Kilty pleasures: tartan’s miraculous journey from humble highland craft to global superbrand

From punks to princes, from shortbread tins to enslaved people, the criss-cross fabric has symbolised rebellion, repression – and pure power. As Scotland gets a new leader, we visit a Dundee show exploring its many contradictions

Picking your tartan is no easy task. Should you favour tradition and wear your clan colours, with a kilt passed down through the family, or choose a punk styling by Vivienne Westwood? Is it the dress of revolt, worn by Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite rebels, or the uniform of repression, taken up by the British army and once even used to clothe enslaved people? Is it a cringe on shortbread tins or the unifying weave of Scots nationhood?

Tartan is, above all, a cloth of contradiction. And that is the refrain that runs through a new exhibition at the V&A Dundee charting this instantly, globally recognisable textile’s journey from simple highland craft to mass-produced superbrand. “Tartan is linked to a hugely diverse range of identities,” says gallery director Leonie Bell. “It is the cloth of the establishment, of political power, regal power, military power. Yet at the same time, it’s a symbol of subcultures and new identities, whether that’s 1970s punks or Japanese fashion influencers today.”

On the run … the enslaved women in 1745, directed by Gordon Napier.
On the run … the enslaved women in 1745, directed by Gordon Napier. Photograph: Jonathan Birch

This notion of contradiction is one that Jonathan Faiers – who wrote Tartan, a celebrated cultural history that helped inspire the exhibition – returns to again and again. Faiers, professor of fashion thinking at the University of Southampton and a consultant on the show, writes: “It has been employed as a textile that can honour and repress its wearer, and is simultaneously regarded as quintessentially traditional and rebellious. Apparently simple in construction, tartan is also capable of staggering complexity.”

The earliest documented tartan in Britain dates from the third century AD, and was discovered in Falkirk, near the ruins of the Antonine Wall, stuffed into the mouth of a pot containing Roman coins. The fragment, now held at the National Museum of Scotland, reveals a simple check design of light and dark wool. And it is this grid structure or “sett” (the sequence of coloured threads woven to produce crisscrossing vertical and horizontal stripes) that renders each tartan unique.

As a reflection of the constant and often subversive ways tartan has been reinvented, the exhibition is deliberately non-chronological. “How we understand tartan in the 21st century is very much shaped by myths,” says curator Kirsty Hassard. But often these fictions are entwined with moments of very real historical significance, and that is what the exhibition seeks to disentangle.

Bonnie Prince Charlie himself understood the visual impact of the material: his tartan coat, reproduced in portraits on snuff boxes and crockery, was a signal to his Scots supporters – desperate to restore the Catholic Stuarts to the British throne – that, despite an exiled childhood in Rome, he was one of them. This effective symbolism resulted, after Charlie’s defeat at the Battle of Culloden, in an attempt to ban tartan and other forms of Highland dress – though later historians dispute the nature of the prohibition, regarding it as another early example of tartan myth-making.

But the most notable myths were fabricated by the notorious Sobieski Stuart brothers, who may be considered largely responsible for the Victorian “invention” of tartan. The pair, who falsely claimed to be descendants of Bonnie Prince Charlie, created a fake history of tartan in the 1840s, introducing the notion that different highland clans wore different tartans. They spawned a heritage industry that is thriving still.

Pushing buttons … a tartan Xbox controller
Pushing buttons … a tartan Xbox controller Photograph: Carl Opaloni

By then tartan had been adopted as Scotland’s national dress, a status popularised after King George IV wore a kilt on his 1822 visit to Edinburgh at the suggestion of Sir Walter Scott. A few decades later, Queen Victoria acquired Balmoral castle and estate with her husband Prince Albert, creating their “tartan retreat” just as tourism was rising and with it the romantic ideal of Scotland.

The exhibition includes over 300 objects from more than 80 lenders around the world. Visitors will see the full spectrum of how tartan has been worn, with high-fashion pieces by Chanel, Dior, Alexander McQueen and Comme des Garçons, alongside racing driver Jackie Stewart’s helmet with its distinctive Royal Stewart tartan band, as well as a fragment of MacBean tartan that was taken aboard Apollo 12 in November 1969 by American astronaut Alan Bean.

Tartan’s influence goes well beyond the sartorial, however, and the show explores iterations through architecture, product design, furniture, performance and art. Intriguingly, it finds room to dwell on 1745, a film by Gordon Napier telling the story of two sisters taken from their home in Nigeria and sold as slaves in Scotland. In one haunting image, we see them racing across a highland landscape in mid-escape, lifting their tartan robes so they can run faster.

The public have also been encouraged to contribute to the show: The People’s Tartan segment offers an eclectic selection of personal memories and nostalgia, including a pair of “See You Jimmy” hats worn to the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, and a rare Hillman Imp Caledonian car with fully tartanised interior and matching picnic basket.

Wraparound … kilted dressing table called Perfectly Peek-ed.
Wraparound … kilted dressing table called Perfectly Peek-ed. Photograph: Courtesy of Precious McBane

Tartan continues to evolve, with designers looking at more sustainable ways of manufacturing the material. A touch table of fabrics includes a contribution from zero-waste designers Prickly Thistle, who are working with university researchers to soften coarser fleeces produced by Scotland’s hill-farmed sheep flocks. As Hassard says, recycling is not novel: because tartan has always been highly prized, it was often remade, reused and transformed into other garments.

One commission, created specifically for the exhibition, comes from Lagos-born, Glasgow-raised and London-based designer Olubiyi Thomas, who worked with a Scottish micro-mill using traditional looms and weaving techniques to produce a pattern blending the colours of the Nigerian flag with those of Celtic football club. “I’ve always had a taste for the older ways of producing textiles,” says Thomas, “simply because the quality is so much better – and it’s better for the planet too. Growing up, we supported Celtic because their colours were nearly the same as the Nigerian flag. I wanted to have some fun and ask what our family tartan would look like.”

Bell has big ambitions for the show, which marks the fifth anniversary of the design museum opening on Dundee’s transformed waterfront. “We hope this will be seminal in terms of how Scotland will understand its relationship with tartan,” she says, suggesting that bringing together elements of cultural cringe, as well as innovation, will challenge visitors’ own perspectives. “The show doesn’t create a hierarchy,” says Bell. “Bay City Rollers trousers made by a fan are given the same status as a Vivienne Westwood suit.” She goes on: “This is a really big opportunity to say design is all around us and we all make choices about it every day. It influences how we express who we are, either at the scale of nations, or when we identify ourselves with clubs or clan, or in those moments that matter most to us and our families – when we celebrate, when we grieve.”

  • Tartan is at the V&A Dundee from 1 April to 14 January 2024. Entry to the exhibition is free for members and for 18s and under


Libby Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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