September 08, 2008

Cap’s on

Formidable!Judging from the dozens of comments about the pipes up-down-up rule and the thought of changing it, the subject of dress and deportment in competition is surprisingly contentious as piping and drumming evolves.

A few years ago I wrote a Blogpipe post that was intended to be funny about the fact that pipe bands from Pakistan and Spain come to the World’s and are allowed to wear their national costume. Now, reading it again, there’s a lot to that.

The Breton bands wear quite smart trousers and double-breasted waistcoats. It’s all allowed, since the RSPBA has no provision for bands having to wear “Highland” dress; they simply say bands should be in uniform.

So, in effect, bands can wear what they want as long as they strive to have every player look the same (which never happens, because there are always two or three odd sporrans and a few folks with a tie from another band after they traded their own), and provided the RSPBA’s National Council approves it.

I don’t know one piper or drummer who prefers to compete while wearing a jacket. The more encumbered a piper or drummer is, the more difficult it is to play his or her instrument, and playing the instrument is the task at hand.

Besides, the uniforms of bands from Brittany and Spain and the like are a welcome added variety at the World’s. People I think enjoy seeing a change from the conventional ersatz Victorian-military derivative ensemble that makes the Scottish, US and Commonwealth-country bands look pretty much all the same. Now that Bagad Cap Caval has won the Grade 2 event and may well be required to compete in Grade 1 next year, does their more comfortable uniform give them a decided playing advantage? I think so, and they have the right idea.

Why can’t the currently kilted pipe bands have two uniforms – the predictable tartan one for performances, and another one – equally smart – that’s more conducive to good playing in competition?

To bring about this change, most people think a Grade 1 band will need to do it first. And that might well happen in 2009.


  1. Michael Grey had a post on his blog, Grey’s Notes, earlier this summer on Breton Pipe Bands. In the post was a link to a recent contest, Menez Meur, where all the bands played in jeans and t-shirts….kinda like the way we all practice….and it looked so relaxed.

    Yes, two uniforms – one for street parades, the other for contests (let’s be honest, the majority of spectators at contests are other competitors or friends/family of competitors, and we all get it.)

  2. Waistcoats and trousers are to the Breton national costume what the current pipe band template is to the Scottish national costume. Menez Meur happens to be a less formal contest. In Brest and Lorient the waistcoats come back out and the ladies often wear long skirts (though not in all bands).

    Most local associations specify Highland attire in the rules and, whether right or wrong, most games organizers would be loathe to lose the spectacle of kilted bands.

    The debate is still whether or not we would be taken more seriously as musicians and less as spectacles if we ditched the kilts. And what is our parallel in the conventional music world? I’m sure a violin or tuba are easier to play without a tuxedo but you don’t see the top orchestras perform in jeans and short-sleeves, matching or not. Some DCI get-ups are on par with No. 1 uniforms.

    And how big is the risk of losing an audience versus gaining one if we play without the garb?

    I’m not going to say I’m for or against any of this. I just think these are the issues that need examining.

  3. Occurs to me also that the Breton and Galicean bands are from “Celtic” regions/countries so they can wear their own costumes. But, considering the massive emigration of Scots to Canada, New Zealand, Australia and so forth, don’t these places deserve to have their own “Celtic” get-ups? “Celtic” means many things these days.

  4. Penetangore (sp?) in Ontario wore black slacks for a couple years when they were first formed, if I recall correctly. Looked pretty darned sharp, too. Most of our chanter students wear slackstill they get on pipes, and acquire the inevitable kilt.
    Agree that for the paying public, jeans and T’s may be a bit much. But nothing wrong with the way bands like Penetangore or Cap Caval look…or the Scots Guards drummers I recall from the 1976 CNE, come to think of it.
    I’m definitely in the “hate playing with a jacket on” crowd. I’d rather wear a GLEN than a jacket…:)

  5. The bands from the Continental Celtic bands (who probably have a stronger historical claim to the Celts than the Scots or Irish) are largely making the pipe band idiom their own. The Bretons added a bombarde section, Galicians play their regional bagpipe etc.

    Most of the U.S. and Commonwealth bands are sticking to the Scottish idiom and so have chosen kilts.

    What if Breton style bands started popping up in North America. If they wanted to play at a Breton contest the waistcoat and trousers would be expected. But what if they wanted to play at the Worlds? They would probably where the same uniforms right?

    And what about the bands from Pakistan and Oman? They are playing the Scottish idiom for the most part yet no kilts. Are their martial looking uniforms derived from their national dress?

    As for the U.S. and Commonwealth even though, the fact is that there could be no national costume. If so it would have to be a mix so maybe we could wear dashikis, lederhosen and sombreros with cowboy boots. Or how about the seersucker suit and straw hat?

  6. I would agree that playing with a wool jacket in the summer heat (30+ C) was uncomfortable and distracting. However, it was quite welcome when temperatures were lower (need I mention where that might be?)
    As an alternative, I found that playing in kilts and waistcoats was quite comfortable when the weather was warm enough and was not distracting when it came to playing.
    I would think that playing with trews instead of kilts may actually be more uncomfortable in the heat due to the lack of “lower ventilation”.
    The bottom line is whatever the uniform, it must be comfortable and look smart.

  7. As long as they are not wearing official Californian uniforms……thongs and sandals!
    Seriously, though, as John is eluding to, the real point of the whole exercise is the production of quality musical performances. If uniforms or anything else is interfering with this, then changes need to be made with the goal of improving the listeners (not viewers) experience. A sensible highland dress code is what is required. To that point, #1 full dress is definitely out in my books!!!!!

  8. I think we can all agree that to stop wearing kilits would make all the games organizers go crazy and they would just not allow it. People want to see that tartan and I have to say that although uncomfortable, I don’t think I can blame some playing issues on wearing a kilt.
    However, I can 100% attest to the advantage of NOT wearing a jacket when competing, and have made huge alterations to my jacket (tailoring) when I am forced to wear it.
    Having physical damge of nerves in my neck and arm requires year round treatment for me and adding stress and nerves, my arm is often ice cold or buzzing when I have a jacket on. At Oban, you are no longer required to wear a jacket and this has been a great addition that past few years. Waistcoats look just fine to me anyway after watching ITV video of bands at cowal as both Shott’s and FMM and probably others wore only those.
    If you want to wear jackets, go ahead , but if I don’t have to , there’s no way I would unless I was freezing cold, and then, that’s a whole other blog
    Bruce Gandy

  9. No one thought it realistic for pipe bands to ditch number one dress in competition until the Edinburgh Police did it in, I believe, the early ’70s. Everyone was afraid to compete without jackets at the World’s until the Victoria Police did it in 1998. If, as expected, Cap Caval, competes in Grade 1 at the 2009 World’s in trousers, well, then perhaps that will be a milestone and trend-setter, too. Even at the World’s, I would guess that 95% of the spectators are friends and family of pipers and drummers. Do they really care what we wear?

    It might seem like an absurd idea, Jamie, but it’s still worth discussing.

  10. Maybe most spectators at smaller games are relatives and friends of competitors. But definitely not at the World’s or even Maxville. These are widely publicised events and I can bet you that attendees would be very disappointed if they saw competitors not wearing the kilt. But in any case the highland garb has been evolving for hundreds of years, so who’s to know what we may be wearing in 20 years? Maybe a kilt with some kind of modern smart polo-shirt that will be less uncomfortable to when playing. Plus more comfortable shoes that won’t make your feet swell after a full day spent walking around the games!

  11. True, true…everything is worth discussing. I actually don’t have an issue with wearing a kilt though – I find it very comfortable… do many others I know. I definitely find it more comfortable than ‘slacks’ – particularly on a hot day, if you get my drift!

    I have to agree with the majority regarding the jackets though – I hate wearing a jacket to play because 1) It’s just too warm (even in our crappy Scottish climate) and 2) my right stick continually catches in my sleeve. Some say they think it looks smarter with a jacket however, most drummers end up pulling the sleeve up to combat the ‘stick-catching’ problem – and that looks hellish! I’d rather look smart in a shirt and waistcoat than in a jacket with one sleeve half way up my forearm.



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