No print signifies autumn quite like tartan, which conjures images of cosy throws and cushions in soft firelight and thick woollen scarfs and skirts in the pattern helping fight off the winter chill. Frequently called plaid, particularly in Northern America, the checkered design has been a staple for both fashion and homewares for decades but the history of the colourful pattern stems hundreds of years and to get to the roots of the design you need to all the way back to 16th century Scotland. Introduced in the 1500s tartan traditionally differentiated the regions of Scotland with many areas developing their own unique patterns. According to Kinnaird, tartan was the unmistakable costume of the Highlander, and was typically a series of stripes running vertically and horizontally meeting to form a grid in perfect symmetry. Relating to the material itself, tartan was used to create all manner of dress at this time and it was from the tartan material that the original plaid garment was made. Kinnaird explains the first plaids (known in Gaelic as the feileadh) were reminiscent of a tartan cloak, with two pieces of the material were stitched together and belted forming an early interpretation of the kilt.
In the last half of the 20th century the attention grabbing print was frequently linked with rebellion and non-conformity to the ruling authority, however this was not a new concept and the history of tartan has long be associated with insurgence. The Jacobite uprisings in the mid-1700s were a rebellion largely led by highland clansmen to reinstate the exiled House of Stuart to the British throne. However after a devastating defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1746, the British government imposed legislation banning the wearing of tartan in Scotland. With harsh penalties for those that went against the law, the ban greatly altered the perception of the material and was not overturned until thirty five years later when the Jacobite threat to throne had ended. The reinstating of the historic pattern in Scotland brought it again to the nation’s consciousness and Bustle explains it quickly became fashionable for men and women to wear tartan attire for formal occasions. From this point onwards, the fabric garnered international attention and in Northern America, the plaid material we are more familiar with today surfaced in the 1850s. Featuring a simpler chequered pattern which unlike traditional tartan was not vertically and horizontally symmetrical, the fabric was used to make shirts which soon became synonymous with those with outdoor professions in the US like lumberjacks and farmers, leading to the print developing a relaxed, casual quality which still endures to this day.
Never completely losing its rebellious nature, tartan and plaid has been at the heart of numerous fashion and cultural movements over the last four decades. Starting with the British punk era in the 1970s, the traditional print was slashed, safety pinned and brought to the catwalk for Vivienne Westwood’s anarchic shows. In the late 1980s counterculture emerged bringing with it a host of cult films including St Elmo’s Fire (1985) and the film that really brought tartan into the limelight – Clueless (1995). Grunge also emerged in the early 1990s, Gizmodo explains that during this time of recession young Americans embraced their roots by choosing the plaid shirt of the blue collar worker as their clothing of choice, with bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam rarely seen without them.
Tartan has remained an influencer of high fashion over the years but always with a rebellious twist. Taken on by the most outspoken of designers for example the industry’s l’enfant terrible Jean Paul Gaultier, whilst Alexander McQueen caused controversy with his ‘Highland Rape’ (1995) and ‘Widows of Culloden’ (2006) catwalk shows which were inspired by historical mistreatment of Scotland and his patriotism to the country. Still an immensely popular trend in both fashion and interior industries, the typically rich and warming print will always have a defiant edge that ensures its reinterpretation year on year, making it a daring choice for the home.