Style Guy

The Style Guy: tassel hassles, willynilly ghillies and back in black

Published: November 30, 2014

Been awhile, and it’s getting to be a long, cold lonely winter, at least for those north of the equator, but me, I’m writing this from my Tahitian beach house, where the national dress is a grass skirt. For those who like to don the tartan, I’m here to address your questions of dress and deportment.

Remember, you, too, can approach The Style Guy with your wonderings of wandering ensemble.

So let’s get right at the letters addressed to me, The Style Guy, shall we?

We shall!

Dear Style Guy,

This issue has been dangling in the back of my mind for some months now.

As the piper’s kit gets more streamlined and modern, what’s the next to go? Gone are the days of crossbelts, plaids, spats and shaggy sporrans. The “Number 1” dress has been flushed away like a number 2 and the trend is to look more like “city boy” bankers in kilts. The more decorative elements are falling to the wayside. I say what’s next is the drone tassel.

Of course we need something to keep our drones in order. Alan MacLeod’s drone chains made a lasting impression back when the Tannahill Weavers were breaking the mold but even that may be too clunky. Plus they would raise alarms with airport security in our globetrotting efforts to win big prizes.

But the de rigeur braided cords are not the problem. It’s the blasted tassels. The outside tassel gets wrapped up between the tenor drones, the bass drone tassel gets so tangled so tight that you can’t even turn the joint on the pin. Then there’s the cat’s cradle mess that happens in massed band counter marches or the pyre of drones in the beer tent. And let’s not overlook how ratty they can become after only a season or two.

Unless they offer some crucial plumbob, cantilever balance, the tassels need to follow the drone ribbons into the bin. What mold breaking soloist or band will be the first? Is it worth the risk of losing “best dressed” at Cowal? Or would losing the tassels ring the death knell of our other quaint apparel traditions like hose flashes and brogue tassels?

Your opinions on the matter, Style Guy, may rescue this question from the delicate balance in which it hangs.

Yours, aye,
David Tassel-off

What an interesting and not a little long-winded question, Mr. Tassel-off. Until your peculiar missive I had never considered a tussle with the tassel.

In my last installment I discussed drone spacing, which implicitly concerns drone cords. But what of the cords themselves? Thinking about them now, I’m surprised that more pipers haven’t tested the boundaries pretty much since the aforementioned Alan MacLeod with his Jacob Marley-esque chains. I guess dronekind was his business.

I suspect that the tassel was part of Queen Victoria’s attempt to dress up “Highlanders” and pipers like over-bearing lampshades, all velvet and fringe and brocade. It really serves no purpose, so we might as well try without to see what sort of fashion statement can be made.

No tassels; no hassles?

While the cords themselves serve the purpose to keep the instrument organized and stable on the shoulder, the tassels do nothing but decorate. Eliminate them if you wish, but drone cords are perhaps the equivalent of the guitar strap. Mr. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie used a piece of string, making a frugal statement to fit his “Okie” persona, but someone like Mr. Prince might be a shade more flamboyant.

There is something to be said, though, for the finial. It’s fine tuning the garb. It’s the birl at the end of the part. The a mach to finish with a flourish. But cutting them off could make a simple, utilitarian statement that might work well for you and your own brand of piping/drumming.

Dear Style Guy:

I’ve notice a few pipe bands wearing black shirts. What do you think of this look? Suave and cool, or mean and menacing?

Princess of Darkness

Ooh! Intimidating!

Well, PoD, I too have seen this through the years. There are always a small minority of bands that try to establish a singular look with black shirts and black ties and black hose and black, black, blackity-black everything.

These are the same bands that think wearing sunglasses is “cool.” They’re more concerned about the quality of their coach than the merit of their music.

Simply put, black shirts simply do not work for me.

I would rather see these bands lighten up a bit and concentrate more on standing out through their music than by their menacing shirts. Further, these black shirts almost always are made of horrible polyester. They are heat soakers and heat seekers.

And with rare exceptions, bands that wear black shirts I have noticed generally finish last. It’s almost like they’re daring the judges to like them.

Dear The Style Guy:

Hey, I’ve noticed lots of pipers from the past used to wear big wing-tip brogues without the ghillie cut out and laces.

What’s up with that? Were they making a statement? What do you think of doing that today?


Jackie Smith
Grangemouth, Scotland

Ironically, Robert Urquhart Brown was actually a ghillie on the Balmoral estate, yet did not often wear ghillie brogues when competing.

Very observant of you, Mr./Ms./Mrs. Smith. Indeed, many more pipers and pipe bands of old would wear regular brogues. For bands it was usually a matter of economy. Not all of the members could afford ghillie brogues, and the band couldn’t subsidize them, so they just went without.

As is often the case today, Juvenile and Novice Juvenile bands would forego ghillie brogues for the same reason. With kids’ feet growing as fast as their toenails, re-shoeing every member every year is impractical, unless they’re willing to wear second- or third-foot pairs.


Today ghillie brogues are far less expensive and far more available, so it’s easier for pipers and drummers to kit themselves out with them. In the last 30 years, ghillies have become the shoe.

But it wasn’t always the way, mainly because of – what else? – the British class structure. “Ghillie” brogues were shoes traditionally worn by a ghillie. That is, a person who was subservient to the aristocracy. The ghillie on the estate needed these cut-away shoes primarily to that they could dry faster after slogging around in bogs and rivers all day chasing the Laird’s evening tea.

So, pipers from the “professional” class wouldn’t be caught wearing shoes designed for working-class ghillies. Time was that only working-class and military pipers would compete solo for money or with a tawdry lower-class pipe band. The aristocratic or professional pipers would keep to their “amateur” clubs. A rare few still do.

Thankfully, but for a few anachronistic hold-out organizations, there are no such petty differences and snobbery in piping and drumming, which has become a melting pot for musicians.

But, to the question, I like the idea of bringing back the non-ghillies, no-long-laces, wingtip brogue. It makes a tasteful alternative to the predictable.

And who ever wants to be predictable in this old life?


Do you speak brogue? Wonder about the width of your lapels? The cut of your jabot? The pleat of your tartan skirt?

Just drop The Style Guy a quick message, and he’ll help you with your dilemmas of dress and deportment.

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