Tartan and plaid are back in trend again for the A/W 2014/15 collections with designers presenting tartan in ranges from formal outfits to punk. Everyone has their own personal favourite styling of the look and there are so many variations in the re-designing of this stylish fabric and how it will be worn this season but how many know the background story of tartan? You might be surprised to find this textile has a long history that we can date back to the very beginning of the 20th century, the Celts have been weaving tartan for over three thousand years, and it has played important roles in archaeological proofing, cultural identity, politics and war.
No ordinary weave, tartan appears to be as old as the very hills with which it is most associated. Its history is one shrouded in story-telling, war-fare, art and spirituality. The symbolic pattern of the highlands, the mark of the warrior and a great love of some of fashion’s most formidable designers of the twentieth century, tartan is arguably the world’s most recognised fabric and is inherently Scottish. At least some of the earliest accounts of Scottish and Celtic dress appear in the writings of Virgil and later Roman writers although archaeological information from the late seventies shows that the Celts have been weaving tartans for at least three thousand years, and that these tartan tracks cover a greater ground than the British Isles.
American textile historian, Elizabeth Barber’s discoveries of the cloths from the mummies laid to rest in the sands of the Tarim Basin c2000BC is groundbreaking. Finding presentable cloth in an archaeological dig outside of Egypt is incredibly rare. Yet in this region in China, ancient textiles have been borne from the earth by the armful. Comparable to the masses of white linen laboured by the Egyptians for burial as well as lifestyle means, the people of the Tarim Basin wove and clad themselves in garments of vivid colour strikingly similar to the ancient Austrian plaid twills woven by ancestors of the Celts.
During an archaeological dig in 1970 at a place called Qizilchoqa (Red Hillock), an ancient cemetery was rediscovered and like the mummies of Urumchi, the mummies found there had Caucasoid features – fair hair and thick bearded men while the women wore the typical Celtic braids. However, their cloth has a different form from the Urumchi region. The dominant weave here was normal diagonal twill and the chief decoration was plaid. In other words, the wide and narrow colour stripes of the Scottish kilt as we know it today.
There has been some debate about the origin of the word ‘tartan’ itself, with possible roots in Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, French Breton and the Northern Celtic region of Spain. Although each corresponding area’s ‘tartan’ would have its own distinct style, it is possibly because of the unique and strong tribal, political, militant and cultural connotations the Highlanders placed on Tartan, that it is the Scottish method and means which we hold up as the ultimate example of the textile today.
To look at the Scottish weaving traditon in history, there were normally six main stages; gathering the wool, preparing the fibres by combing it to the desired texture for soft or coarse tartan, and spinning by a method involving a drop spindle, or distaff and spindle, in which the yarn was spun by the fingers and wound round the bottom of the spindle. The wool was thyen dyed, woven and stretched. The final stage, also known as waulking, was often accompanied by singing, during which jokes would be made by friends, frequently in impromptu verses; a tradition that has even continued into modern times in the Harris Tweed industry!
During the tenth and eleventh centuries the tartan cloak evolved into the long garment known as the belted plaid which was made from two separate pleated pieces each of about five metres length, although these measurements were always dictated by the size of the loom.
The Highlanders, a spirtual people, deeply connected to the land, using plants, leaves and of course tartan, (which also held spiritual value through artistic and cultural means for them) as a means of distinguishing tribes. Whenever these cultured, though resilient and warlike people were called to arms, they invariably campaigned in tartan dress. At night they frequently slept in the long plaid and in the 1745 Jacobite Rising they refused to use tents. Sometimes they would soak the plaid in water and wring it out before going to sleep so that a kind of steamy heat was generated inside. In battle, although Gaelic foot soldiers were sometimes less steady under fire or in sieges than other troops, the very sight of the plaid, tartan and kilt often caused alarm amongst their enemies, especially during the famed Highland charge.
The Jacobites supported the claim of the exiled House of Stuart to the throne of Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During the risings of the early seventeen hundreds and particularly of 1745, the Highland clansmen so frightened the Hanoverian government in England that, when they were finally defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, harsh penalties were imposed on the Highlands. One of the measures, which banned tartan dress, was exacted on all except those in the army or militia who had remained loyal to the Hanoverian government.
The ban on the wearing of tartan was not repealed until it became plain that the Jacobite claims to the throne of Britain had ceased to be an important threat. The prohibition lasted thirty-five years. This meant that more than two-thirds of the generation that saw the ban imposed had died before it was lifted, which very sadly caused much traditional tartan lore to be lost. Fortunately, through the men of the Highland regiments, or militia, tartan textile survived.
Upon termination of the ban, a Highland proclamation announced:
“Listen men! This is bringing before all the Sons of the Gael, that the King and Parliament of Britain have for ever abolished the Act against Highland Dress; which came down to the clans from the beginning of the world to the year 1746. You are no longer hound down to the unmanly dress of the Lowlander. This is declaring to every man, young and old, single and gentle, that they may after this put on and wear the truis, the little kilt, the coat and the striped hose, as also the belted plaid without fear of the law of the realm or the spite of enemies.”
Since these times, Tartan has maintained a central role in Scottish heritage, remaining a staple in cultural realms, the kilt being one of the most instantly recognisable national costumes worldwide. But tartan started making it’s way into fashion in the Victorian era, where it began to be featured in fashion journals and catalogues, moving from menswear into womenswear at a contextually rapid pace. Madame Chanel helped accelerate the process with her design aesthetic of liberating the female from the corset, and borrowing from the male wardobe for her ideal femme. Chanel’s philosphy popularised casual chic in the 1920s, and tartan, along with other traditional tweeds made quite the impression on her during periods of long retreats to Scotland with the Duke of Westminster between 1924 and 1931.
Tartan made another and maybe even bolder resurgence in fashion in the 1970s, with its strong association with punk music, Vivienne Westwood and Steve McClaren’s shop “Sex” sold fashion and wore costumes cut from a rather unorthodox use of tartan, re-directing the textile’s connotations back towards anti-establishment and the rebel.
Today, tartan remains a top choice amongst designers. Our current season has been seduced by the Highlands once more, our city’s streets are awash with vividly clad warriors and boldly draped fashionistas.
At the same time, Westwood continues to express in eclectic tartans for some of her latest international Ballet costume projects.
There’s no doubt about it, this warrior of textiles will only continue to adapt and perform into the many seasons and centuries to come.
This Friday 12th for London Fashion Week, the V&A are showing a documentary that charts the journey of tartan across Scotland, the Caribbean and Africa through the work of the Costume Institute of the African Diaspora (CIAD).
Tartan: It’s Journey through the African Diaspora will be shown as a free event in the Learning Centre from 18:30 – 21:30
More details HERE