We instinctively recognise tartan whenever we see it. Yet those familiar criss-crossed lines and checks, in all their varied arrangements of size and hue, demand deeper inspection and appreciation. Look more closely and you find strands of tartan woven throughout key subcultures from past and present and stitched into fashion’s ongoing timeline. Those Scottish highlanders who wore tartan as daily attire, hundreds of years ago, clearly knew they were on to a good thing.
From the middle of the 20th Century onwards, tartan-ism has been embraced by the young and rebellious. In the 1950s, for example, lightweight Harrington jackets lined with tartan (hitherto donned for gentle outdoor pursuits such as golf) were re-appropriated by the era’s freshest heroes of music and film. Elvis Presley and James Dean boldly wore theirs semi or fully-unzipped, accessorised with quiffs and sex appeal. The look was emulated by teens worldwide.
During the following decade, the tartan-lined Harrington further diverged in context, achieving eternally-cool status. It became a staple piece of clothing for sharply-clad UK Mods in the 60s, as well as Ska-loving skinheads and Rude Boys and Rude Girls, in their evolving incarnations between the late-60s through to the 80s. Fred Perry’s ever-popular tartan-lined Harrington has maintained this subcultural connection over the years, along with other back-in-the-day staples beloved by the shorn-of-hair, including jaunty tartan socks, woven button-down tartan shirts and tartan knitwear, all of which remain in the Fred Perry collections today.
There were other tartan innovations during the 1960s, too. Futuristic designer, Pierre Cardin, incorporated tartan into his designs, while in London the game-changing tailor, Tommy Nutter, combined his Savile Row training with an instinctive understanding of pop culture. As the swinging 60s morphed into the 70s, his generous use of maximal tartan checks upon suits boasting roomy flared trousers and massive lapels was favoured by glam rock’s most discerning influencer, David Bowie, no less. By the middle of the decade, the rather cartoonish rock group, Slade, as well as the Scottish boy band Bay City Rollers, both made tartans a kitschy part of their image, yet even their unabashed cheesiness couldn’t dent the dignity of this much-loved material.