One season it’s dead, the next it’s very much alive and kicking. Universally recognised, tartan’s inclusion in the fashion industry has soared and plummeted long since its inception in the Scottish highlands in the 16th Century. No other print or textile has received so much ambiguous and inconsistent appraisal. The industry’s, and the nation’s, relationship with it is nothing other than capricious: when it’s in, it’s in, when it out, it’s out. And though tartan seems to follow a corporate cycle that is as inevitable and mundane as it is, it has evaded any sort of exodus. So what is it that has secured tartan’s everlasting place in fashion’s hall of fame and does it even belong there?
Perhaps it is its quintessential ideal; the classic print hailing from the Highlands is just that: steeped in history, a symbol of one nation’s identity. From 16th-century Scottish lairds and their kilted clans to the London punk scene of the Seventies, tartan has demonstrated aristocracy and pliancy and allowed it to become a symbol of much for many.
In terms of seasonal approach, perhaps it is its versatility that has made it a go to inclusion, or maybe the kudos bestowed upon it by advocates like Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier, with whom fashion has an enduring love affair.
However, Scottish clans created their own tartan patterns to enforce kinship groups and give a shared sense of identity and descent to members. Does fashion therefor bastardise the true role of tartan? For LC:M AW14, the Alexander McQueen collection featured not only tartan but a pink three-piece tartan suit with accompanying kilt – the human equivalent of shouting, “Yoohoo! Look at me, I’m back!”
If so, why has this debasement become acceptable? While herringbone, camouflage and leopard print are all too often subject to disdain when seen on the runway, tartan is always applauded when it re-emerges.
And why does such an over-used and tired fabric ultimately see constant rejuvenation at all levels? River Island and New Look introduced tartan into their collections off the back of LC:M AW14.
Are we as fashion folk afraid to condemn a repetitive, and therefore visually offensive, fabric for the connotations it has with true heritage. And with the recent attempt at emancipation from the United Kingdom, should we really care to appease a nation who for the most part wants little to do with us?
Perhaps tartan is code for laziness on the designer’s part and we feel compelled to fawn over anything with a flashy high-end label. Is there a unanimous agreement to let it disappear for a season or two before the ‘revolutionary’ move to bring it back? And once ‘brought back’ no fashion editor, journalist, buyer or stylist appears to dare diminish its offering to the season, or to quintessentially overall.
Westwood is of course iconic for her use of tartan. What it brings to fashion is as old as its history though, appearing fussy and nauseating on the visual senses. How Westwood so determinedly basks in what is a generic fabric seen across the length of the industry, from Pringle to Primark, is difficult to fathom. Having had no formal fashion training, and still reliving her 70’s heyday season after season, why does her vision make tartan anything other than what it is: dated, limiting and uninspiring.
Gaultier, another designer to have bizarrely created synonymy with tartan, has included it in his work for decades. Influenced by London Punks, he has spoken of his appreciation for its traditionalism and its symbolism of rebellion and anti-conformism.
However, as a high-profile designer who spawns many copycat creations, Gaultier is greatly influencing the saturation and waning of its immemorial nature.
Is it fear therefore, and industry pressure, at the hands of heralded designers like Westwood, Gaultier and Sarah Burton for McQueen, who all consistently return to the pattern, that turns the fashion industry into clapping seals when a tartan clad model takes to the runway?
Looking back further, tartan was huge for AW13 – seen on shirts, skirts and coats at Chanel, Céline and MSGM – while more recently; it showed no signs of dwindling for AW15, seen at Marc Jacobs for NYFW and Moschino at LC:M.
So like floral print, checkered and paisley, tartan seems to always appear – to the point where it’s difficult to determine whether it ever in fact went away.
It is a belief that tartan should be treated as sacred, aligned with shortbread, the Highlands and bagpipes, not seen as a cashcow because that consensus now sees it fail to offer the dynamic contrast in fashion that it once did in its early use.
For most who wear it today, tartan’s history and the the violently oppressive English monarchs of the 17th century are not a consideration. The proud heritage associated with it, both important and poignant, not given a second thought. Rather it has become a pretty aesthetic turned throwaway fashion component like much of the rest of design.
As Gaultier, the one-time rascal of the fashion world says: “I don’t see tartan as a symbol of rebellion at all. It’s more like meeting a dear friend that you know is always there for you.”
And that there quote sums it up: fashion has become unashamedly ignorant and ironic. What is fashion if not a vehicle for rebellion and self-expression? Designers should not be striving to fall back on to what they know, but rather push creative boundaries and norms to enhance and further the industry and those who buy into it. For now, let’s leave tartan where it belongs.