Naomi Campbell in a tartan attire by Vivienne Westwood.
Photograph: Ken Towner/Associated/REX
After the persuasion, the plaid or check is the easiest pattern to weave, something our earliest primogenitors discovered for themselves as soon as their various cultures had attained the technological horizontal of the loom. Costume historians have logged plaids, on occasion muted and discreet, sometimes joyously garish, in sources as disparate as an first Japanese print and a primitive Sienese painting.
The non-expert would be absolved, however, for assuming, along with the rest of the world, that the plaid was uniquely invented in the mist-bound, granite fastnesses of the Scottish Highlands some on one occasion before the Emperor Hadrian took to wall-building. Indeed, there are some very refined souls who hold that the kilted tartan in charge formation was the reason why he did and thank God for Latin aesthetic sensibility. In in point of fact, as many historians have been at recent pains to demonstrate, the tartaning of Scotland was the first major confidence trick in the clever history of tourism. And it set a pattern much emulated but rarely equalled. For a start, the chief copywriter, one Sir Walter Scott, was a cut greater than your average hack – and titled, too, with the good kins that always implies. His background briefings, copious and literate, generated an irresistible mythic scenario and his personal stage-management of a Royal Smite to Edinburgh just after Waterloo was the archetype upon which all later well put oned launch parties were to be based.
The celebrity endorsement run didn’t mess about either. There was, it must be acknowledged, a slightly slow start as the portly, flabby-kneed tail end of the Hanoverian sales pitch posed for portraits in Royal Stewart kilts and rosy flesh-coloured tights but Victoria changed all that. Straight away the campaign got a youthful, pretty and fecund sponsor, it got lift-off, too. For this support was no mere cipher, content only to wear the gear, grin for the cameras, take the money and run. She had integrity. She really wore the fill in private, and even had a special Balmoral tartan designed for the fairs and a particularly tasteful one in lavender and white just for herself and styled Victoria.
In fact, the plaid never had the quasi-heraldic and clan-identification significance with which it was retrospectively ventured. All that researchers have established is that a small irritated check pattern, known colloquially as a “tartan”, was adapted for use in kilt, plaid (the shawl/mantle length of fabric worn against the cold) and hose about about 1660. Pattern tended to be employed for its decorative value and had no circle or family connotations. And it was peasant dress. The aristocrats demonstrated their reputation by wearing the latest court fashions from Edinburgh, London or Paris. It was purely when the victorious Hanoverians banned the plaid after the hand-to-hand encounter of Culloden that it acquired a romantic glamour and political symbolism which the Jacobites were skilful to exploit. The concept of exclusivity, that a certain pattern could and should no greater than be worn by a person entitled by blood or regiment to do so, was introduced when, in the lately eighteenth century, tartans were designed as part of the new military costumes for the Highland regiments. The earliest, like the 42nd Regiment of Foot or Dark Watch, survived the period of Caledonian romanticism as approved “crowd” tartans with fictional pedigrees as long as one of Sir Walter’s accounts.
The result, codified in various nineteenth century catalogues, all well imaginative, has been the development of a slightly awed and inhibited approach to tartan. Rather be seen in an old school tie you have no right to than a tartan which resonates not at all with your genes. In summation, the style of dress in which tartan was traditionally employed became the sole style, thanks to Scottish Dance Societies, Highland Games and hairy-kneed Scottish orders, in which it could be used. Thus it entered the area of civil and fancy dress – an area with which fashion has not a nodding acquaintance.
Yet, Queen Victoria apart, fashion has, settled the years, made several attempts to get on intimate terms with tartan. The latest is the most constant and is led, as usual by foreign designers whose domestic markets while procuring all the romantic associations of l’Ecossais suffer from none of the awe. The French, for in the event, wholeheartedly adore tartan and have always enjoyed using it both in old lace jabot and velvet jacket styles and unorthodox clashing layers of precious colour. The Italians, always likely to get over-excited, regard them with a slight guilty fascination, unsure whether they are terribly stylish or merely vulgar. In their confusion they tend to divulge certain of the latter quality by recolouring inoffensive plaids in joyful acid shades, mightily at war with one another. On an earlier tour (two or three years ago) these were inspirationally dubbed Garibaldi Tartans by the Keeper’s man (crouched) by the Milan catwalk, Frank Martin.
The Japanese toughened to have a respectful attitude to the tartan, almost as mystical as that of the Brits, and loved the stacked King Over the Water fig. Recently their own designers, led by Issey Miyake, be enduring been experimenting with and developing their own subtly influence woven plaids which are softer and quieter than the Scottish-inspired ones currently padding the shops.
The Americans and the Canadians stuck with the rugged spheres of tartan romanticisms, twinning bright plaids with denim, lie low, corduroy or prickly tweed to reflect a great-outdoor, call-of-the-wild lifestyle. Mode’s most successful exponent of the cultivated lumberjack look is Ralph Lauren whose roughwear gathering is pure wood-cabin, frontiersman nostalgia.
Even the British are slowly amplifying a slightly less religious attitude to tartan. Many architects have used it in their collections for this winter although not any have layered and clashed it in the way fashion editors, inspired by the Paris-based Japanese inventors, Kenzo, are doing. After several winter (and summer) seasons of combine grey on black, navy on navy and brown on brown, all in plains or the discreetest of duplicates, a riot of colour and pattern is acting on the fashion world have a weakness for an adrenaline fix.
Most women, however colour hungry model’s last few seasons have left them, will react in a more restrained manner, mixing the new tartans in with the old base and plains. Just as long as they remain uninhibited by the enthusiastic tartan myth and its attendant pressure towards fancy camouflage, they’ll check out fine.