A Checkered Past

Why tartan was banned in 1746, and nine other things you never knew about plaid

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

Doing the Back to School Dance

Me on my first day of Kindergarden in a brand new outfit, complete with matching socks and the necessary scrunchie.

Practically since preschool, the only reason I’ve found to look forward to another year of school has been those magic words my mother always uttered right around the beginning of August: “We’ll have to go get you some new clothes.” Each year, my mall-loathing parents dragged themselves to the overcrowded, sweaty shops and put forth their credit cards, presenting me with the chance to grab as many new items as possible and convince them ridiculous finds, like the Aritzia spandex track suits of Grade 7, were necessities.

For me, the strangest thing about back to school shopping was the odd set of rules that my mother strictly enforced for my sister and I. Her rules, combined with my efforts to get as many new things as possible on my parents’ tab, looked a little like this:

1a) We MUST get a new backpack, even if last year’s model is in perfectly good condition.
b) After Grade 8, backpacks were embarrassing and were promptly replaced with trendy, impractical shoulder bags.
c) Coordinate all other purchases around colour scheme on new backpack/bag.

2. Items are to be bought in outfits, from hats down to socks, not as single pieces. This creates a cohesive “school look.”

3. Keep in contact with close friends to ensure they’re not choosing the same pieces, and if they are, at least claim rights to your favorite colour.

4. Even if it’s still 20+ degrees outside, back to school clothing has to include tights, sweaters, jeans and jackets. Tank tops are to be avoided at all costs unless part of an outfit and accompanied by a cardigan.

5. Clothing bought during the back to school shop (or shops) are not to be worn, tried on, or removed of tags before the first day of school. My mother’s theory behind this was that the clothing would no longer be truly “new” if worn too soon. I think it was her secret way of making me excited for the first day of classes.

At the time, back to school shopping was simply a chance to buy new things, but in retrospect, it was also my chance each year to change and grow through my wardrobe, and, when I wasn’t fighting with my mother, to exercise my freedom to shape myself. I’d spend hours consulting friends, sketching warped versions of myself, and laying out my purchases on the bed to ensure I had a new look for each day of the first week back in advance. The clothing I chose depicted the person I wanted to be, and as I began to make my own money, I learned who I was and how I’d changed based on the items I chose to take home.

Although the money is no longer provided by my parents and my school wardrobe is mostly based around surviving the Toronto winter, the need to reinvent myself each fall has continued. I find myself altering the items I do own, thrifting, trading with friends, and splurging on the occasional extra-special item to create the wardrobe I will live in for my last year of university. I can’t help but wonder however, when fall returns next year and I’m no longer cleaning out my computer and buying note books, will I continue to clean out my closet and find a new me?

text by Alyssa Garrison