A model at Alexander McQueen's Autumn/Winter 1995 Highland Rape runway showinstagram/fashion_enema

In the world of fashion, it’s well-established that tartan emblazons defiance, rebellion and individuality. It’s hordes of steely Jacobites charging over Culloden Moor to meet their inevitable martyrdom at the hands of the Duke of Cumberland’s army. It’s Johnny Rotten as he gyrates on stage and meets a hailstorm of bottles and spittle head-on. It’s Theresa May, misty-eyed and full of hope as she dons a Vivienne Westwood suit to announce that the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union will be done her way – red, white and blue (unlike her choice of Black Watch tartan) – and not the way of the far-right rebels in her party.

Vivienne Westwood is the designer who really took the tartan plaid from being the preserve of bagpipes players and Scots Guards and transformed it into its modern, punkish form. Selling her clothes in a King’s Road boutique in the 1970s, she encountered the poster boy for her aesthetic in one provocatively dressed John Lydon (later Johnny Rotten). The rest – tartan bondage trousers included – is history, as Westwood’s brand of fashion synthesised with punk music came to define the countercultural spirit of the 70s.

Theresa May arriving at Lancaster Housetwitter/haltosaur

Such are the punkish connotations of tartan that whenever a fashion house incorporates tartan into its runway show (which is often), the fashion blog clichés could write themselves. It’s daring, provocative, and easily paired with notions of female empowerment. Not that this is necessarily wrong, just that the use of tartan throughout history has not always been so unambiguously rebellious. Sure, it was banned for several years by the 1746 Dress Act alongside other measures that tore apart the Highland clan system following the Battle of Culloden. However, when the ban was lifted so that the Highlanders would be “no longer bound down to the unmanly dress of the Lowlander,” the result of the cultural genocide that had been perpetrated was that tartan was now fair game for anyone to wear – Lowlanders included.

In fact, tartan was never a uniform for clansmen, and the fabric was probably imported from the continent in the 16th Century. It was the authors, journalists and tailors of the 19th Century that wove a mythos of tartan being associated with clan groupings that stretched far back in time, while at the same time the wearing of kilts by middle-class professionals and Highland regiments bolstered a pacified Scots culture. When George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, he was pictured in a kilt – a dress that had been banned and associated with criminals only decades earlier when his father was on the English throne, effectively consecrating it in the Scottish national identity. Meanwhile, the actual clan system with which tartan was associated had been dismantled, re-appropriated and put on show.

Scottish media personality Phil MacHugh sporting the new ‘Pride of LGBT’ tartan design at an event in New YorkInstagram/iamphilmachugh

The quick association between tartan and counterculture remains strong despite its proximity to the establishment. This is mainly due to its adaptable mythical properties, with its popularity in the Victorian era stemming from the cult of the ‘noble savage’. In his A/W 1995 collection ‘Highland Rape’, Alexander McQueen sought to redefine the cosy image of kilts in ‘Made in Scotland’ gift shops through the sheer brutal force of his designs. Waifish models were sent down the runway violently exposed in shorn and tattered strips of tartan that clung to their bodies, fitted with black contact lenses that gave a sense of their identities having been obliterated by shock. They are unmistakeably victims – the usual description of McQueen’s clothes as ‘armour’ for the woman cannot convincingly apply here. Responding to the controversy, McQueen was adamant that the ‘rape’ applied not to the women but to the violence done by England to Scotland and its traditions – the Highland Clearances followed by the subsequent romanticising of Highland culture.

However, McQueen – self-described as a “romantic schizophrenic” – was not above romanticising history himself. Eleven years later, his Autumn/Winter 2006 Runway show entitled ‘The Widows of Culloden’ provided a measure of “catharsis” to the ‘Highland Rape’ show, presenting a more composed and empowered image of both women and Scotland – complete with a Gaelic translation of the title on the invitation card. McQueen was enticed by the primitivism and savagery of his version of the Highlander tradition, which placed tartan firmly in the context of resistance to English incursions, far from the historical reality. Thankfully for McQueen, we don’t hold fashion designers to the same empirical standards as historians, and this is a crucial point.


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Fashion is an industry that is constantly cutting, tearing, and stitching myth into new shapes for new generations of wearers. The traditions with which clothes are allied exist to be moulded to suit one’s sartorial aims, and tartan, with its huge potential for spawning individualised patterns, is no exception to this. Queen Victoria commissioned many personal and royal tartans for her household , McQueen favoured a version of the MacDonnell tartan and there’s now even an official LGBT tartan. The Paris-based Japanese brand Kenzo has always been particularly bold with their use of the pattern, perhaps due to their outsider’s perspective. It seems today that the antiquated idea of tartan only being able to be worn by members of a certain clan has been superseded by the view of it as a fabric that signifies pride in one’s identity while at the same time not being exclusionary. Tartan can be freely worn by anybody – you’ll rarely hear complaints about it being culturally appropriated – although some may grumble at the confected Scottish genealogies presented by those eager for a ticket to the Caledonian Ball.

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