Tartan: a brief history

Image credit: Garry Knight

A staple winter fabric, tartan has emerged top of the style stakes again this season. Seen in a variety of forms on the A/W catwalk ranging from classic (and somewhat reminiscent of a picnic blanket) at Celine, dark and heavy at Mulberry and in toned-down hues at Stella McCartney – there really are a million ways to wear it. 

Contrary to popular belief, tartan is not exclusively Scottish at all; some of the earliest examples of tartan have been traced back to Central Europe, similar patterns were also found on mummies excavated in China from about 3000 BC. Tartan wasn’t actually a way to identify various Scottish clans until the mid-nineteenth century. Previously, tartan was simply a way of recognising which area of Scotland someone came from. The fabric’s appearance varied according to locally available dye and local weaving technique.

In a bid to control the Highlands, the British Parliament’s Dress Act of 1746  meant that those caught wearing  tartan faced imprisonment and deportation. After the act’s 1782 abolishment, tartan became the symbolic national dress of Scotland. Following this, in 1815 the Highland Society of London named clan-specific tartans, which remained popular right through to the Victorian times when, because of its powerful aristocratic and military associations, the fabric became a symbol of refinement. The revival of the tartan trend owes a significant amount to the New York Metropolitan Museum’s latest fashion exhibition on the history of punk. Tartan resurfaced again in the 1970s as part of the punk movement to represent the exact opposite of what it once had in the Victorian era. As a result of the Met exhibition, designers such as the fashion-guru Karl Lagerfeld, have paid homage to tartan in their latest collections, causing tartan to move into high street stores and into our autumn/winter wardrobes once more.

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