over: for the sake of better music and good health, we need to change what we wear
That’s the weight of typical “Highland dress” – when it’s not soaked in sweat. We know because we weighed it. (And that wasn’t while carrying a five-pound bagpipe or 10-pound drum.)
The facts show that the world is getting hotter, and this summer in the northern hemisphere, we’re seeing pipers and drummers competing in record temperatures having to wear 15+ pounds of thick wool and leather. At the same time, spectators are donning the lightest brimmed hat, t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops they can find.
What is wrong with this picture?
It’s interesting to us that when pipe bands perform in non-competition events like concerts and parades, they readily swap their woolly attire for polo shirts and ball caps. The notion that we must wear “proper” Highland dress goes out the window.
To get this straight, we are required to wear full Highland dress, replete with strangling necktie, vest and jacket, brimless thick wool hat, wool socks and military-style brogues when competing because it’s respectful of the audience and the “show.” Yet, when it’s an actual show, we wear t-shirts and baseball caps?
What’s more, we strip down to casual attire more conducive to comfortable playing and better delivery of the music . . . and the audience could care less, even loving seeing us in more normal light.
It’s important not to mistake any of this for lack of respect. As we repeatedly prove in parades and concerts, we can be comfortable and still respect the audience, and they will respect us in return.
Our current woolly get-up evolved from a pastiche of Victorian military uniforms explicitly designed for the rainy, cold Scottish climate and the pageantry that pleased Queen Vic. This was eventually melded with a version of civilian “daywear,” also designed for cool, damp Scottish conditions.
Yet, if we look at the British military more than a century ago, they decided that Scottish troops in Borneo, South Africa, India, or Egypt would have a uniform that was more conducive to operating in oppressive heat. And wherever soldiers were, they needed a uniform that would, at the very least, not hinder them from getting the job done.
Could you imagine today’s soldier dressed head to toe in thick wool while doing battle? That, in effect, is what we demand of pipers and drummers competing with incredibly finicky and physically demanding musical instruments.
So, if the pipe band uniform derives from the military, shouldn’t we also try to accommodate pipers and drummers performing intricate music on fickle and physical instruments with attire that doesn’t hinder comfort and musical excellence or go against the recommendations of healthcare professionals?
Competitors sometimes mistakenly think an adjudicator will judge them more favourably if they’re well turned-out in the typical tartan garb. That is not true – or, at least, that should not be true. Piping, drumming and pipe band judges don’t critique costumes; they’re there to assess music and only music.
If pipe band associations are there to promote the music, then they should change their antiquated rules on what to wear:
- No more air-constricting neckties are required.
- Headwear can include ball caps or brimmed hats, or none at all.
- Wool socks, flashes, brogues, etc., can be replaced with comfortable shoes and socks.
- Lightweight polo shirts are welcome.
Even the wool kilt is up for debate. Why not leave it to the discretion of the competitor to wear a traditional kilt, tartan trews, or even a utilikilt or cotton tartan shorts?
Well, maybe not tartan shorts, but you get it. Even the Scottish regiments wore khaki shorts in desert conditions.
“Highland dress” is a misnomer, anyway. Nothing about our current attire is typically worn in the Scottish Highlands. If anything, Highland wear would be more about a Barbour jacket and wellies than a seven-yard worsted wool kilt and a vest that makes us look more from the waist up like a taxi driver than a serious musician.
There’s also the matter of health and safety. It’s bad enough that associations and competitors ignore experts’ advice to avoid physical exertion on 35-degree days, but to then require them to wear the equivalent of winter woolies is just plain stupid.
It’s important not to mistake any of this for lack of respect. By all means, wear the “traditional” kilt ensemble at formal functions or where it’s conducive to playing well, wherever that might be. Nothing should stop a band from wearing the traditional wool and leather garb on a roasting day. Go ahead. But why would any serious musician choose to do that when an outfit that’s conducive to playing well is permissible?
As we repeatedly prove in parades and concerts, we can be comfortable and still respect the audience, and they will respect us in return.
So, why not do that and play music even better at the same time?
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