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Tartan is one of the most iconic and distinguishable patterns that exists in fashion. Despite being a common denominator in most of our closets, not many people know about the fascinating history behind it. Tartan has played a crucial role in civil wars, pop culture and social revolution.
Before we get started let’s establish the difference between Tartan and Plaid. In the United States Tartan is often mistakenly called plaid, but in Scotland, a plaid is a large piece of tartan cloth.
Now let’s dive into it!
Tartan has pre-medieval origins
Although many of us associate Tartan with Highlander or Lumberjacks, this pattern's origins go way back. Traces of Tartan-like leggings were found on the “Cherchen Man”, a 3,000 year old mummy discovered in the Taklamakan Desert in China. The mommy had European-like features and clothing.
The oldest piece of Tartan documented in Britain is the “Falkirk” Tartan, that was found inside of a pot containing 2,000 Roman coins. It was discovered in August 1933 by the Antonine Wall, Scotland, and it’s believed to be from the 300 AD.
If you wore plaid you were accused of rebellion
After years of tension between the Hanoverian kings of Scotland and a group of locals called Jacobites, the Dress Act of 1746 was implemented. The law banned the use of Tartan - including kilts - and other aspects of Gaelic culture, it’s intention was to bring the warrior clans under government control. During the years that this law was effective any Highland men caught wearing tartan plaid kilts were accused of rebellion.
The law was repealed in 1782 and the Highland dress with tartan plaid pattern was instead adopted as the symbolic national dress of Scotland.
Plaid means “party” in Welsh
Well.. many things can happen under a kilt, and even more considering that beer is the national drink of Wales.
Plaid was the subject of the first colored photograph
In 1861 British photographer Thomas Sutton took the first color photography following a three color technique suggested by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell. The method is based on a theory about human vision that states that the human eye is receptive to three different kinds of “lights”: red, green and blue. The subject of the photograph is a Tartan ribbon.
After taking the picture, Thomas followed Maxwell’s lead on how to print the photograph and the result became the first color photograph in history.
Elvis has his own Tartan
The king of Rock n’ Roll doesn’t have one but two tartan patterns created in his honor. Elvis Presley had Scottish roots and his family origins can be traced to Lonmay, Aberdeenshire. In 2004 Mike King designed the Presley of Lonmay featuring the colors green, grey, black, light blue and yellow.
Later that year Brian Wilton registered the Presley of Memphis; the colors are reminiscent of the American Flag and features a gold band to represent his legendary number of Gold Discs.
An Ad man helped to popularize plaid in North America
Ad men are responsible for many things in America, establishing cigarettes as a key lifestyle component in the ‘50s and ‘60s; the expansion of the car industry, Coca-Cola… another great achievement was bringing plaid to the masses.
Although tartan plaid was first introduced to America back with the Scottish immigration at the end of the 18th century, an ad man named William B. Laughead played a crucial role in popularizing the pattern among the general consumers. He was hired by the Red River Lumber company to write pamphlets; Laughead decided to tell the stories of Paul Bunyan, a giant lumberjack in the American and Canadian folklore. Bunyan tales were at the moment legends only known through oral tradition; Laughead decided to transcribe the stories and accompanied them with drawings where he gave Bunyan heavy brown boots, blue jeans and a plaid red and black flannel shirt.
Another fundamental moment in the plaid - US affair was when Pendleton Mills released their iconic plaid shirts in 1924. They were so popular that even an unknown music group from California named themselves The Pendletones. That band later became The Beach Boys.
There are about 7,000 tartan patterns
The Scotish Register of Tartans is a real thing! And as the name suggests its main function is the registration of all tartan designs. You can register your own tartan pattern starting at £70. There are currently about 7,000 registered tartan patterns.
The tartan went to the moon and back
Alan Bean was the fourth human to set foot on the moon. The American astronaut traveled to space on the Apollo 12 in 1969 and he took with him a piece of his family clan tartan as a way to pay homage to his Scotish roots.
He brought the piece back to earth and it was auctioned off in October 2016. The cloth was signed Alan Bean, Apollo 12, and it was auctioned along a letter from the astronaut stating: “I hereby certify that the accompanying piece of MacBean tartan travelled to the moon with Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and me in our command module, ‘Yankee Clipper’ and then down to the Ocean of Storms with Pete and me in our lunar module, ‘Intrepid’. “The MacBean tartan remained on ‘Intrepid’ during our 33-hour stay on the lunar surface. The tartan has been in my personal collection since my return to Earth.”
Tartan became an anti-establishment symbol in the 70’s
During the Victorian and Edwardian eras tartan became a very strong component of women’s fashion and the different patterns were featured in fashion catalogs. The rise of its popularity led the authorities on Tartan to declare that there was indeed an etiquette to wear tartan, especially the ones attributed to clans or families. Thanks to its association to the British royalty and military, the pattern became a symbol of exclusivity and social status.
In the ‘70s Tartan made its loud comeback when punk fashion adopted the unconventional use of tartan, mosty the Royal Stuart tartan, as a way of expressing their discontent with the ruling class. Tartan patches, trousers and jackets became part of the everyday wardrobe of the London punks, immotalzed by many music groups, specially The Sex Pistols. Thanks to them, the tartan worn in an ironic and unconventional way, often altered by adding buckles, studs and paint, became a symbol of the anti-establishment.
Teresa May keeps a punk inspired suit in her wardrobe
Former British prime minister Teresa May ironically wore a punk fashion inspired suit. She debuted her Black Watch tartan suit in 2013 during a conservative conference, and then she wore it again when delivering a key Brexit speech in January 2017.
Some political journalists and fashionistas have called it her “lucky suit” and many news outlets, including The Guardian, have compared it to a suit worn by Johnny Rotten during a concert in 1977.
This fact has once again proved that plaid is way more than just a pattern, it still represents the neverending friction between the establishment and the ones who defy it.
By Florencia Franceschetti for Come On