By Tag Christof
Updated December 11, 2014
Credit: © Lauren Lyon

This piece originally appeared on

Few patterns carry as much weight as the illustrious old tartan. Synonymous with the Gaelic culture of Scotland, it has over time come to symbolise many facets of that nation, from its stark, harsh setting, to its regional divisions, its music, and even acts as a sort of shorthand for its national identity. Tartan-wrapped bagpipes and kilts and patterned balmoral caps say Scotland just as much as haggis and stiff Scotch.

For as long as anyone can remember, there’s been a folk legend that specific tartan patterns were inextricably linked to particular clans—and that they demarcated allegiances and enmities. The story went that if, say, a chunky yellow-green dared enter a neighbourhood of delicate red-greys, it’d be a Blood-in-Crips-territory scenario. But like any juicy myth, it is something of a misunderstanding and an exaggeration. Textiles with variations of intersecting, contrasting lines had been around since early weaving in Scotland, and tartans were long dyed with pigments available locally and woven with regional know-how. Patterns from down near the English border would invariably be unlike ones from up in Inverness or Aberdeen. When the Victorians rolled into town, with their penchant for rigid order and punctilious classification, the idea that districts were delineated by their patterns became popularised and the idea snowballed from there. Nowadays, the lore is perpetuated by sites like Tartan Register, where any tartan can be registered as one’s own. Presto, click-o, instant clan.

In any case, tartan has clearly migrated well beyond Scotland. From being an integral signifier of the quintessentially English brand Burberry, to a hot commodity in Louis Vuitton’s Chinese boutiques, the tartan long ago entered the global commons. Like many things imported to North America, too, its nuances got a bit lost in translation, and what we generally refer to as “plaid” is, in fact, more accurately tartan. Fun fact: tartan is the pattern, while plaid is actually a type of scarf or shawl in a tartan pattern.

Call it what you will, the stuff is in the midst of a major renaissance. In fashion this season, find it in the mix of a surprisingly large number of labels, and see it styled with gusto—contrasting tartans mixed, matched, layered.

The mixing and meshing of the tartan this season is most symbolic of this reexamined Scotland, in which those folklorically antagonistic regions have united for something larger. More broadly, it also seems to speak to a willingness around the world to overlay cultures and attitudes that previously clashed in the name of a multifaceted and richer whole.