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Outlander is back, so it seems only fitting to do a Scottish themed FRIDAY FASHION FACT! Nothing is more instantly associated with Scotland than a tartan kilt. There are a lot of myths surrounding the history of this national fashion, so lets set the fact straight.

In about the 8th Century BCE, the pre-Celtic Hallstatt culture of central Europe created a simplistic check-patterned fabric. As the Celtic culture developed, so did their tartans, and when they spread to Scotland, their fabrics went with them. The earliest known tartan in Scotland was the 3rd century Falkirk Tartan, a simple gingham-like check pattern which is still very common today, particularly in menswear. The pattern took several more centuries to develop into what we now think of as tartan. It wasn’t until the late 16th Century that the pattern became popular across Scotland.

Many people believe that this is when clan tartans began. While this is incorrect, it is an understandable mistake. Towns and villages would have a very limited number of fabric makers, possibly just one, and these fabric makers would each create their own distinct tartans. Since families tended to stay in the same area for generation upon generation, they would wear the same few tartans. It was more a matter of limited access to different tartans, instead of “official” clan tartans. Additionally, tartans from the same region tended to have the same color scheme, due to the natural dyes available in those regions. Therefore, it was often possible to identify where a person came from based on the colors of their tartan.

The first big turning point in the history of tartan was when Scotland and England officially unified at the beginning of the 18th Century. There was some bad blood between England and Scotland, to say the least (which, evidenced by the recent election, still remains to this day) but the tension was amplified by the fact that Parliament had dethroned the Stuart House, and placed the Hanover House as monarchs. The Jacobites, who supported the Stuarts, rebelled repeatedly for decades in an attempt to restore the throne. The Jacobites and their supporters proudly sported tartan. In an attempt to squash their cause, the government instated the Dress Act of 1746, which banned tartan completely, with the exception of the British Highland Regiments’ uniforms. Eventually, for a variety of reasons, the Jacobite Rebellions ended, and with the persuasion of the Highland Society of London, the Dress Act was repealed in 1782.

The second big turning point for tartan was during the Romantic Era, beginning in the 1820s. It was dubbed Romantic for a reason, as the poets, novelists, and artists began romanticizing history. Sir Walter Scott wrote about the Jacobites, and King George IV visited Scotland, then had his portrait painted in full Highland Dress. Shortly before this time, in 1815, the Highland Society of London began to put together an official registration of clan tartans- the start of official clan tartans. Tartan officially became a craze when in 1848, Queen Victoria purchased Balmoral Castle. Scottish fashion swept the nation, and the pattern remains stylish to this day.

As for kilts, to put it very simply, they began in the 16th Century as a large piece of fabric draped over the shoulder. It was so long, that soon men began to wrap the long end around their waist. This was known as a “belted plaid.” It was often in tartan, but not always. Basically, the kilt was developed and perfected from there. The pleats were added to make the garment more polished, and less bulky. So sorry, Braveheart fans, but William Wallace never wore a kilt.

Want to learn more about the history of tartan and kilts? Check out these books:

Scottish National Dress and Tartan, by Stuart Reid

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Tartan, by Iain Zaczek

Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!

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Happy National Tartan Day!

“Nowhere beats the heart so kindly as beneath the tartan plaid.”    William Edmondstoune Aytoun 

From our stacks: The Scottish Clans and Their Tartans With Notes. Library Edition. W. & A. K. Johnston, Limited, Edinburgh and London. Undated {1902}.

Tartans pictured:

1. The Rob Roy Tartan

2. Old Stewart

3. Hunting Stewart

Old And Rare Scottish Tartans With Historical Introduction And Descriptive Notices by Donald William Stewart F.S.A. SCOT. Edinburgh: George P. Johnston, 1893.

Tartans pictured: 

1. Wallace

2. Balmoral

3. Drummond Of Perth

4. MacLeod