We call it plaid, which is different from the historical meaning. A plaid was a piece of cloth with a certain weave. The tartan was the pattern upon the cloth and any particular pattern differed from one region to the next. This pattern was call a sett. Tartan plaids were worn as shawls or traveling garments (the great kilt) that doubled as blankets. There were a range of patterns or tartans throughout Scotland and they were not clan specific until about the late 1700s when the Stuart-Sobieski brothers decided to set the patterns for different clans. Of course some clans came from certain regions where particular dyes and patterns were used so there is some correlation to clans and regions.
I have never understood the fascination or the love of the tartan, but obviously it is a strong cultural symbol and that love may have nothing to do with taste. Most of these patterns with lines or stripes on the warp and the weft seem garish and ugly, but people identify strongly with them. So in one aspect I think the tartans are already fashion nightmares of colors that are better off left apart. As early as the 1700s and perhaps even earlier there is evidence in paintings of men wearing trews (trousers) doublet and hose, all in a different size or color of tartan. Dear ole Mungo Murray (to the left) was the height of fashion but wore a variant of European style by adding in his highland dress, the tartan. It’s hard to see in this picture but he is in fact wearing three different tartans: the hose on his legs, the kilt and the separate shoulder piece. For most trews, pants or hose of this period, you will note they are cut on the bias (the diamond as opposed to horizontal and vertical lines) because it adds stretch to the fabric.
Why the Scots were so fascinated by this pattern, I don’t know but it became a national symbol, especially after it was banned. What happens when you ban something? Well it becomes so popular that when the laws are lifted everyone wears it with pride as a symbol of the struggles. Don’t forget Scotland had lowlands and highlands and many wars with the British as to who would own the land and whose nobles were more noble. So Murray, and these laddies to the right were the epitome of Scottish fashion and nobility. They two wear three different patterns of tartan in their trews, doublets and jackets. It wasn’t really something women wore, except as a shawl. What the rest of Europe thought of these folk, I can’t imagine but their patterns were considered garish and uncouth.
And maybe just maybe that’s part of the symbol of the wild Scotsmen, running amok in a kilt (never a skirt) and slashing people with his claymore, his red beard aflying. Of course, the red hair in the Scottish and Irish heritage comes from those Viking marauders of centuries before. So really, we can blame the English for this fashion nightmare and its tenacity and anytime there is any cultural event for the Scots out come the kilts and the wretched clan tartans. And
even more than the British, you can blame those Stuart-Sobieski brothers for their marketing genius. I mean, seriously, what man would be caught dead in some of these colors?
And most men wouldn’t be caught dead in a skirt, unless its a tartan kilt. But plaid (as we now call it in North America) can pertain to any fabric that has lines on both the horizontal and vertical plane (warp and weft). It can be simple, like the jacket plaid here, or it can be complex with a host of colors. But it’s still plaid.
Okay, fine, I admit I once had a plaid skirt in teal, magenta, purple and blue. And I do have a vintage plaid kilt/skirt that was my mother’s. But I haven’t worn it in a long time and I certainly think men need a larger wardrobe selection than plaid shirts. And I have, like those nobles of old, seen men wearing two to three plaids together, in different colors and different patterns, widely different colors. Just because it was done long ago doesn’t mean it was tasteful even then.
Sure, a few pieces of clothing can look fine if made of tartan, but I just don’t ever think of sophisticated, upper class or elegant when I think of it.