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

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence