With Scotland’s position inside the U.K. increasingly uncertain, could the opening of “Tartan,” at the V&A Dundee, be more timely? Is the museum consciously blowing on the coals of the “Good Old Cause”? This monumental exhibition, on view through January 14, 2024, brings together more than 300 objects from over 80 lenders worldwide, including a wonderful Hillman Imp Caledonian car. Poetic and political, this textile has clout.
A fabric loomed in many permutations of grid-like, crisscrossing colors, and pictured by most in the form of a kilt, tartans denote districts and clans (inter-related families), so they also indicate identity, much as a uniform does. For this reason, tartans were outlawed after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion—an attempt by the Catholic Stuart dynasty to regain the British throne. The uprising was concluded on a bloody field at Culloden, from which Bonnie Prince Charlie fled the Duke of Cumberland’s forces for the Continent and a drunkard’s death. The British took back control of Scotland with tough laws that included the ban on tartan. The brightly patterned textile was now so transgressive it was treasonable to wear.
Fragments of the tartan suit that Bonnie Prince Charlie wore when he left Scotland became venerated relics for supporters of the Good Old Cause. These precious pieces of cloth are on view in Dundee. In fact, the exhibition’s curator, Jonathan Faiers, told AIR MAIL, “If they were all put together, he would have an entire touring wardrobe.” The perceived power these fragments possess speaks of the “mystical” quality of tartan.
Certainly tartan is given to drama. When George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, an event carefully stage-managed by Sir Walter Scott, the fat Hanoverian king was resplendent in Royal Stewart. He returned Scotland to the Crown. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert consolidated this gain by giving Scotland the fairy-tale castle (Balmoral!) and the royal presence it so desired: the British royal family became, in the summer months at least, Scottish.
Fast-forward to the late 1970s. While the toff daughters of the Scottish gentry, hoping to make a good match, swirled to a country dance called the Gay Gordons at the Oban Ball, family tartan pinned to the breast with Granny’s plaid brooch, their punk sisters in London were equally proud to be wearing the same colors, only now attached with safety pins, while sniffing glue and listening to the Sex Pistols’ version of the national anthem.
Punk-rockers grabbed the rebellious fabric by the teeth (it was vicious), integrating it into their D.I.Y. ensembles. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren were quick to monetize the anarchy, and while Westwood challenged the Establishment at every opportunity, the somewhat faithless fabric had shamelessly moved on to Rod Stewart and the soft-rock band Bay City Rollers.
Westwood and McLaren would split, but tartan remained, and Westwood created a sensation on 90s runways when she dressed supermodels in swathes of glorious plaid, especially fetching when combined with a pretty nipple. Dame Vivienne also commissioned her own tartans, first the orange-black-white McBrick, and later, named for her third husband, MacAndreas (coral, blue, yellow, white, black).
According to Faiers, the couturier Alexander McQueen used tartan in a much more radical way, choosing to situate his collections in highly divisive moments of Scottish history, and giving them titles such as Highland Rape and Widows of Culloden. In his first show for Burberry, the brand’s new director, Daniel Lee, matched plaids on the bias with zaps of Argyle, a loving homage to Westwood, who died last December. Immortal tartan rocks on. —Sarah Hyde
“Tartan” opens today at V&A Dundee, in Scotland, and is on through January 14, 2024
Sarah Hyde is a London-based writer