‘‘NEVER LET THE TRUTH GET IN THE WAY OF A GOOD STORY’’ is an adage that Scottish history seems to have taken to its heart. Thanks, Mark Twain. To me, it feels as if perceptions of our history are based around an “embroidered truth”, or perhaps some colour has been woven into the facts to form a vibrant and steadfast pattern, and then more layers have been added, so the tone is altered for another generation. Something strong and vivid is at the core, but as it shifts and interweaves, pinning it down proves tricky. This motif reflects the evolution of tartan as its status as the cloth of a nation ebbs and flows through time.

So where would we start if we were to look at tartan simply as a fashion fabric? The 1970s? The 1870s? Hard to put an exact point on it; it’s a bit like asking: “When did fashion become fashion?” The history of the cloth indicates that it starts with the “right” to wear tartan. Tartan includes lots of colour and complex patterns, both of which take time and money to create, and so it was originally reserved for the upper levels of Highland society.

The National:

As a tailor, this makes complete sense to me; only the heads of the clans and those in their immediate family would have been afforded the courtesy of wearing the family colours.


Post-war saw a boom period, particularly in America. Tartan, the rebel cloth, reinvented itself as part of the fast-emerging youth culture and took its place in the world of rock ‘n’ roll. Tartan sett size was reduced and used for shirting; colours shifted to be used in suitings.

Bill Haley rocking around the clock in his drainpipes, shawl-collared tartan suit with his slicked-back hair and winkle-picker patent shoes heralded the look of the rebel era. It was one with a smarter edge, polished and sharp, dramatic and vibrant, an ocean away from the grit and roughness of the Scots. I see the Beach Boys in their matching plaid shirts with their neat haircuts, tanned skin and beaming smiles; I can’t see any signs of rebellion, just eager, sun-kissed looks. Even the original rebel without a cause James Dean wore tartan, but subtly: on the inside of his red Harrington jacket.

Twinsets, bobby socks, a high ponytail with either cropped tartan capri pants or mid-length skirt looked to be the female all-American teen uniform, but in Europe, as fashion designers directed trends for the wealthy, music did the same for the youth.

Christian Dior and Coco Chanel both used tartan within their collections of the 1950s, but as individual pieces using the structure of the pattern to give their defining cuts more edge and drama. Dior’s New Look really lent itself to tartan. The heavily fitted top and the slim waist flowed into a wide flared skirt. In most cases the Dior dress would have a bias-cut circle skirt with a straight-cut top, giving movement and drape to the lower regions of the body with rigidity and form to the bodice and bust.

“Vivienne Westwood reinvented tartan in the 1970s and into the 1980s with her irreverent, but massively stylish, bondage trousers and suits. Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols rocked her clothes, looked stunning and seriously dangerous. Punk not only had a seismic impact on music, but also on fashion and design. I was a little too young, but loved it from afar ... I did have some cheap and nasty bondage breeks as a teenager, but I’ve always wanted a quality pair. Thanks to a length of tartan I inherited from an uncle and Stewart Christie’s tailoring skills, I now have some, love them too. Punk as f**k!”
BBC broadcaster, author, journalist and musician


The 1960s saw the defined lines of structured garments for women relax. Hemlines came up and the feeling in Britain was one of economic growth with music and street fashion creating the direction for the trends. Prosperity and more disposable income allowed fashion that was accessible, faster paced and youthful. Ready to wear, off-the-peg clothing became more and more popular. Synthetic fabrics delivered more vibrant colours and tartan was an obvious direction. Mary Quant, Biba, Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent were at the forefront of 1960s design and tartan somehow seemed to fit into their vibe of “space race” futuristic designs and cuts. In some cases, the colours became less traditional, patterns less true to their Scottish roots. Tartan had come of age, its regular lines cohering with the graphic look of the future.

I remember a black-and-white tartan Pierre Cardin short coat with an exaggerated stand-up funnel neck, the wide diameter of which echoed the space suit. Straight cut and slim, the coat had a bias-cut lower skirt and straight-cut top; ideas similar to Dior’s but on a completely different silhouette. Shot in black and white by John French, it was ultra-modern for its time and pivotal to an era in which tartan was seen in miniskirts, playsuits, mod dresses, shorts, princess coats and capes of all lengths. Entire outfits in tartan were rare but in a Vogue shoot in May 1967 Twiggy was shot wearing a graphic New Look tartan playsuit, with matching tartan jacket with trimmed edges; Ronald Traeger’s photo epitomised ’60s style: tartan with a spark of youthful androgyny.


Tailoring was shaken up in the late 1960s too. A young man called Tommy Nutter, Savile Row-trained, was known as “the Rebel of the Row”. He used traditional construction techniques but mixed checks and exaggerated the proportions of his suits, which were seen on Elton John, Mick Jagger (below) and Ringo Starr. Tommy’s wide parallel-leg trousers were worn with elongated jackets that had exaggerated curved lapels and sleeve heads raised to the extreme. His favourite trick was to mix checks or the same tone and colour to dramatic effect.

The National:

This wide-leg silhouette of the 1920s Oxford bag rapidly translated into the parallels and flares of the late 1960s. As 1970s glam rock took over from ‘60s psychedelia, the likes of Noddy Holder, Rod Stewart and the Bay City Rollers were responsible for tartan’s presence in the decade that taste forgot. I was a child of the ‘70s and my scars run deep. I can barely bring myself to write about the tartan trauma these individuals inflicted on my eyes and my ear drums.


It was from this period of the worst fashion mistakes in history that tartan had its own rebellion. From a small shop on London’s Kings Road, McLaren and his then-girlfriend Westwood evolved their clothing business through teddy boy suits and rock ‘n’ roll, to an incredibly on-point, dramatic range of fetish wear. In 1975, tartan was about to truly rebel against all that had come before. The shop was renamed Seditionaries and punk was born. With economic decline and disillusionment, there was a void to be filled with subversive ideas and tartan looked set to be reinvented for a youth culture that bristled with an anarchic energy.

Vivienne Westwood’s creation of “bondage pants” dipped into history and her interest in fetish wear and corsets. Close-fitting tartan trousers with looped hung belted legs and zip detail became the archetypal punk look.

With the addition of a short kilted apron clipped on at the waist these trousers brought together so many fetish, military and Highland elements that they’ve become a modern fashion icon.

The National:

The whole punk ethos was fiercely anti-establishment. Slashed garments daubed with slogans, safety pins, zips, provocation and snarling opinionated attitude were all homemade and home grown, as the youth needed a subculture to call their own. Tartan, as an outspoken cloth with a history of subversive rebellion and shade of irony to it, fitted punk’s core perfectly. Tartan had become credible again, big style.


The early 1980s saw the edginess of punk evolve into the high camp of the dandy-esque New Romantic look. Again, McLaren was on the fringes, managing Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow. Tartan became less relevant – though a young Adam Ant did take to the stage in a kilt – but it did fall more into the mainstream again, thanks to Laura Ashley and Ralph Lauren. Both had a romantic dream of British style. Laura Ashley with her Vaseline lensed view that seemed to merge Jane Austen with Edwardian-era florals, and Ralph Lauren with his Anglophile designs. For me, their perspective was rose-tinted: everything was either too wealthy and affluent or too feminine and floral. Not to my taste, but I do remember Laura Ashley’s below-the-knee Black Watch tartan dress with its white Peter Pan collar.

Ralph Lauren had been gaining notoriety in the US since the mid-1970s, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that he became an inspirational brand on this side of the Atlantic. Inspired by figures such as the Duke of Windsor, he would frequently mix tartans with checks to create subtle yet distinctive looks that were very British, which he then sold back to the British. Clever!


The late 1980s and early 1990s saw Vivienne Westwood reintroduce strong notions of tartan into her collections; in an extraordinary mix-up of ideas from Scotland, Texas, punk and the Village People she created the Tartan Cowboy.

Always drawing from history and then the British aristocracy, tartan was a constant. Her AW90 collection Portrait gave sleek silhouettes, with defined tailoring on the female form, using Royal Stewart and Dress Stewart tartans. The AW91 Dressing Up collection focused on the masquerade of Lord Murray and Lord Tullibardine, bestowing a theatrical edge or exaggerated lines to the tartan.

AW93’s Anglomania took the theatre of tartan a step further to use silk taffeta in a full-skirted tartan dress; layered, ruched, full of period opulence.

Westwood remains one of tartan’s biggest advocates; she has created cloths with Lochcarron that include McBrick, inspired by the London cityscape.


It wasn’t until a band from Aberdeen – no, the one near Seattle – had a 1991 hit with Smells Like Teen Spirit that music culture made tartan accessible again to the (youthful) masses.

Nirvana were at the forefront of grunge and their music was spawned from punk, metal and indie rock, with themes of social alienation, neglect, betrayal and emotional isolation. It didn’t float my boat at that time. I was more of a “skate betty”, but the grunge and skate scenes have their crossover points ... and so, back to tartan. Part of the grunge uniform was the tartan or plaid shirt, worn open over a faded T-shirt and washed-out ripped jeans; mid-length surfer hair with stubble (for the boys) completed the look.

This is the point where tartan had its first relevance in my fashion world. It was glimmering on my horizon with brands like Palace, Silas, APC, YMC, Volcom, Emerica, Dickies, Carhartt and Stussy. The tartan check shirt was a definite grunge crossover, and skaters had adopted workwear brands for their lack of fashion edge, their relative cheapness and their durability.


AW95 showcased the Highland Rape collection from Alexander McQueen which was to establish him not only as a world-class designer, but as an activist driven by the pride of a nation. The title was not as explicit as the press would like you to believe. It relates to the English rape of the Scottish throne, along with the horror of the Highland Clearances. These powerful looks and his thought-provoking fashion philosophy gave McQueen the status more of an artist than a designer. He saw far beyond the shortbread tin, and relayed the dreich and ruthless nature of his heritage, telling of dramatic turbulence between two nations.

Highland Rape used tartan sparingly; McQueen conveyed his message with paper thin layered dyed silks, portraying a worn-down and weathered look of garments and characters who were mere ghosts of their former selves.

It wasn’t until 2006 with Widows of Culloden that McQueen re-imagined his Scottish roots with more romance and poetry; this time to accompany his theme of the widows after the 1746 Jacobite defeat.

Between these two collections Scotland as a nation regained its pride, a little of its identity and certainly its passion for independence. With a new millennium looming, there was optimism and uncertainty, and the population homed in on things which were steadfast and familiar, tartan among them.


It would appear that AW2019 marks the season of the “tartan takeover” with designers including Christian Dior, Marine Serre, Lanvin, Unravel and Rokh using tartan checks for their key pieces. The standout piece for me is from Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior: a deep green and ink variant of the Rob Roy tartan used in a simple chore jacket with piped edges.

It is her realignment of the feminine image which attracts me; there is female form but at the same time a relaxed sense of function. She references 1950s teddy-girl influences and strong bold patterns to give presence and appeal.


It might seem that through all the eras of fashion, tartan has stayed the same, but the way people see it and use it is constantly changing. Surely proof that it is a truly timeless cloth with a broad and far-reaching appeal. But however and wherever tartan is used, the history and heritage remain: slightly functional, slightly vibrant, slightly poetic and slightly theatrical ... tartan transcends gender, location, age, class and climate. What other fabric can make such a claim?

My guess is not even denim – and I doubt there are any mills still weaving in Nîmes.

The Secret Life of Tartan: How Cloth Shaped A Nation by Vixy Rae costs £25 and is available from Black & White Publishing – http://blackandwhitepublishing.com/ shop/secret-life-of-tartan.html

Vixy Rae will appear at Edinburgh’s Dovecot Studios on Wednesday at 6pm. Tickets £10, £25 with book.