Last weekend I visited the brilliant Tartan exhibition at the V&A, Dundee. On their website (https://www.vam.ac.uk/dundee/whatson/exhibitions/tartan), it is described thus: “Tartan celebrates the global story of a unique pattern – how the rules of the grid have inspired creativity from the everyday to the sublime. The instantly recognisable symbol of Scotland, a global textile of tradition, rebellion, oppression and fashion, tartan has connected and divided communities worldwide, inspiring great works of art as well as playful and provocative designs.”
In a short film of soundbites about tartan (at the above link), Billy Connolly gives his take on it, saying that, when he grew up in Glasgow in the forties and fifties, only eejits wore kilts. He remembers when he and other children would gather and yell at the kilt wearer from across the street, shouting, ‘Kilty Kilty cold bum!’ at them. Not so now. Tartan has had a slow and steady rebirth, and its reversal in fortunes had nothing to do with Bonnie Prince Charlie or the Bay City Rollers or the Royal Family, it was rehabilitated without their help. It has made its climb to ‘cool’ over decades and, whilst there are still some who will never shake off the kilty kitly cold bum look, worn the right way by the right person, nothing looks better.
Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, Dries Van Norton, Dior, Chanel, Commes des Garçons, nearly all high fashion, at some stage, has had a shot it. Tartan is stylish, it’s punk, it’s youthful, it’s subversive, it’s skinheads, it’s conservative, it’s nationalistic, it’s militaristic, it’s iconoclastic, it’s familial/hereditary/ancestral, it’s boring, it’s kitsch, it’s staid, it’s male and female, it’s gay (I mean that both ways), it’s young and old. It is weddings and Hogmanay, it is buttoned up and prim, it’s Highland dancers and caber tossers and air hostesses. It is carpets and curtains and skirted dressing tables and fringed lampshades. It is shortbread tins and beermats, guitar straps and fiddle cases, it’s braces and nylon tights, it’s pocket handkerchiefs, ribbons and hairbands. It is Doddie Weir in a garish yellow and blue tartan suit that only he could make people love. It’s tam o’shanters, Balmoral bonnets and Glengarrys. It is ten men on a stag party marauding down Edinburgh’s Grassmarket wearing ‘see you Jimmy’ hats with scraggly ginger hair attached. It is bow ties and sashes, trews and taffeta evening gowns, it is renditions of ‘To a Mouse’ read from a book with a tartan cover. It is white scottie dogs in Royal Stewart tartan coats (you see them everywhere!), or the turned-up inside collar of a city gent in a Mackintosh, or the shopping trolley of the old lady pulling her groceries home along Iona Street, or the picnic blanket laid out on the grass on a spring day where the baby plays. It is ubiquitous, democratic, accidental, practical, inherited, timeless, global. It is very, very Scottish.