Scottish for Christmas

Vintage Christmas Card

It’s a rare serendipitous moment for me when fashion seems to line up perfectly with something I’m working on in a positive way. In this case, I was several weeks into re-researching tartan as a Christmas-time stateside appropriation when Chanel showed its glorious pre-fall 2013 collection. To save any confusion, I use the Scottish terminology – tartan for the pattern, plaid to refer to a wide-width of fabric, or blanket.


Chanel Pre-Fall 2013, photos by Giovanni Giannoni, via WWD online.

In looking at the history of tartan and fashion, tartan seems to lend itself to borrowing by anyone and everyone. Vivienne Westwood’s famed use of the Royal Stewart as protest in punk clothing was her first use of the pattern and has been long-lasting up through her use of it in runway collections like Anglomania. Several books have been written on the long and continued use of it in fashion, including Jonathan Faiers’s contribution to Berg’s “Textiles That Changed the World” series. Worn Through‘s own – Monica has a whole section on Westwood’s and latter-day punks’ use of tartan in her soon-to-be-published book on punk style. Burberry is recognizable through its trademark check, Ralph Lauren makes free use of tartan in many of his collections, and Alexander McQueen challenged the beatific Scottish stereotypes through his Widows of Culloden and Highland Rape collections which made use of the sett – the technical term for a specific tartan’s colors, way, and check – he himself designed. Isaac Mizrahi, Marc Jacobs, even Jean-Paul Gaultier and Yves Saint-Laurent have featured it in their designs.

Kate Moss as the Bride for Westwood’s A/W 93-94 Anglomania collection

Tartan is in Catholic school uniforms, Japanese school uniforms, table linens, even Scotch tape. But what started my latest research endeavors into one of my favorite textiles were the American Christmas decorations, wrapping paper, and dresses – mostly for little girls – made of or featuring tartan. I have no idea exactly how the tradition started, but there is something about red & green tartan – sometimes with white or black thrown in – that seems indelibly linked with December and Christmastime in America. My hypotheses, which have not been proven in any way, shape, or form, is that seeing Scottish émigrés in the Royal Stewart – one of the “free” tartans, which like the strictly “fashion” setts are open to everyone – with its red and green colors (or a clan tartan with similar colors) other Americans thought it looked festive, and so copied it. Or that perhaps it was copied by their descendents who forgot in time that it was traditional Scottish dress, instead associating it with Christmas because that’s when they saw it. I’m basing these theories on the fact that most traditional Scottish dress has only been worn for special occasions since the end of proscription in 1782. Having been banned by law in 1746 after the final failed attempt by the Jacobites to regain the crown for Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Stewarts, most Scots forty years later were accustomed to wearing the same style of dress as everyone else for everyday.

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Contrary to popular belief, there is not a tartan for every clan. In fact, most registered clan tartans have only been around for the last two centuries or so, and the tradition is largely an invention of Sir Walter Scott’s novels and the Victorian vision of a romantic Scotland. Tartan’s proliferation through souvenirs purchased by tourists during the nineteenth century, when travel first became popular, was the first exposure most people had to real tartan. Until then, sketches alone had been available since the first examples of what we today would recognize as tartan first began to appear in Scotland itself in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

It was around this time that the first western European dress histories were compiled as records of the exotic and strange things people in far off places wore. They were collected by the upper classes to shock and titillate, or to prove that they were cultured and worldly to their acquaintances. Scotland was considered as far away and exotic as China. But what truly warranted Scottish dress a place in these early histories was not actually the plaid they wrapped around their waist before draping over their shoulder, as can be seen in the below portrait of Lord Mungo Murray, but the pattern of the fabric. Until the sixteenth century, Scottish fabric had been simple stripes and checks, such as what is known as the Shepherd’s tartan, a Lowland sett and possibly the oldest one, with an example dating from the third century on display at the National Museum of Scotland. In the sixteenth century the more complex tartan began to emerge and its bright colors and unusual pattern as much as the manner of wearing it was what made it “exotic”.

John Michael Wright, Lord Mungo Murray, the Highland Chieftan, c. 1680.

This is one of the things that I absolutely adore about the latest Chanel collection. It combines Scottish patterns with styles inspired by mainstream European fashions of the same century in which tartan acquired its modern form.


Chanel Pre-Fall 2013, photos by Giovanni Giannoni, via WWD online.

But what do the Scots think of fashion’s appropriation of not only tartan, but their national dress? I asked my friend, Michelle Irvine, a Glaswegian who actually has an ancient clan tartan – one that began before tartan was tartan and evolved into the beautiful sett you see below. Michelle loves seeing Scottish and Scottish-inspired patterns and dress in fashion, or in American Christmas decorations. What she doesn’t like is when tourists of Scottish descent, typically from America – she apologizes, but it’s true – come to Scotland, discover they do not have a clan tartan, and have someone design one for them on the spot. There are thousands of Scots without clan tartans, so they where the free tartans, such as Black Watch or the Royal Stewart. They don’t have someone create one for them. There are also, thanks to tartan’s ongoing popularity in fashion, hundreds of fashion tartans, such as McQueen’s or the setts seen in the Chanel show last week, which can be worn. Having one designed for you denigrates the tradition and the history. Especially since another friend of mine who is an Edinburgh native, Amy Porteous, doesn’t believe people should be bound to wear only their family tartan. Her father has and wears a traditional kilt, but prefers the Ancient Baird to the Porteous family tartan. Amy really loves kilts made from Harris Tweed, since they create a modern, updated version of the kilt, but still out of a (gorgeous) traditional Scottish fabric. She also told me that one of her sisters married an Englishman, with no right to tartan at all, but that she wanted him to wear a kilt for the wedding. He and his father and best men settled on contemporary black kilts as a compromise.

Irvine Tartan

Harris Tweed. Image courtesy of A Hume Country Clothing,

Tartan entered fashion fully in 1822 after George IV (formerly the Prince Regent) visited Edinburgh – largely because he wanted to be loved by someone and no one was going to love him in England – and the attention paid to the traditional Scottish dress worn to receive the king created a craze for all things tartan. Its popularity can be seen in this tartan turban from 1829 0 1835 at the V&A. There are earlier examples. While I was doing research on banyans for my presentation in Brighton last year, I discovered a man’s gown from about 1770 – 1810 in the Colonial Williamsburg collection made with tartan-patterned silk. The adaptation of existing or creation of new setts exclusively for fashion is nothing new.

Tartan: Romancing the Plaid describes tartan’s allure as “… both democratic and noble, establishment and antiestablishment, high and low …”. Perhaps that’s why it appeals to both punks and haute couture designers: tartan’s versatility of interpretation and redesign. I found myself wondering, as I received Michelle and Amy’s endorsement of Scottish-inspired fashion or the general wearing of tartan: is appropriation always a bad thing, or can it sometimes actually be cultural exchange? Is America’s use of tartan at Christmas, without realizing its history, or fashion’s continued use of it really appropriation? Many Americans do have Scottish heritage because this is where the Scots re-established themselves during the Clearances, but does that matter? Perhaps it is that fabric is less political than many other aspects of fashion. Perhaps its because when done with respect the end results are true evolutions of an ancient tradition.

Meaning I can covet the new pre-fall Chanel without any guilt at all.

Please share your thoughts.


Further Reading:

Banks, Jeffrey & De La Chapelle, Doria. 2007. Tartan: Romancing the Plaid. New York: Rizzoli.

Cheape, Hugh. 2006. Tartan: The Highland Habit. Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland.

Faiers, Jonathan. 2008. Tartan. London: Berg Publishers.

Faiers, Jonathan. 2011. McQueen and Tartan. June 30. Now At the Met blogpost: Accessed 10 December 2012.



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