Tartan (or plaid in North American speak) is instantly recognizable by its mesmerizing, layered lines. We know it as the swatch of choice for schoolgirls and suburban dads, but long before that it was (and still is) a symbol of all things Scottish. Tartan has transcended tradition, going from a humble cloth of the Scottish Highlands to a timeless print with far-reaching appeal and a place in nearly every Canadian’s closet.
Back to school bonus point: there were fifty-three different kinds of plaid used in Clueless. See how many you can count on Cher in one of our favorite WORN supercuts here.
1 // Crisscrossing Languages
Tartan’s linguistic roots come from more than one language. Tiretaine (French) and tiritana (Spanish) both mean a blend of linen and wool. It’s also rooted in the Gaelic word breacan, which means plaid, speckled, or checkered.
2 // Strength in Number (of Fabrics)
Tartan is traditionally made out of two fibers – linen and wool. When woven with warp and weft, this binary composition gives tartan its supreme resistance. This material also goes by (fun word alert) “linsey-woolsey.”
3 // We are Family
Among Scottish clans, the lines of tartan run deeper than wool. Members of a family would wear a specific pattern to show others who their allegiance was to. The pattern could appear on a traditional Highland dress, a kilt, or a scarf. Consider it the classier answer to wearing an “I’m with them” shirt.
4 // Rebel Rebel
Thanks to Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Scottish clansmen, tartan was banned in 1746 after they unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the British throne. Under the Act of Proscription, authorities believed tartan was an uncontrollable force of rebellion. Luckily for Scots and the fashion world alike, tartan returned from exile in 1782.
5 // Highland High
Ever wonder why tartan is ubiquitous on school uniforms? It goes back to 1851, when Queen Victoria brought her fashionable sons to the opening of the Great Exhibition. Her boys were clad in full Highland dress and it caused a sensation of Bieber proportions. Ever since, tartan has become a staple for private school dress.
6 // Slash and Burn
The British had it right. Tartan is a rebel. In the late ’70s, it became a staple among punks, thanks (in large part) to Vivienne Westwood. She and Malcolm McLaren of the Sex Pistols launched a London boutique called Seditionaries, specializing in punk clothes that defied the status quo. And it sure did. Westwood took scissors, chains, safety pins, and bin liners to the Scot’s swatch, turning tradition on its head.
7 // Springsteen Approves
Tartan is the unofficial fabric of American blue-collar worker. Paired with jeans, it has become synonymous with the hard working American. It became popular in the ’50s and ’60s after the manufacturing company Pendleton introduced the world to the plaid shirt, now a staple at stores like Mark’s Work Warehouse.
8 // Beauty is Only Skin Deep…
Designers the world over are intrigued by the criss-crossing lines – Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and Jean-Paul Gaultier have all tackled tartan, as have Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo and Jun Takahashi. The latter once had his models painted plaid from head to toe for a runway show.
9 // Cunningham Reports:
Following September 11, fashion photographer Bill Cunningham saw a surge in tartan among New Yorkers. He wrote in The New York Times: “Scottish tartans, plaid, checks, and tattersalls are a sign of fashion’s change of mood since September 11, a time when exaggerated silhouettes and theatrical flourishes have seemed out of touch. Many women reached into their closets for the toned-down style of plaids, which suggest the security of tradition.”
10 // Check Your Checks
It’s getting hard to keep up with the endless variations of tartan, so in 2008 the Scottish Parliament established the Register of Tartans, an online database that tracks every tartan ever registered. Just about everything has a tartan, from provinces (all but Nunavut have one) to organizations (Canadian Dental Association), from royalty (Princess Diana) to cute felines (Hello Kitty).
further reading // Tartan by Jonathan Faiers
illustration // Andrea Manica