Fashion: Tartan not just for squares

Tartan is more than trews and tam-o'-shanters. In fact, there's only one way you won't be wearing plaid - in a kilt.

Samurai warriors wore it. Egyptians were buried in it. Scotland is stereotyped by it. Punks slashed it. And designers today can't get enough of it. Tartan, the worsted cloth woven with a chequered pattern, has an epic history full of intrigue, controversy, passion and politics.

"It's a historical phenomenon," says Hugh Cheape, curator of Scottish Collections at the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh and author of Tartan, the Highland Habit (published by The National Museums of Scotland, pounds 5.99). According to Cheape, the origins of tartan date back much further than the commonly misinterpreted Braveheart era.

"It is almost as old as weaving itself. Samurai warriors wore it and it has been found in Egyptian tombs. The first tartan appeared in the 3rd century BC, the early iron age in Scotland," he says. To think that man's love affair with tartan stretches right back to pre-Christian times, just goes to show that if ever there was a fabric with staying power, this has got to be it.

Tartan was first considered deeply fashionable in the 15th century when brightly coloured checks started to emerge as Highland dress. "It was the Scottish answer to the heightened, flamboyant dress sense of the Renaissance period," says Cheape. Just as Henry VIII wore his ermine cloaks, brocade hose, plumed hats and bejewelled coats, the highlanders were swathed in flowing checks. A great deal of fabric, particularly in flaming colours, signified wealth.

Tartan was a symbol of rebellion in the 18th century, long before it was ever cut into bondage trousers by Vivienne Westwood and sported by punks. Seen as a uniform of resistance by the English, tartan was made illegal from 1746 to 1782, following the Jacobite Rising, the rebellion against English domination, spearheaded by Bonnie Prince Charlie.

A century later, when Scotland became a source of romantic inspiration for writers, travellers, philosophers and poets, tartan became the height of fashion all over Britain. Queen Victoria was so smitten with everything Scottish that, despite wearing her habitual dour, black mourning outfits after the death of her husband, she had Osborne House on the Isle of White completely "tartanised" by decorating it in a riot of plaids.

Meanwhile the Scottish weaving industry cleverly set about exploiting this passion for tartan by taking ownership of their voguish product - the 18th century equivalent of say, Fendi marketing the Baguette bag as its very own shape.

To this day, tartan is a badge of Scottishness, promoted around the world on tins of biscuits and porridge oats. And the tartan mills have lost none of their savvy marketing skills. Take the Scotch House, which runs a bespoke kilt service through its Tartan Room with more than 2,000 checked weaves to choose from. If you can track your ancestors back to the highland clans - as many Americans and Canadians do - they will cut your kilt from the relevant tartan, which takes about six weeks, and deliver it to you anywhere in the world.

It seems only fitting that today, with Scottish independence becoming established, tartan is once again putting Scotland on the fashion map. But designers have gone way beyond the traditional postbox- red Stewart clan checks or the sombre black and green Blackwatch pattern, issuing tartans in a kaleidoscope of colour.

Surprisingly, it was the Japanese designers, once known for their love of all things black, who produced the most dynamic plaids this season. Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons cocooned her models in yards of scarlet, yellow, black and gold, while her protege, Junya Watanabe, cut crimson, yellow and orange mohair tartan into lady-like shapes reminiscent of Christian Dior's New Look.

Other designers, like Clements Ribeiro, the London-based husband and wife design team, have used tartans since they started out in business as a way of creating a highly identifiable signature. "We love Scotland and all things Scottish," says Inacio Ribeiro. "Tartan is incredibly alluring because it has an extremely diverse image. The matronly Miss Jean Brodie in frumpy twin sets and mid-calf skirts and the subversive Sid Vicious in bondage trousers. It's funky and traditional, elegant and anarchic."

Just to prove how versatile and democratic tartan can be, Clements Ribeiro issued checks for their winter capsule range for Top Shop. To the fashion- literate consumer, the dress pictured here - in milky pink and grey tartan with a trademark band of beading above the hem - is unmistakably Clements Ribeiro and, at pounds 60, has become a must-have buy.

There are no rules to wearing tartan, although it is significant that in this fashion story, there isn't a single kilt featured. But this is the 1990s, and a tartan kilt would be considered too obvious, let alone overkill. Wrap skirts, dresses and shirts it is then, matched with cosy, colourful cashmere. No matter how you wear it or what you buy, at least you are safe in the knowledge that tartan is no disposable trend. It's here to stay, probably for ever.

Pink cashmere jumper, pounds 215, by Joseph, 74 Sloane Avenue, London SW3, 0171-823 9500; tartan skirt, pounds 37, by Sisley; studded belt, pounds 10, from Ad Hoc, 77 Fulham Road, London SW3, 0171-376 8829; pink tights, pounds 2.99, chocolate fishnet tights, pounds 3.99, both by Jonathan Aston, from department stores nationwide, 0116-286 2388

Above left, tartan flannel front shirt, pounds 179, by Claudette from Whistles, enquiries 0171-487 4484; tartan skirt, pounds 40, by Warehouse, enquiries 0171-841 3000; black tights, pounds 15, by Wolford, enquiries 0171-935 9202; above middle, cashmere stripe jumper, pounds 195, by Liberty, enquiries 0171- 734 1234; mohair tartan wrap skirt, pounds 75, by Scotch House, enquiries 0171- 581 2151; above right, tartan dress, pounds 60, by Clements Ribeiro for TopShop, enquiries 0800-731 8284; pink footless tights, pounds 3.99, by Jonathan Aston, as before; zebra mules, pounds 54.99, by Office, enquiries 0181-838 4447; leather cuffs, pounds 160 each, by Jacqueline Raburn, enquiries 0171-402 7101

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