Culture //

The politics of plaid

The dark history of our love for plaid.

Image by Sarah Wardlaw / Unsplash

You need only walk past the windows displays of Glue, or click on a junk email from ASOS to see some mini skirt or flannie covered in plaid print. The criss-cross of woven wefts always makes an appearance at this point of the year; the rain and growing chill of autumn encourages many to seek out cosy grid patterns that whisper of crackling fireplaces in a highland log cabin. However, a 90s fashion revival is seeing more and more individuals adopting a myriad of tartan plaid prints.

In contemporary fashion there tends to be a general ignorance surrounding this heritage print and the historical struggles that they evolved from, prior to being assumed by the 1970s punk movement and contemporary lesbian culture. For Scottish people, tartan or plaid has been at the cornerstone of their culture and a very dark part of their history. For centuries, Scottish Highlanders used tartan and plaid as a symbolic representation of their ties to their clan, their families, their friends and their land. Each clan had their own unique pattern and their own unique colouring. 

However, in the 18th century, a shaky new union of Great Britain caused strong divides among Scottish Highlanders and the English. The Battle of Culloden in 1745 was the culmination of decades of violence and political instability that saw the massacre of Scottish Jacobite rebels and began a dark era in Scottish history. To quell any further uprisings, the English began a campaign of cultural genocide; they evicted many highlanders from their ancestral lands, banned their native Gaelic language and made the wearing of tartans illegal. Penalties for insubordination ranged from imprisonment without bail, conscription, or even transportation.

It is easy to dismiss the experiences and hardships of Scottish culture. As a result of integration into Great Britain, Scotland has become engaged in colonialization and imperialism. However, this does not discredit the deaths at Culloden, and the erasure of ancient traditions that did occur in the Scottish Highlands. Whilst the laws were eventually appealed (after the satisfactory deconstruction of Scottish identity), plaid and tartan remain a symbol of a dark time in Scotland’s past. However, this cultural significance and the fight to reclaim Scottish practices is not something that is advertised in contemporary fashion.

This is not to guilt anyone away from buying those cute plaid pants. This serves only as a reminder to shop in a thoughtful and conscious manner. Within the past century, fashion has turned from a personalised experience where fit, fabric, and style were deliberately chosen with a certain individual in mind, to a constant momentum of mass producing, mass purchasing, and mass throwing away in a month or two before the process starts over. Current fast fashion sees garments flit through wardrobes before the words “cultural heritage” or “factory conditions” can be spoken. But the fashion you engage in, the clothing you wear in is a primary element of how you represent yourself. You have a duty to take a genuine look at the processes and history behind any item you pick; understand the past you represent, the industry you support. Make a conscious choice.