January 19, 1981 12:00 PM

In the old days women did not dare cross the threshold of William Anderson and Sons on Edinburgh’s elegant George Street. “They would have been intruding on a man’s world,” explains William Kinloch Anderson, 73, the fourth of five generations in the 113-year-old family firm that “by appointment” is kiltmaker to the British royal family. Times change. When Anderson was succeeded by his son Douglas six years ago, the business was catering predominantly to women. “It was a case,” the senior Anderson cheerfully notes, “of the tail wagging the dog.” Now that tartans are making a comeback—Ralph Lauren and Chanel are among the top designers featuring them—female customers outnumber men 20 to 1.

But the firm, which began calling itself Kinloch Anderson in 1974 to distinguish it from all the other Andersons in business in Scotland, pointedly calls the women’s spin-off a “kilted skirt.” The difference is not just semantic. A man’s kilt can use up to nine yards of wool and weigh four pounds, has more pleats and is hand-sewn. A woman’s kilted skirt, with two and a half yards of cloth, weighs barely a pound and is machine-made.

Paul McCartney, Princess Grace, Olivia Newton-John and Sammy Davis Jr. are recent Anderson customers. None is so demanding as was the late King George VI, however, who had fittings in the 1930s in a mirrored room at Buckingham Palace so he could spin around to see that each pleat fell into place.

“The trouble with kilts,” complains Douglas Anderson, 41, who wore his first at 3, “is that they last too long.” He’s still wearing the one he got at age 16. At 21, Douglas graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Fife with an honors degree in economics and decided to go to work for his father. He was the second of three children. The heir apparent, his older brother Eric, chose a career in education instead and is headmaster at Eton.

Father promptly sent Douglas to Chicago for some behind-the-counter experience at Marshall Field, where he sold neckties alongside an old-timer who once waited on Al Capone. “The four months I spent there gave me a good feel for the American market,” says Douglas, who followed up with a two-month cross-country Greyhound tour.

When he joined the firm in 1963, its output was 50 kilted skirts a week, compared to 1,500 turned out now by 200 workers in four factories. The company moved from George Street last October and is now headquartered in a 15th-century Edinburgh house that once was the home of John Knox, the founder of Presbyterianism. Only a fraction of Kinloch Anderson’s sales are local. Exports account for 80 percent of the firm’s $5 million annual gross. The biggest buyers are the Germans and Italians, but U.S. department stores like Lord & Taylor in New York and Salz’s in Washington also do a brisk business in Anderson kilts, scarves and woolens.

Douglas, who shares a six-bedroom stone house with his wife, Deirdre, and their three children, wears only suits to the office. He reserves the kilt for formal dinner parties and avoids “parading around in a kilt as a gimmick.” He explains, “It’s our national dress, and I respect it.”

The age-old question remains: What does a Scotsman wear under his kilt? “There was a tradition in the military in the 11th century that you wore no underwear,” Anderson replies. “Some regiments used to put a mirror on the ground so the sergeant-major could make sure the men weren’t wearing any. But nowadays,” the royal kiltmaker advises, “if you’re going Highland dancing in the evening, you’d wear dark briefs.” If only to avoid the draft.

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