Style 101: A History of Tartan

From the Scottish Highlands to the streets, tartan has reinvented itself as a contemporary, cool and versatile pattern which takes its heritage in its stride.
John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols attends court in 1979 wearing a bold tartan suit, clashing tie and shearling overcoat.

Regardless of your political affiliations, when a Prime Minister arrives to the Conservative Party Conference in a Vivienne Westwood Anglomania suit in Black Watch tartan, it’s hard to deny that it makes a powerful statement. During Theresa May’s time in office, her wardrobe has divided opinion almost as much as the snap election, Brexit, and her seeming affection towards Donald Trump. The suit, which she debuted in 2013, is a long-standing part of the PM’s collection, and while most agree it’s exempt from criticism, the choice of cloth is provocative for the associations it conjures; pride and patriotism, strength and unity, rebellion and resolution.


Tartan is defined by a combination of factors. The use of bold colours in a twill weave are woven symmetrically at right angles so as to create ‘stepped’ diagonal lines. Originally woven in wool coloured using natural dyes, traditional tartans have since been separated into ‘ancient’, ‘muted’ and ‘modern’, to distinguish between the palettes. Ancient tartans come in colours that could be created from natural dyes, whereas modern designs come in more variations due to chemical dying, and muted sits somewhere in between.

Contrary to popular belief, tartan is in fact not solely a Scottish export. Dating back thousands of years to 3rdcentury China and found woven through the tapestry of Europe’s history, the common misconception that each pattern is attributed to a clan of Highland warriors is one born from large-scale commercial weavers in the 18thcentury, who named each of their patterns after towns nearby. Far from representing a clan’s uniformity, it was a convenient sales pitch the world fell for hook, line and sinker; a sentimental take on Scottish pride and local loyalty.

It wasn’t until Queen Victoria and Prince Albert began a love affair with Scotland that tartan came into the wider public’s consciousness. In Lytton Strachey’s biography of the Queen, he describes how her husband’s affection for tartan was apparent at Balmoral castle, which they bought and decorated in 1848; “there were tartan curtains, and tartan chair-covers, and even tartan linoleums. Occasionally the Royal Stewart tartan appeared.” The Royal Stewart, with its red base and stripes of blue, black, green, yellow and white, is easily the most recognised tartan globally. In the 1960s, it was adopted by Formula One champion Sir Jackie Stewart, aka the ‘Flying Scot’, who sported it on his racing helmet, and while the design trickled slowly down through the motor racing community, it wasn’t until the punk movement of the 1970s that there was a tartan tidal wave.


August 2017


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