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Underneath the Kilt – Tartan


James Ferguson Berr

Having survived the tartan terror we call Christmas, I was thinking: what is that fabric? What is tartan? Where does it come from? And more importantly, can we still pull it off, without looking like something on a shortbread tin or someone outside “SEX’s,” King’s Road, London in the mid 70s.

Tartan today, the quintessential Scottish fabric. Pre-dyed, usually woollen yarns, are arranged in bands of colour at a right angle in warp and weft, resulting in a checked pattern. It is magnificent. The colourscape, is not only created by the base colours, but by layering these in a simple twill weave, seen as the distinctive, diagonally ribbed structure of the fabric, allowing the colours to blend and create the imperceivable array of base tones and their numerous variations and mixes.

Tartan-like fabrics have been woven for the better part of the last three millennia. The tartan, of above, is thought to have its origins in the 16th century, mirroring its surroundings, with the natural colours and dyes, found in specific regions. The patterns and colours were however not yet associated with the clans, as they would be.

In Georgian times, two English brothers, want to be royals claiming Stuart ancestry, decided tartan would be the perfect embodiment of Scottishness, and thus creating an alternative ancient textile link to the awe-inspiring, glorious wilderness of Scotland and its clans. An actual royal visit, made anything Tartan national dress of Scotland and just the height of fashion for all Britons. This popularity ultimately leading to the wide range of tartans we know today. New tartans were meticulously designed by the mills according to the taste of the customer – also those with no prior link to Highland culture.

Is it appropriate for non-Scots to wear tartan? The answer, YES! Scots aren’t exactly known for bearing a grudge, but it will take a little more than wearing “the wrong” checked fabric to be hunted down by a hoard of kilted people. Next question: Can I wear tartan without looking as though I was attending a fancy-dress party? Of course, tartan has been overused by third division punk bands, and chavs in Burberry, but we have all the Tartan wonderfulness to choose from. It doesn’t have to be the bright red Stewart suit of Rod, Mr. Sexy himself. Nobody – thank god – will make us wear loud MacLeod, a medley of safety vest yellow, black and red… Now, I am not saying you can’t, but let’s face it, there are easier and more socially acceptable ways – try opting for something a little more toned-down.

Well then, what tartan do I wear? What tartans are there apart from Black Watch, Royal Stewart or everyone’s favourite, Burberry’s own Nova Check? Just go for it. Go with whatever floats your boat! Muted tartans and ancient or weathered variations are perfect for spicing up your evening wear. Keep things elegant but add that spot of pattern and texture, where you need it. Fancy some tartan trews, wear them, a tartan waistcoat, on you go, a tartan cummerbund, hell yeah, and would life be worth living without a tartan tie à la Ralph Lauren…the list goes on. How about a tartan suit, perhaps a dirty dream for next year’s festive season…?