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Tartan is the new black

Words by PaulSwadzba on 18/08/2015 11:45:44





Tartan is the new black

Take one look at tartan and it evokes the sound of bagpipes, the taste of Irn Bru, rolling hills and Mel Gibson yelling ‘freedom’ in Braveheart. Lazy cultural stereotypes aside, it’s arguably one of the most aesthetically distinctive pieces of fabric worldwide and is a strong signifier of Scottish identity. With its unmistakeable check-like pattern, tartan has been an integral part of the highlander uniform for centuries and continues to award someone full marks on the Scot-o-meter when wearing it.

British Tartan can be traced back to the 3rd Century AD, but the tartan that we recognise today was present from around the 16th century, when the trademark checks and stripes gained popularity. Different tartans were used to ascertain natives from the various areas, which lead to the more modern idea of family tartans. Because of the Scottish association with tartan, the Dress Act of 1746 was enforced by London in a bid to crush the spirit of the Jacobite Scottish clans and to a degree it worked, as enthusiasm for tartan waned.

However, tartan is made of sterner stuff and didn’t lie down and roll over in the face of English aggression for too long. A tartan resurgence was bubbling under the surface and ready to bite back, although many of the original tailors had passed on by the time it resurfaced. Because of this, tartan patterns were reinvented by younger tailors. George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822 help fuel its revival and tartan became Scotland’s national dress, instead of being reserved just for Highlanders. Queen Victoria visited Scotland twenty years after her uncle and purchased Balmoral Castle, insisting that it was clad out with authentic Scottish dressing, which of course meant it was suitably tarten-ed up to the nines. The fabric was officially regal and sophisticated with a royal stamp of approval.



Tartan muscled into the fashion world. It was awarded a punk sensibility in the 1970s with everyone from Jonny Rotten to David Bowie being clad out in the name of anarchy, whilst attaching chains and tearing at fabric. Since then it’s enjoyed less rebellious associations and pretty much become a permanent fixture on catwalks across the world. Vivienne Westwood has always been a cheerleader of tartan, using it alongside various other British fabrics. Tartan was heavily used in her famed 1993/94 collection ‘Anglomania’, which saw Naomi Campbell donning a kilt with male models in sharp three piece suits and Westwood has continued to reuse and modernise tartan ever since. Alexander McQueen championed traditional craft techniques and was a great fan of the way tartan was formed and the cultural significance that came with it. McQueen used tartan as a way of expressing his own Scottish heritage and used it in some very historically charged exhibitions.

The recent Scottish independence debate saw Scotland swathed in tartan and the world rushed to make sure they were kilted and booted when hitting the Highlands. Tartan was seized by the Yes campaign as a symbol of Scottish identity and differentiation from their British counterparts. The love affair with tartan lives on.