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Fashion Nightmare: Plaid

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

My eyes! The colors!

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.

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When Were Women’s Hats in Fashion?

I’ve been asked this question and let’s say women’s hats have been in fashion for centuries. If I limit this to Europe (because various regions developed headdresses as different times) then we can look at it a bit more specifically. Headdresses might be a better word than hat since what we see in modern terms as a hat is not the same as a head covering. This could cover everything from a kerchief to feather and bone to felt and straw.

If we look at earlier civilizations, head ornamentation covered metal crowns,  coronets and helmets for war. These can be seen in Egyptian, Babylonian, Sumerian etc. eras. Metal working was endurable and saved the head from a Bronze Age sword. But it wasn’t really used in making hats or head coverings so much as showing social class and standing.

The first hats were most likely squares of fabric, just as the first types of clothing (after fur and wool) were squares of woven fabric stitched together. As civilizations evolved into aggregate societies, becoming more sedentary and developing cultures, they also learned to weave, sew and shape cloth. The making of any fabric was time-consuming and no piece was wasted. People either made their own cloth or had to trade with merchants and then sew their own garments. Rectangular construction used every piece even if it was cut first into various rectangular, square or triangular shapes.

The same knowledge and skills for clothing would have been the basis for hats. It is known that Norse women wore rectangles of fabric upon their heads, sewn into a peak or rounded, essentially forming a cap. (many early medieval caps and coifs were worn by both sexes) The veil or fabric (from wool, linen or cotton depending on the area) rectangular headdress was common in European countries, protecting the head from sun, and in some areas as a form of tradition or religious custom. Styles may have been influenced back and forth between the religious customs and the nonreligious. In some cases married women were required to cover their heads and this seems to be more a Christian tradition than cultural.

Fabric became more elaborate and was used in turban like wraps and caps. It’s hard to peg the first true hat but the Phrygian cap (a soft red knitted hat, like the Smurfs wear) was being worn in Phrygia (of course) as well as Greece and Rome as early as the 4th century BCE. The Catholic mitre was being worn by about the 11th century, and was probably an adaptation of the Phrygian cap. But these are men’s hats.

hoodEarly outerwear involved rectangular mantles (the precursor to the cloak) and eventually hoods. These garments were worn by men and women alike. Women’s hats began as elaborately configured and starched veils or fabric. Some were pinnheaddressed into interesting shapes while others were stitched.  There would have been a utilitarian aspect, keeping the hair away from food and fires. As textile weaves became more intricate, so did the headdresses, involving wire, mesh, brocade, velvet, fur, linen, silk, wool, etc.

As the Catholic church’s influence grew, various laws came into effect. Some were sumptuary laws indicating that only a person of a certain station (or nobility) could wear certain colors, fabrics or styles. Others were edicts of the church, that women must cover their hair, or even their ears because Mary had conceived the word of God and the ear must be covered. This brought out more ingenious headdress, often flaunting the church doctrines. Veils so thin they were nearly nonexistent are indicated in some paints, and really don’t hide hair nor ears. Hats and headdress became greater symbols of status, social rank, wealth and fashion.

barbetteAround the 13th century the transition began from coif, cap and headdress to hat. The barbette or porkpie hat was a stiff band of several inches depth that went around the head with a piece of fabric wrapping  under the chin to hold it on. It was hollow on the crown but some began to be filled in with fabric.

The hennin is the big conehead style everyone imagines when thinking of

A form of hennin.

fairytale princesses but had a relatively short life and also had many variations. These began in the 14th century and involved veils as well as hat forms mixed together. Jewels and pearls adorned headdresses by the 1400s and the Tudor headdresses took on a new form, which was not utilitarian at all. The Renaissance and Tudor eras of the 15th century really began the roller coaster of fashion in all senses. Clothing patterns became very elaborate as did hats and by the Baroque and Rococo eras hats and hairpieces were monumental in stature and elaborateness.The ornamentation of the Tudors was just the beginning of hats.

anne of cleves

The elaborate Tudor headdresses were just another step.

So when were women’s hats in fashion? You could say from about 1300 till about 1960. Hats are still worn but not as often. The full evolution would take a lot longer to research and write. As well, narrowing hats by country or era can give more focus. This is a very surface brush with hats and I have not consulted one of my 40+ books on clothing/costume history at home.

But hats have often been worn for fashion and fun, to flaunt status and sometimes for piety. They will always be worn as protection from the elements, whether sun, rain, cold or wind. They reflect the flavors of an era as well as what fabric or trim was newly discovered or cherished. They also indicate the growing sophistication of the human hand and the creative mind. Hats will never quite die out for all of these reasons.

If you would like to more know about a specific era, country or style, then let me know and I’ll see what I can dredge up.



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