TARTAN BARMY: THE ENDURING APPEAL OF SCOTLAND’S MOST ICONIC CLOTH
From Highland clans to haute couture, few fabrics have the ability to transcend time and class like tartan. Mairi Lowe explores the history – and future – of Scotland’s most iconic cloth
NOT many fabrics have the power to communicate a feeling of belonging no matter where the wearer is located. But one that holds true to this claim is “immediately recognisable as a symbol of Scotland, its people and its culture” says Vixy Rae, owner and creative director of Stewart Christie & Co, the oldest tailor in Scotland. Of course, we are talking about tartan.
With its rich and diverse heritage, what makes this fabric so special is its ability to represent communities and to communicate a sense of belonging through the infinite variations of colours and patterns. The timeless textile originally used to identify and unite clans of the Scottish Highlands earned its additional symbolism of rebellion after transcending the ban introduced in response to the Jacobite uprising. However, the reintroduction of tartan in 1822, when Sir Walter Scott laid on a pageant for King George IV, also reinforced its purpose of belonging, in an attempt to join together England and Scotland through heritage.
Tartan is intricate and complex, a fabric continuously being woven with many historical and modern threads. Indeed, an unpaid invoice of Sir Walter Scott lies in Stewart Christie & Co’s archives for a pair of traditional trews. We cannot forget Vivienne Westwood’s revolutionary modernisation of tartan in her 1993-94 Anglomania collection, which launched the textile into punk fashion and acts of subculture rebellion. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is the number one fan of Totty Rocks, an independent womenswear label and boutique in Edinburgh which “strives to find new and unexpected ways to use the fabric”.
Lochcarron of Scotland, one of the country’s most successful weaving mills, believes tartan is so popular as it “has a way of reinventing itself through time and interpretation”. Indeed, our fashion shoot on the previous pages shows how the brand collaborated with Scottish Ballet to create an exclusive tartan and
costumes for Highland Fling, a modern reworking of classic ballet La Sylphide by Matthew Bourne.
But perhaps one of the best examples of how tartan connects its ancestral past and future in fashion is the recent collaboration of DC Dalgliesh and Charles Jeffrey. DC Dalgliesh is Scotland’s artisan tartan producer still weaving tartans the traditional way; a brand conscious of respecting Scottish traditions and heritage. Managing director Nick Fiddes advocates that tartan is not a “fossilised tradition, but a living one, that’s continually developing”.
Enthusiastic about sustainability and supporting local businesses and designers, the pairing of DC Dalgliesh and Glaswegian fashion designer Charles Jeffrey is a perfect match.
Jeffrey, who won Graduate of the Year at the 2015 Scottish Fashion Awards, is uniting a community of creatives in London with his Loverboy cult club night and clothing brand. The designer created an official Loverboy tartan with DC Dalgliesh for his AW18 collection at London Fashion Week. DC Dalgliesh emphasises how important collaborations between new and old are in order to continue to develop tartan’s role in the fashion industry’s future, with Jeffrey “re-imagining how [tartan] can be worn, using both traditional designs and his own exclusive new pattern”.
Jeffrey’s work plays boldly with gender constructs, bringing together through fashion a community against societal norms of male and female. The inclusion of tartan in this statement-making collection not only pays homage to his Scottish roots, but also reinforces tartan’s power and influence in communicating messages of rebellion while strengthening a united front and promoting a shared opinion of a community.
Without traditional weaving mills such as DC Dalgliesh, Lochcarron and Johnstons of Elgin, tartan would risk losing its authenticity and authority. The fabric’s ability to stand the test of time is ensured because of its rich origins. Alan Scott, creative director at Johnstons of Elgin states the brand’s “original Scottish heritage and provenance in weaving tartan designs can be traced back over its 220- year history”.
For 2018, Johnstons has incorporated tartan to provide authority and a medium for people to make a statement about and express their opinions and feelings on issues in today’s society. Scott believes “fashion always captures the important subjects in modern culture expressed through how we dress”, and that the rich tradition behind tartan is what allows it to bring a sense of clan and belonging to the fashion trend. Without the heritage and provenance behind tartan, Johnstons’ designs, which “exploded into highly coloured fashion versions of the traditional cloth”, would not have the required strength and authenticity to express the statements they are designed to allow wearers to make. Tartan’s ability to unite groups and communicate statements both pro and antiestablishment through fashion has now been recognised worldwide, with many global designers featuring the textile in 2018. It was Vivienne Westwood who championed tartan as a print of rebellion in her 1993-94 Anglomania collection and now the pattern is again “worn with purpose” and regarded as “the print of woke millennials” by fashion journalist TiTi Finlay on ttfinlay.com.
In its SS18 collection, Balenciaga used the Lewis Macleod tartan for a not-sosubtle politicial statement. The loud black and yellow check belongs to President Donald Trump’s ancestral Scottish clan. The ironic use on a skirt by the brand is a perfect example of how the world is becoming aware of tartan’s ability to communicate a multitude of perspectives and using it to promote their own beliefs and opinions globally.
The resurgence of tartan in 2018 can also be explained with Scotland facing political turmoil of its own, including Brexit and the possibility of an independent Scotland. In such uncertain times, tartan’s heritage provides identity, a sense of security and belonging and is “safe, familiar and engaging”, suggests Lochcarron.
WITH a desire for heritage comes a demand for quality and longevity. Traditional Scottish weaving mills and independent designers are great advocates of society’s focus on slow and ethical fashion supporting local businesses. DC Dalgliesh believes Scotland “has a fabulous story to tell” and that “where so many others are in a race to the bottom competing on price and cutting corners, that’s the last place we want to be as a wee nation with all this tradition behind us”.
With the slow fashion movement on the rise, tartan has the traits to become a symbol of the coveted values such as longevity and sustainability. It is the heritage and high quality of tartan that allows it to endorse slow fashion and fight against throwaway fast fashion, as “it comes to the client with a history woven into the cloth” at Lochcarron.
Scottish fashion designer Siobhan Mackenzie, who creates modern bespoke kilts, is a strong supporter of sustainability in the industry, promoting the mindset of “if you can buy one item that has used topquality textiles and craftsmanship it will last you a lifetime rather than 20 cheap pieces which you will bin in a year”.
Indeed, Stewart Christie & Co often repairs and resizes kilts handed from one generation to the next. Owner and creative director Vixy Rae believes “kilts are one of the only garments you may own that may last you your whole life, and then be handed on” and that it is this striking romance and heritage that earns tartan a constant place in the everchanging fashion industry.
With traditional Scottish weaving mills continuing to collaborate with global designers, we can’t wait to see what new interpretations and communities will develop, weaving past and future together to design a more socially aware world and ethically responsible fashion industry, through the use of tartan.
Where so many others are in a race to the bottom competing on price and cutting corners, that’s the last place we want to be as a wee nation with all this tradition behind us
Stewart Christie tartan Model: Tabitha Stevens
Vivienne Westwood’s orange tartan dress and contrast tartan mohair cropped jacket