The tradition isn’t ancient at all.
Many people today are somewhat obsessed with plaid patterns. The first plaid fabrics were made by intricately weaving together threads that had been dyed different colors. These early plaids were often made of wool, and were worn in particular by men of the Highlands of Scotland, having no need of pants because they didn’t have a culture of riding horses.
The earliest known tartan from Europe dates from around the 3rd century AD and was found in Falkirk, Scotland. The faded specimen took the form of a scrap of plaid fabric plugging a jar of coins- clearly a high status person was associated with this fabric. But, what of the clan associations with tartan? As it turns out, this storied fabric traditionally had little to do with which clan a person belonged to.
When talking about tartan it’s not uncommon to hear people discussing the clan affiliations with different patterns and colors of plaid. While these associations are firmly in place now, the idea that they are based on a long history of clan delineation is actually a myth.
While tartan does have a long history, in the old days clans were not identified by their tartan. They generally wore the tartans that were available to them, that were proper to their class, and that appealed to the person choosing the fabric. Often made of wool, these warm swaths of fabric (long lengths of which were called plaids) were used in shawls, kilts, other garments and became a symbol of Highlander rebellions.
Under British rule, the Dress Act of 1746 made it illegal to wear tartan (more specifically “highland clothes” were prohibited), as a way to crush the Highlanders sense of independence. The law was repealed in 1782 along with the proclamation to Highlanders that, “You are no longer bound down to the unmanly dress of the Lowlander.” But, by that time the tartans of yore were largely out of fashion.
Instead of relying on traditional tartan patterns, cloth manufacturers took the chance to capitalize on the no-longer-contraband plaids by creating a whole new set of patterns. The firm of William Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn began to mass produce tartans in the late 1700s, and helped to standardize certain patterns. At first they were given numbers to identify each one, but this soon changed to using clan names instead. And, thus a tradition was born.
In the 15th century it was recorded that different colors of tartan were not worn to differentiate the clans, but to denote status within a clan. Chiefs were said to wear brighter colors (presumably made from costlier dyes) and those below them wore brown tartans (made from cheaper dyes).
According to the Scottish Tartans Museum in the early 1800s when the Highland Society of London wrote to various clan leaders asking what their tartans were, many had to ask around to their clansmen to see if any particular tartans had been favored in the past. And, in some cases they simply chose a pattern then and there as there had been no precursor.
For the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, clan leaders were asked to appear in their formal tartans, something many clans still did not yet have. The 1831 book, The Scottish Gaels, sought to immortalize Scottish customs and outlined the exact quantities of colors needed for each clan’s special tartan, something which would have been unthinkable only a few decades before since clans had no special tartans at that time.
During her reign Queen Victoria fell in love with Scotland, and after buying Balmoral Castle, Prince Albert kitted out the Highland estate with carpets and fabrics of tartan. Queen Victoria herself was fond of wearing tartan fabric and made it a la modefor women’s clothing to embrace the patterns as well.
The queen even had her own tartans made up, such as the Balmoral Tartan which was created in 1861 and a variation of the Stuart tartan with a red stripe added. The royal tartans are reserved for the royal family and variations of Queen Victoria’s tartans are still being made for the royals in the modern era.
The influence of the royals on the usage of tartan cannot be understated, and soon tartans were incorporated into formal attire for the upper classes of Ireland, Scotland, and England. Tartans have also become quite the fashion statement, having been associated with dandies, punks, and even haute couture fashion over the years.
While tartans serve important functions today the truth is that these brilliant fabrics have only been associated with clan identity for about 200 years.