From Regimental Highland Dress to punk-rock fashion, car interior upholstery to sexy undergarments, shoes to Xbox controllers, Bonnie Scotland posters to bawdy postcards and now, with a dedicated exhibition on display at Dundee’s prestigious V&A Museum, there is the sense that tartan has truly come of age.

If, indeed, that is the case then it has taken at least five centuries to mature. It is therefore perhaps fitting, that on its fifth anniversary, Scotland’s first dedicated museum of art and design should host the nation’s first major exhibition in thirty years to concentrate solely on that internationally recognized, defining product of Scottish heritage and identity – tartan.

As V&A Dundee Director, Leonie Bell says, “Tartan is a symbol of Scotland, representing tradition, rebellion, innovation, legend, power, and multiple identities, which is at home around the world.”

In addressing these multifarious aspects of this iconic textile and pattern, the exhibition delves deep into both the classic and contemporary uses of tartan, juxtaposing everyday objects with items of high-end luxury and separating fact from fiction.

Organized around five central themes, the show explores:
Tartan and The Grid: how the rules of colour, geometry and pattern form the foundations of a grid with infinite possibilities.
Tartan and Innovation: how tartan intersects with technical innovation resulting in the capacity to influence the appearance of an astonishing range of natural and man-made materials.
Tartan and Identity: the global influence of tartan as a mark of identity – from product design to the clothing choices of individuals to the sense of identity and belonging of entire communities.
Tartan and Power: the use of tartan to express political views, unify armed forces and promote a sense of power.
Transcendental Tartan: how tartan infiltrates modern art, media and popular culture serving as both catalyst and vehicle through which alternative narratives can be explored.

Inspired by Professor Jonathan Faiers’ book of the same name, the exhibit consists of over 300 objects encompassing the fields of fashion, architecture, graphic and product design, photography and film, and performance and art.

Near the start of the show, I spent time studying the oldest piece of tartan discovered in Scotland. Dated between 1500 – 1600 A.D., and found in a peat bog in Glen Affric, this unassuming piece of yellowing fabric is constructed with several colours of dyed yarns arranged in a multiple-striped, grid pattern. Although older samples of checked cloth using undyed yarns have been found, this is the oldest known example of true tartan. I contemplated how everything else that I would see had its origins in this fragment of ancient cloth once worn in a Highland glen.

Next, I found myself on a whirlwind tour of how tartan is designed, manufactured, and used. Vintage film footage of weaver Willie Meikle on his 200-year-old home handloom was a nostalgic look back to the cottage industry it once was before the advent of mass production mills. Stunning pieces by high-end fashion designers revealed how tradition could be repurposed for modern interpretations. The Auld Alliance with France extending back to the 13th century ensured a shared textile heritage and although the formal Alliance fizzled out around the 16th century its influence ripples on in the exhibits by Dior and Chanel. Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s affair with the Duke of Westminster in the 1920s-1930s – and the likely influence of her numerous visits to his Scottish estates – is manifest in her Ottoman silk cape in Gordon tartan. Also present are several items from a Karl Lagerfeld collection designed for Chanel. Launched in 2012 at Linlithgow Palace – the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots – these fittingly reflect Chanel’s interest in Scotland and its former queen. In my mind, I juxtaposed these examples of high-end fashion with the much-cartooned figure of a tartan-festooned George IV on his visit to Edinburgh in 1822 – an outrageous extravaganza of ‘tourist tartan’ orchestrated by the literary legend Sir Walter Scott. As the Edinburgh Advertiser noted back then, the city appeared to be having ‘a fit of tartan’.

The most moving part of the exhibition revolved around how tartan has been exploited to exert power and control.

Several items associated with the Jacobite Rebellion, including the 1748 Act of Parliament prohibiting the wearing of items of Highland attire, serve as stark reminders of the subjugation that ensued in the aftermath of Culloden. Other items include a circa-1750 Staffordshire Jacobite teapot underscoring the political affinity of its owner and a circa-1753 martyr’s snuff-box dedicated to those who were brutally executed for their involvement in the uprising. The unwashed, mud-encrusted kilt of Private James Calder, injured at the Battle of Auber’s Bridge in 1915 while serving with 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, is a sobering reminder of the reality of war. Two film exhibits further explore the theme of tartan in conflict: Black Watch by Gregory Burke and the BAFTA-nominated film – 1745 – by Gordon Napier. The former is a 2006 production by the National Theatre of Scotland showcasing the history of Black Watch uniforms (1739-2004). Told through a masterful piece of choreography, inspired by the military exercise of assembling a cannon, a young recruit is ‘assembled’ into the relevant historical uniforms by his fellow soldiers on a fashion runway. Highlighting the forced use of tartan dress for enslaved peoples, the latter film follows two black girls in tartan dresses making a bid for freedom across a bleak Scottish landscape.

The exhibition reminds us that tartan was once part of the transatlantic slave economy. In 1785 the Grant family tried selling ‘fancy check’ plaids in exchange for enslaved people on the west coast of Africa. It is reputed that William Wilson and Sons of Bannockburn, recognized as the ‘birthplace of the modern tartan industry’, not only provided tartans for the kilts of soldiers in Scottish regiments but also supplied cloth to be worn by enslaved people in North America and the Caribbean. Their ‘Kidd’ pattern was created for a plantation owner. Certainly, Wilson Mills was perfectly positioned in the marketplace to capitalize upon the romanticized resurgence of tartan that followed King George IV’s visit and the later acquisition of Balmoral Castle by Queen Victoria. Such was her over-exuberant use of tartan as decoration that Balmoralisation is now a term given to ‘over-tartanized’ interiors.

Of course, no exhibition about tartan would be complete without asking that age-old question, ‘What is worn under the kilt?” While the age-old answer may be, “Nothing Lassie. Everything’s as good as new!”, alternative answers may be found in any one of the stereotypical and clichéd items on display: saucy postcards, provocative posters, and mocking cartoons. The idea of the rugged, muscular, kilted Scot has persisted since Romanticism swept Europe at the end of the 18th century. While the Scots historically have taken pride in their iconic dress, on occasion enemies have used it as a source of mockery, to undermine and belittle an entire race of people.

Tartan is now found internationally in all areas of design. But its ability to connect peoples through the creation and use of ‘clan tartans’ is part of its widespread appeal. These tartans, often designed and manufactured for the Scottish diaspora is the means by which individuals and groups retain a sense of identity as well as connectivity with their ancestors and their historical roots. At the end of the exhibition is a specially commissioned piece from Lagos-born and Glasgow-raised designer, Olubiyi Thomas. Titled Intersectional Family, this beautiful exhibit of a family, clad in Thomas’ newly designed tartan and accompanied by his words perhaps best describes how we should look at tartan, ‘For me, tartan means kinship, it means family. You bear a mark that identifies you. Through each line, each width and each colour, your own personal narrative is constructed. It tells my story and symbolizes my journey and my experiences through the complexity of my cross-cultural identity.’

As a Scot I thought I had a reasonable knowledge of the origins of tartan and its uses. In visiting this exhibition, I had not anticipated a journey of such emotive enlightenment; it is serious, fascinating, humorous, and deeply thought-provoking. Two hours after entering I emerged with a greater understanding of tartan, its inextricable connection to a nation and its people and its universal appeal. I left also with an enormous sense of rejuvenated pride. ~ Story by Tom Langlands