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tartan jacket red tartan
tartan jacket red tartan

Style Defined: Tartan

December 16th, 2015

While not technically a seasonal pattern, chances are you’ll be seeing Tartan pop up more and more as we get closer to the holidays – probably mainly due to it’s traditional red and green colors. Regardless, it’s a classic menswear pattern with an incredibly rich history.

At its most basic definition, Tartan is a plaid like many others, consisting of criss-crossing perpendicular lines. The weave itself is a simple twill, and the vertical and horizontal lines are spaced evenly apart so that the pattern appears in squares, as opposed to rectangles. In whole, the particular combination of colors and the pattern that they are woven in is called a ‘sett.’

Tartan is almost always associated with Scotland, but the earliest uses have been found far from the UK, among the Celtic tribes of central Europe. However, the pattern definitely set down roots in the British Isles, and is largely considered a Scottish tradition.

In Scotland, the coloration and patterning of setts was originally determined largely by region – weavers would use certain colors that were more available to them based on their location. As the cloth became more widely traded, and purchasers were not limited to setts from their immediate surroundings, people were able to choose setts based on their personal aesthetic preferences – the same as we would today. Of course, certain colors would come in and out of favor, but there was no deeper underlying meaning.

Now here’s where it gets really interesting – without getting too deep into the history of the British Isles, the 1700s were a time of great turmoil, and the Scottish Highland clans (who traditionally sported regional Tartan uniforms in battle), found themselves continuously on the side of the rebel Jacobite armies. When they were defeated definitively in the battle of Culloden in 1746, the British government, as part of their efforts to permanently crush the clan system, banned Tartan dress with legislation that lasted until 1782.

By the time the law was repealed, many of the original producers and designers of Tartan patterns were deceased, and the tradition was largely lost. As such, when Tartan plaid came back into fashion in the early 1800s, new patterns were invented and many (if not all) of today’s Tartans actually have no direct link to any historic clans or regions.

These days, the most popular Tartan pattern is by far the Blackwatch plaid, likely because it’s utilization of dark green and blue colors is more subdued than many other brighter (sometimes garish) colors, and therefore easier to work into an everyday outfit. While you can still find authentic traditional Scottish pieces like kilts (and heck, bagpipes) decked out in the pattern, these days it is much more common as a shirting fabric (found often in heavier pieces like oxfords and flannels), neckwear (again, in more seasonal fabrics like wool), and outerwear (a favored punch of color for garments like duffle coats, or as a lining on more traditional macs and trenches).

That said, as the holidays approach, keep an eye out for those bolder, brighter patterns that herald in the season as they show up everywhere from your favorite menswear garments to festive accoutrements all the way down to wrapping paper and ribbons!

Thanks for reading.

Stylishly Yours,

Adam Lehman
He Spoke Style

Menswear history buff? Read more of our Style Defined series and explore the Glossary.

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Adam Lehman

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