The Genteel
March 5, 2021



The influence of the British monarchy on fashion is back on the agenda courtesy of the fragrant Duchess of Cambridge. When dressed, the Duchess follows a royal lineage that has been setting trends ever since Henry VIII started sporting extravagant codpieces. Whether overcompensating with highly sexualised accessories, wearing starched neck ruffs or trussed up in undergarments reinforced with whale bone, Royal patronage of a style of dress has played an important part in defining fashion for their subjects. It is a theory that not only extends to conspicuous luxurious materials such as silk and lace but also to the ubiquitous, visually stimulating and fascinating textile design known as tartan. 

Highland Tartan Moschino Spring Summer 2013
Moschino's S/S 2013 collection featured stylish 
tartan designs. Source:

It was Queen Elizabeth II's father King George VI who adopted the Royal Stewart tartan worn by the regimental pipers of the Scots Guards, referring to it as "my personal tartan." This royal enactment cemented the royal obsession with the tartan in the 20th century, a story full of re-appropriation, re-evaluation and re-invention. Today, tartans are a national flag of sorts for the Scots, while the fashion world regularly borrows it for its own creative purposes.

So what is tartan, where does it come from and why does it continue to be popular? An ancient textile design that may have had roots over 3,000 years ago, tartan found favour in Iron Age Celtic Europe. Worn by kings and chieftains, a good quality and colourful woven tartan not only looked swish, but also denoted someone of high status and authority. But with the European expansion of the Roman Empire, which saw the rise in popularity of the plain Greco-Roman tunic, the woven tartan gradually lost its appeal. 

Out of fashion and downgraded as a rustic garment worn only by those unable to afford the most current European designs, tartan found a haven in the rugged and wild highlands of Scotland, where the local natural environment dictated the natural dyes - from the bark of trees such as willow, alder and silver birch, flowering plants like the hyacinth and a variety of lichen - used in determining the colour of pattern. 

Although the concept of "clan" tartan had not yet been formalised, the patterns and colours could still be used to give an indication of the place of where the tartan - and potentially the wearer - came from. In the 18th century, a Scottish writer named Martin Martin wrote in his book, A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland that, "Every isle differs from each other in their fancy of making plaids as to the stripes in breadth and colours. This humour is as different through the mainland of the Highlands, in so far that they who have seen those places are able at first view of a man's plaid to guess the place of his residence." 

Maybe tartan's popularity comes down to the human eye's irresistible attraction to the logical structure, reassuring uniformity and mathematical intricacy...

In the Battle of Culloden of 1746, the Jacobite army sought to return the House of Stewart to the throne of England and Scotland at the expense of Hanoverian rule, but was crushingly defeated by British government forces. Many tartan-wearing Highland clansmen were fighting for the Jacobites by this time and as a consequence, the wearing of tartan was prohibited for the next 36 years. Once banned, tartan gained outlaw status and the ban backfired. It was promptly marketed as Scotland's national dress of resistance. 

Once unbanned, the process of assimilation of tartan into the establishment began with the design being adopted as the uniform of Scottish military regiments by the end of the 18th century. After becoming associated with clan identification during a cultural revival in the early 19th century, the colourful pattern grew in popularity thanks to King George IV's famous 1822 visit to Scotland which prompted a tartan revival and the creation of many new ''original'' plaids - by 1831 James Logan had published the "Scottish Gael" compiling over 50 setts (colours and dimensions) of tartans originating from Scotland. But it was Queen Victoria's use of tartans to decorate the interior walls of the Royal baronial-styled Balmoral Castle (built in 1855) that finally turned the recalcitrant tartan into an emasculated accoutrement of bourgeois life and fashion. 

Fast forward to the 20th century and the presence of tartan in postwar fashion began to grow. From Vivienne Westwood's regular splattering of tartan through three decades to Marc Jacobs' dabbling in a red and black kilts circa 2009, tartan has been re-appropriated and usurped in a multitude of different ways, demonstrating an innate versatility while retaining cross-gender appeal. In Westwood's memorable Anglomania A/W 1993-94 collection, she even created her own clan tartan named MacAndreas

Highland Tartan Emma Watson GQ Award Dress
Emma Watson wore a chic black and red tartan
dress to the GQ Men of the Year Awards 2011. 
Source: Landmark/PR Photos.

Tartan is a story that just runs and runs and runs in an ever-flowing continuum. Featured in menswear S/S 2013 catwalk shows in New York, Paris and London, classic tartan will accompany over-scaled plaid and grid-like checks as a key influence of the season. Thom Browne, John Galliano, Shaun Samson, Moschino, Dries Van Noten and Pringle of Scotland (obviously) all incorporated the tartan effect into their collections, testing the waters with new fabrics and colour palettes, while paying homage to the regal cloth. 

As Dr Jonathan Faiers, author of Tartan: Textiles that Changed the World, succinctly told The Guardian in 2010, "It's a cloth of duality," he said. "Its history is in the establishment - in clansmanship, the aristocracy and military forces, but because it's become the uniform of rugged masculinity it's also revisited in an ironic way - by subcultures such as grunge, punk and gay clones." 

Maybe tartan's popularity comes down to the human eye's irresistible attraction to the logical structure, reassuring uniformity and mathematical intricacy. A hypnotising system of patterns that leaves itself open to the endless possibilities derived from the interlacing of contrasting stripes; the forming of new colours, grids and squares whilst remaining instantaneously recognisable. 

With Scotland set for a referendum on independence in 2014, it wouldn't surprise me to see the Duchess of Cambridge visiting Balmoral resplendent in designs adorned with a subtle touch of Royal Stewart tartan trim, on more than one state visit.



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