a punk and political history of tartan

Theresa May did her best Johnny Rotten impression recently, in a tartan Vivienne Westwood suit. And then the fabric was all over the fall/winter 17 runways, from Junya Watanabe to Fenty x Puma. We look into its history.

by Anastasiia Fedorova
21 March 2017, 1:50pm

Fenty x Puma fall/winter 17

The first look of Rihanna's incredibly hyped Fenty x Puma show was stunning: Slick Woods appeared in a full-length puffer jacket and boxing shorts, both printed to imitate tartan's checks. The recognizable pattern ran like a woollen thread through the collection: from baggy trousers to mini dresses to the lining of thigh-high boots. Mixed in with splashes of goth, hip hop, and Ivy League, it was yet another reinvention for tartan, a new chapter in its troubled fashion history and the proof that today it's more timely than ever.

The audience flicking through Fenty x Puma catwalk images in the UK might have felt a hint of familiarity. In fact, the dark blue and green check, also known as Black Watch tartan, already made fashion headlines this year, if in a slightly unusual way. It was exactly the color of British prime minister Theresa May's Vivienne Westwood suit which she wore to announce her firm stance on Brexit in January. (Vivienne Westwood wasn't thrilled, and later told The Today Programme: "Do I mind if Theresa May wears my clothes? No, but I certainly don't admire her for anything. I think she's awful.") May's political agenda is potentially ripping the young generation off of many opportunities, but her outfit could definitely speak to pop-culture junkies. The suit was immediately compared to a very similar one the Sex Pistols's vocalist Johnny Rotten wore to gigs in 1977 while calling the Queen a fascist and dodging empty beer bottles flying across the venue. May and Rotten were indeed united through time: both revolting in a completely different manner, against completely different things. It also exposed, once again, that punk and the fashion output of Vivienne Westwood for a long time have both been key parts of Britain's cultural export.

Ashley Williams fall/winter 17

Throughout the fall/winter 17 show season, flashes of tartan could be seen on the catwalk constantly. Ashley Williams showed tailored trousers, dresses, and kilt-like skirts in bright yellow, black, and red checks, and also a more subtle red and light blue. It was combined, in a riot of references, with florals, yellow hoodies and cowboy hats; a look so flamboyantly joyful you could imagine it working in any city in the world. Renowned Japanese avant-garde creator Junya Watanabe has worked with recognizable checked patterns constantly throughout his career, both for his own label and Comme des Garçons. This season his collection was definitely punk — brightly colored hair, boots, fishnet tights — yet taken away from the subcultural context, his tartan garments are anything but rough and flimsy, carefully deconstructed and put back together in innovative shapes. Tartan also popped up at Loewe, but separated from its traditional shape and material, as detail on sleeves and sheer tops.

The way we read tartan in fashion today could be an illustration of how fashion easily reworks, chews up, and spits heritage. Or it could be, if only tartan didn't have its own very conflicted political history and questionable authenticity. We think of Tartan as quintessentially Scottish, yet some of the earliest examples of tartan have been traced back to Central Europe. Tartan wasn't a way to identify various Scottish clans until the 19th century, when the idea of color-coded tartan identity was fabricated in London in 1815 by the Highland Society, who named clan-specific tartans which remained popular right through to the Victorian times.

Read: These are the fall/winter 17 new faces who rocked our world. Meet these future fashion stars!

Junya Watanabe fall/winter 17

For a long time the fabric's appearance varied according to locally available dye and weaving techniques, and it was banned for almost 50 years, when, in a bid to control the Highlands, the British Parliament's Dress Act of 1746 (abolished in 1782) meant that those caught wearing tartan faced imprisonment or deportation.

Alexander McQueen used tartan (the black, red, and yellow McQueen one, of course) numerous times throughout his career, drawing on his own Scottish heritage and Scotland's turbulent political history. His powerfully disturbing fall/winter 95 Highland Rape collection referenced the 19th century clearance of the Scottish Highlands by profit-driven landlords. "For the show, the runway was covered in heather and bracken, and many of the outfits, made in McQueen tartan, referenced 19th century bodice shapes. In the breast-exposing, tartan-trimmed jackets and figure-hugging tartan bodices topped with 'decimated' lace, McQueen's tailoring expressed the barbarism meted out to the fragile Highland way of life and its ecology," fashion scholar Jonathan Faiers wrote in his text for the McQueen retrospective at the Met museum. McQueen also used tartan extensively in the Widows of Culloden fall/winter 06 collection, this time to expose the way the material was commodified and Anglicized as fashion.

Alexander McQueen fall/winter 95. Image via blog.metmueseum.org

The best illustration to the way tartan has become Anglicized over time is perhaps the Vivienne Westwood's Anglomania collection from fall/winter 93. It featured mini-kilts, layered tartan draping, and Kate Moss in a voluminous gown fashioned from Vivienne Westwood's custom made McAndreas tartan, named after her husband and co-designer, Andreas Kronthaler. Westwood's take, at the same time, is very far from soulless appropriation. She has a rich history with the material, using it throughout the rise of punk in 70s. Alongside former husband Malcolm McLaren, Viv was busy crafting clothes for the band he managed, The Sex Pistols, and her shop SEX, was a hangout for the nascent punk scene. She could be seen herself in a mix of bondage gear and tartan suits, just like the one she made Johnny, and the one she didn't make for Theresa May.

Where Viv led everyone else followed. And Tartan's subcultural place owes a lot to her pioneering. From 70s punks to 90s grungers, tartan has helped channel the anger of the lost youth. Tartan has a slight conservative aura of authority, national heritage, and idyllic countryside about it — so it's fun to rip it to shreds. Today we're angry again, so tartan's reemergence might subconsciously be about tapping into the past history of rebellion, and reusing its uniform.

Tartan is perfect for today's fashion because it's both minimal and excessive, unmistakably catches the eye and can be worn discreetly in so many combinations. It's been reinvented so much that, maybe paradoxically, it's completely open to the new interpretations, both historical and personal. The founder and designer of Le Kilt, Sam McCoach, is doing precisely that. Inspired by the kilts her grandmother used to make her, she reworked a traditional men's tartan garment into an ultimate wardrobe staple for the new generation of girls. It's about history — but even more about quality, durability, attitude, and endless stylistic flexibility. "I'm always inspired by how people adapt clothes and how they wear things, by the way people put clothes together on the street," McCoach once said. Clearly, the street is where tartan truly belongs today.  

Read: The i-D guide to contemporary fashion terminology. The 'fashionista' is long-since over and no one says 'edgy' anymore, duh. 


Text Anastasiia Fedorova
fall/winter 17 photography Mitchell Sams

Vivienne Westwood