A brief history of tartan, and why its recent resurgence confirms that it is the most powerful print in fashion...
What do you think of when you hear the word 'tartan'? Perhaps you think of British punk, of Sid Vicious, mini skirts and safety pins; or maybe you recall The Bay City Rollers, the Scottish pop group who took the 1970s by storm in tartan flares; maybe you think of Burberry - or, does your memory dart back to Naomi Campbell's infamous catwalk fall, in which she toppled from 10-inch platforms, clad in McAndreas tartan at Vivienne Westwood's '93 Anglomania show? Whatever it is, I'm sure you'll agree that there has been no shortage of fashion moments where tartan is involved, and if you look as far back as the 1920s (i.e. the beginning of modern fashion - or when women were granted access to trousers) you'll realise that not a single season has passed without a designer taking influence from the ancient Scottish pattern - this year is no different. In fact, this year’s influx of tartan is so sudden, so potent and ubiquitous that we must ponder why.
In 2016, two years after Scotland lost its independence referendum, Trump was voted POTUS and the UK voted to depart from the EU leaving the Occident in a state of political turmoil that hasn’t occurred in such force since the last time we had a female Prime Minister. (Editor's note: I am NOT dissing females in power!) Oddly, Theresa May chose to wear a Vivienne Westwood tartan suit to announce her stance on the Brexit scenario, leaving us questioning whether or not her wardrobe choice was as deliberate as her political upheaval - after all, Vivienne Westwood championed tartan as the print of rebellion in the 1970s. Fast-forward 2 years, David Bowie has died and Brexit negotiations are underway - what better time for fashion to pay homage to the print of 70s anarchy than now?
In January, Alexandre Vauthier sent a new-romantic, tartan-clad Bella Hadid down the runway in Paris, while Balenciaga and Priscavera have since paired tartan pieces with streetwear slogans and modern fabrics like neoprene and mesh, taking lead from Ashley Williams, Off White and countless others who put tartan back on the millennial radar towards the end of last year. On the high street, Zara’s windows are a melee of clashing purple plaid while Mango opts for classic tartan trench coats a la Burberry; and at New York Fashion Week, variations of the emblematic print have already been snapped on everyone from Danielle Bernstein to Lisa Aiken.
Its clear that we are amidst a(nother) tartan renaissance, so why is it so powerful?
Aside from obvious reasons, such as its versatility, vibrancy and timelessness, could it be that tartan was essentially the very first form of sartorial branding? In the same way that streetwear fanatics use logos to showcase their affiliation with subcultures/super-brands like Supreme and Palace, in ancient Scotland, tartan was how you communicated what clan (tribe) you were from. Tartan, with its aposematic criss-cross stripes, was once military uniform (see terribly inaccurate Braveheart for reference); it was worn to convey social class, by monarchs and peasants alike; it was worn equally to represent the establishment as it was to represent the anti-establishment - which explains its prominence within every subculture from punk to chav. Either way, tartan was - and still is - worn with purpose. After all, what is a brand but a way to showcase what you stand for?
Like all great branding design, tartan was invented initially with functionality in mind: yes, it had to be durable, but it also had to communicate a message. It is no surprise, then, that today’s influential brands should allude to tartan's historic inception when designing its modern counterparts. In their iconic SS18 collection, Balenciaga have used Lewis Macleod tartan. Brazen yellow and black, its bold, but it also happens to be the tartan of Donald Trump’s ancestral Scottish clan. A deliberate political message delivered by way of a pencil skirt.
So tartan has, once again, been adopted as the battle attire of a subculture: woke millennials. Where tartan in fashion was once just in reference to a designers heritage (see Westwood and McQueen) now, it is a result of a political awakening post-Trump, post-Brexit, post-Indy Ref - and in the era of the personal brand, no print seems more fitting.