From Royal ribands to tartan sashes, these noble accessories are worn with pride by those entitled to them. But what do they really signify?
When it comes to dressing for a special occasion, few things are more princely, impressive – or mystifying — than sashes. Whether worn at a Royal (or Disney) wedding, a Palace dinner or a Caledonian ball, they indicate another level of grandeur and membership of a rather exclusive club. But as a friend asked plaintively, after swooning over photographs from a recent State banquet, what do they really signify? Who gets to wear one and what are the rules behind them?
SASHES – A NOBLE ACCESSORY
The sashes worn by members of the Royal Family and other VIPs at State occasions aren’t technically sashes at all but are properly known as ribands. They come with Royal or State Orders bestowed by the head of state, with similar systems in place in many other countries. In Britain there are also a few Orders in the personal gift of the sovereign, and recipients of those awards are clearly members of an extremely exclusive cohort indeed. But part of the reason they’re so little understood is because they are often bestowed without much public fanfare, such as the Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order given to HRH The Princess of Wales by Her Late Majesty The Queen ‘for services to the sovereign’.
For a greater understanding, who better to consult than someone with insider knowledge: Adam Bruce, a Scottish lawyer who is also Marchmont Herald, an Officer of Arms based in Edinburgh (and a member of the Scottish Royal Household). These Orders, he says, date back to the high Middle Ages and initially came with a ‘collar’ (actually a rather grand gold chain worn around the shoulders) and badge – sometimes worn from a ribbon around the neck. The sashes may have come later, as male fashions changed.
Fast forward to the days of empire and new Orders joined the fray, such as the Order of the Indian Empire and the Order of St Michael and St George. “Senior military figures and so on sometimes ended up with five or six Orders of chivalry,” says Bruce. “By the mid to late 19th century you saw people wearing everything – with ribands and badges everywhere.” Part of the reason for Nelson’s demise at Trafalgar, claims Bruce, was the fact that he’d gone into battle wearing several such badges, known as stars, and thus bejewelled was terrifically easy to pick out by the enemy.
Edward VII was, he adds, “a stickler for the correct wearing of Orders and Decorations, and so was George V”, so strict rules were laid down governing how many were worn at once, over which shoulder and how medals were to be worn with them. Ladies, however, not being medal wearers by tradition, wear their Order or Decoration on a bow. In the case of the most exclusive Order for women, the Royal Family Order, these feature a diamond-encrusted miniature portrait of the monarch, mounted on a silk bow. The late Queen’s portrait shows her as a young woman, formally dressed in her own Order of the Garter sash. One can see which King or Queen has bestowed the badge not just from the portrait but from the fact that each monarch has their own different coloured ribbon – pale pink for George VI and chartreuse yellow for the late Queen. We must wait to see how HM King Charles III will continue the tradition.
Since members of the Royal Family often have multiple Orders, you sometimes see several ornate badges pinned to a dress or waistcoat but only one sash can be worn. Usually, it is the one for the most senior Order (typically the Order of the Garter – in Royal blue) or one that’s particularly relevant to the outing, such as the dark-green sash accompanying the Order of the Thistle for a Scottish event.
Most probably because of its ‘seniority’, the most commonly worn riband is the blue Order of the Garter (complete with its badge and star). This and the Thistle are the only ones worn from the left shoulder (or diagonally across the torso for gentlemen in tails). Otherwise, people wear their next most senior Order, such as the Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, which is blue, edged with red and white piping and worn by The Princess of Wales and HRH The Duchess of Edinburgh – from the right shoulder.
Sash-wearing is indeed therefore a complex business, which presumably an equerry or knowledgeable member in the Royal Household makes it his business to (ahem) keep abreast of. Though they do look, and are, from another era, sashes are clearly worn with pride by those entitled to them, no doubt because they symbolise dedicated service to the monarch. Ladies have learnt to wear them usually over a block-colour dress that complements or offsets the coloured sash: the late Queen often wore white to set hers off to best advantage at State banquets.
The same tradition continues at Scottish balls, where sash-wearing is an enduring part of the fun and revelries. Ladies’ dresses are often chosen to complement their tartan, with single-coloured frocks the order of the day to prevent a pattern clash.
Lady Georgina Bullough, a committee member for the 165-year-old Perth Ball, where “clan tartan sashes are encouraged”, believes they are less in evidence these days. “It is partly because of the dresses the young wear now,” she says. “In the 1980s people would wear more structured, boned, dresses with taffeta – there was a place to pin it on your shoulder or capped sleeve and on your bodice. Nowadays girls wear pretty, floor-length sheath dresses, perhaps with spaghetti straps. However, they just don’t have the tailoring and structure required. The sash and brooch can be quite heavy.”
The orders about who may wear a tartan sash are, mercifully, much more relaxed than for Royal ribands, though still a little opaque. “The rules seem a little rough around the edges,” agrees Leah Robertson, marketing manager at Lochcarron, a leading tartan manufacturer. “People don’t always research their family connections but instead choose something that complements their dress or wedding theme.”
While there are certain tartans you should definitely not help yourself to – such as the Balmoral tartan, designed by Prince Albert in 1853 and worn by every British monarch since Queen Victoria, or certain regimental tartans – there are others that anyone may wear. Black Watch, much loved by the fashion industry, is one notable example.
Some ladies are cavalier about sashing up but others, like Sophia Strang Steel, admit to struggling with imposter syndrome about them. Despite having lived and raised a family near Dalkeith, she’s an Englishwoman who married a Scot. Various Strang Steel relatives wear either the Ross or Henderson tartan – both in the family tree – “but among our friends it’s generally a case of making do with what Granny passes on to you,” explains Strang Steel. “If you have a nice brooch, often an heirloom, it’s a great way to give them an airing too, but anything goes really.”
The best rule of thumb is probably summarised by Roddy Martine, author of The Swinging Sporran, the definitive and ever-popular guide to reeling: “As long as there’s a family connection and it’s worn with respect, it doesn’t really matter which tartan you wear,” he opines. “It might not matter very much but it does matter to those who do know about these things…”
Lady Georgina enquired on The Field ’s behalf of her friend Sir Melville Jameson, former Lord Lieutenant of Perth, as to whose tartan a married woman should wear. “He said back in the day you were definitely expected to wear your husband’s tartan, but nowadays women tend to wear the tartan that means most to them.”
Hurrah for common sense then, which is a relief to Lady Georgina, who wears Murray tartans (her father was William Murray, 8th Earl of Mansfield). “I’d consider it rather mad to give up my father’s to take up my husband’s, which was from his grandmother,” she reflects. “And ladies don’t have a feeling of ‘belonging’ to their husband in the same way, so that is a massive change.” Lady Georgina is entitled to wear two Murray tartans – Murray Tullibardine or Murray of Atholl – “and I’ll choose whichever goes best with my dress”.
Certainly it is sometimes fun to detect family links through their sash. “I wouldn’t recognise every tartan but some you come into regular contact with through your life and you think ‘I bet that is so and so’s daughter – yes! – she has the same nose,” laughs Lady Georgina.
One curious debate in the world of tartan sashes is the general confusion about which shoulder they should be worn from; Scotland’s own version of the ‘jam or cream first’ West Country scone debate. Martine insists: “Sashes are worn over the left shoulder unless you are a senior member of the Royal Family, the wife of a clan chief or a serving officer in the British Army.” Almost everybody else – including Kinloch Anderson, kiltmakers to The King – believe it is the other way around. Confusingly, photographs exist showing our late Queen reeling with her sash over either shoulder at different times.
Sashes are usually folded around the shoulder and pinned to your dress there, or can alternatively just be draped over one shoulder and pinned (with the addition of a bow or rosette if you wish) at the hip. Jo Kinloch Anderson of Kinloch Anderson says ladies appreciate a guidance document the company sends out with sashes explaining how they should be worn. According to this, the hip-pinned method is for ‘ladies who have married out of their clan but who still wish to use their original clan tartan’.
The final style outlined is suitable for ‘Scottish dancers or where any lady desires to keep the front of the dress clear of the sash’, in which it’s draped behind the right arm and shoulder, and buttoned or belted down the back of the dress. While Kinloch Anderson attests: “There are a lot of puritans in the world of Highland dress and you can get told off if you don’t get it right,” not everyone agrees.
“I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules if people like me don’t even really know,” says Janie Macnab, wife of Jamie Macnab of Macnab, and therefore very much a chieftain’s wife (besides being a senior consultant in the NHS). “I wear a sash for balls; a rather ancient one, handed down from my mother-in-law, made of silk but moth-eaten.” While faithful to a Macnab tartan, Janie – much like the rest of us – has been known to consult Google about which shoulder she should wear it from, and admits to having cheerfully set rules aside once to hide a bruised shoulder sustained through some iffy gun-mounting on a shooting weekend.
Ultimately, sashes – like scones – should not be obsessed over, since they are delicious however you wear them. “I wouldn’t be bothered who wore one [at a ball],” says Janie. “How marvellous that they’ve bothered to come and make such an effort.” Lady Georgina agrees: “It looks absolutely stunning when people embrace it; we’re just so delighted to share our culture and for people to learn the slightly complicated form of enjoyment that is reeling.”
HOW TO WEAR YOUR TARTAN SASH
From one shoulder (right for clanswomen, left for wives of clan chiefs and so on), pinned at the shoulder.
Draped over one shoulder and pinned at the opposite hip, with a rosette or bow there if you wish. This method, according to Kinloch Anderson, is how married clanswomen should wear their own tartan if they choose not to wear their husband’s.
At the back of one shoulder, draped down the arm and buttoned or belted at the back of your dress – a method apparently favoured by proper country dancers.
Kinloch Anderson and ScotClans (scotclans.com) have helpful YouTube videos.
DON’T GET YOUR SASH IN A PICKLE
Kiltmaker to The King, Kinloch Anderson sells, makes to order and rents out beautiful sashes from more than 2,000 different wool tartans and 50 different silks. It also has a useful guide on the four main ways for ladies to wear them.
Lochcarron will design a bespoke tartan for your sash, if you wish, and guide you through the registration process with the Scottish Register of Tartans. It will custom-make sashes from more than 500 different tartans in its own mill.