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High Society and Punk Rebellion: A History of Scottish Tartan

What comes to mind when you think of Scotland? Beyond its rolling hills and idyllic seaside towns, the country’s impact on fashion is perhaps top of the list. The Scottish tartan—mistakenly known as “plaid”—is, well, everywhere.

We often think of kilts as the standard-bearer for the traditional pattern, but tartan’s influence reaches far and wide—to men’s ties, children’s school uniforms, mass-produced products (such as Scotch tape, for example), and more.

And yet, despite its mass appeal and induction into modern life, tartan’s rich history is little-known among many.

Let’s look back on where tartan originated, what it’s meant throughout history, and where we see it in fashion today.

Scottish Tartan’s Origins

Any pattern of interlocking stripes constitutes a tartan. While we often call this pattern “plaid,” this nickname is technically incorrect.

The word “plaid” came from a Gaelic word used to describe a tartan blanket from the Scottish Highlands. Over the centuries, however, we’ve adopted “plaid” into our vernacular, and it’s interchangeable with “tartan.”

Linguistics aside, plaid patterns have existed throughout the world since approximately 3,000 BCE. While people virtually everywhere have created woven cloth with patterned designs, only in Scotland did tartan take on a deeply personal and historical significance.

The plaid fabric was originally woven in the Scottish Highlands. Weavers would color their patterns using dyes derived from their local plants and berries.

As people within small geographical regions continued to wear similarly-colored checked garments, their patterns became known as clan tartan, a symbol synonymous with kinship.

Over the centuries, and throughout its many struggles for independence within those years, Scotland saw its tartans both banned and adopted into wider culture. Tartan was once outlawed in an attempt to quash Scottish pride—and any chances of rebellion against the English.

When King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, though, he established a “tartan festival,” for which he requested attendees don the tartan of their own family clan.

It’s speculated that several colorful clan tartans were invented specifically for the occasion.

The Meanings Behind Tartan’s Colors

The kilt is Scotland’s most well-known garment, but there are several other ways to wear tartan. There are also several meanings behind the colors and patterns. Beyond representing different families, regions, and clans, specific patterns can represent:

  • Mourning: Black and white tartans are worn for funerals.

  • Hunting: Neutral colors help to camouflage hunters in the wilderness.

  • Femininity: Lighter-colored patterns were originally intended for women.

  • Hierarchy: Clan leaders would sport their own personal tartan, which was different from that of their clan’s.

A Preppy Takeover of Tartan

Plaid is a paradox. It was ubiquitous with prim, proper, and preppy culture. Then it became appropriated by the punk movement in the 1970s. Since then, tartan has swung back and forth between those worlds and others—and it’s safe to say that it embodies all at once.

When Queen Victoria reigned she fell in love with Scottish culture, so tartan became associated with the upper crust of society. The Royal Family decorated their home in tartan and developed their own pattern, known as The Royal Stewart.

This is arguably the most recognizable plaid to date. Tartan’s association with high society has been a cultural touchstone for several decades now, as it can be seen everywhere from prep school uniforms to well-to-do characters of fictional stories like Clueless.

Tartan in Punk and Pop Culture

Seeing how high society embraced tartan, is it any wonder that counterculture took it over? As the 1960s came to a close and hippie culture was on its way out, punk came into style. Designer Vivienne Westwood featured torn-up Royal Stewart tartan in her designs, as a symbolic middle finger to British Society. The biggest bands of early punk—The Clash and the Sex Pistols—embraced her tattered take on tartan.

Youthful counterculture, like 1990’s grunge, hip-hop, and rap, continued embracing rebellious plaid in their outfits, whether it was torn, tied, spiked, or shredded.

Tartan in High Fashion

As Scottish tartan has bounced between high and low culture, it’s also had its moment in haute couture. At 2013’s Met Gala, themed PUNK: Chaos to Couture, Madonna graced the red carpet in a plaid Givenchy power suit.

Sarah Jessica Parker honored designer Alexander McQueen’s authentic clan tartan at the 2006 Met Gala as well. Even in 2022, tartan is making a splash in high fashion. Thom Browne’s latest Fall collection includes tons of tartan and is being worn by celebrity clientele, like Euphoria‘s Angus Cloud.

Despite its humble beginnings, and initial practicality, Scottish tartan has taken on new meanings as centuries have gone by.

It’s safe to say that, while trends come and go, tartan is likely to be eternally stylish.

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