For hundreds of years, tartan was associated with the aristocracy – mainly because was primarily worn by Scottish army regiments and royalty. In fact it was all taken so seriously, that in 1746 the wearing of Tartan was banned completely in England under the Dress Act of 1745. Reinstated in 1782, tartan once again became the go-to choice of the establishment and in particular was a huge favourite with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who had it fashioned at just about every turn inside their new Scottish retreat at Balmoral. Curtains, cushion covers, carpets, all in good ol’ rootin’ tootin’ tartan.
Before the industrial revolution, pure wool fabrics were expensive to produce, and even after that, tartan was generally only seen on either the very rich, or the very keen on uniforms or “traditional” wear. It was stuffy, old fashioned and very establishment, and the wearing of it was mired in official rules and regulations as to who precisely might be allowed to even wear it.
By the 1970s, tartan was back and enjoying a brief moment in the spotlight of popular culture when it was used as trouser trim by the Bay City Rollers and their “Shang-a-Lang-ing” fans. You see, Tartan was also seen as the epitome of being Scottish, it became the favourite pattern to decorate the tins of shortbread that your Auntie Jean would get out at Christmas, along with the Tam O’Shanter hats on gonks. The Rollers management used it to dress the young teen stars up, like some kind of barely disguised advert for the Scotland Tourist Board. Obviously the fans followed suit, but that just relegated the bold and bright checks further into the realm of novelty, and naffness.
At about the same time, and in the back of a certain boutique on the Kings Road in London, the tide was about to turn, someone was starting to experiment with clothing inspired by S&M bondage wear. Along with the more usual materials like leather and rubber, Vivienne Westwood started toying with the idea of creating wearable bondage items out of something woven, something that bondage wear had never been made with before, and something that might give the establishment the kick in the teeth that it probably deserved. She tried tartan.
Westwood created bondage jackets, coats and trousers using several traditional tartans, including the red backed Royal Stewart, worn above by Malcolm McLaren – this btw, is the Queen’s OWN tartan. Despite the rules and regulations from the official Register of Tartans, there was no looking back, it was a strange but perfect match. Far from the novelty value of bubblegum pop’s recent use of Roller friendly tartan, Westwood’s designs, suggested by S&M, and made up in the very material of “the establishment”, became one of Punk’s most copied and inspired ideas, levitating tartan from the very boring to the very bold and cutting edge. This was a pattern that could be simultaneously worn by The Queen, and the singer from the country’s most controversial band. It was one of the best examples of UK Punk Rock’s playful, but extremely arch and deep rooted sedition. It toyed with the class system like nothing else.
Tartan is still a High Street favourite, and much of it’s old stuffiness is forgotten…but not completely forgotten by the Tartan Register. There is still one design that is still STRICTLY off-limits. The Royal Balmoral tartan still has all of its restrictions in place, and is never produced commercially. And that’s how serious tartan can be!!!