Plaid: Family Heritage Symbol to Modern Fashion Staple


It Originated In Scotland

I was born and grew up in Scotland, so I am very familiar with plaid, or what we call in Scotland, Tartan. All the men in my family would wear kilts to fancy events, like weddings or New Year’s Eve parties, and we even had our own family tartans including Moffat and Robertson.

My Dad, brother and cousin wearing Moffat tartan kilts to my wedding. 

My Dad, brother and cousin wearing Moffat tartan kilts to my wedding. 


By definition, Tartan is a unique crisscrossed pattern with multiple colors of woven wool distinguishing one Scottish clan or geographical region from another. In early days, Tartans were checks with only two or three colors, that would be extracted from local dye-producing plants specific to that region. With the evolution of chemical dies, weavers were able to introduce more elaborate and colorful patterns. As clans grew and branched through birth, death or marriage, the newer clans evolved tartans of their own by adding a stripe onto the basic pattern of the original clan.

Tartan Evolved From Family Symbol To Military Uniform

During the 18th century, tartan moved from Scottish family symbol to military uniform under James Francis Edward Stuart’s 1714 rebellion against the English monarchy. One of the most iconic tartans, Black Watch is actually a military tartan and has been worn by Scottish soldiers for almost 300 hundred years. Apparently the tartan got its name, because the Highland soldiers kept “watch” over the Highlands to ward off criminals and rebels.

Kirrin Finch Blackwatch Tartan button-up shirt

Kirrin Finch Blackwatch Tartan button-up shirt


Tartan Was Banned For Almost Forty Years

As you may remember from the movie Braveheart, Scotland was often at war with England. In 1747 after the Battle of Culloden the act of wearing tartan was banned under the Act of Proscription in an attempt to crush the clan system of the Highlands and prevent further uprisings. Punishments for disobeying were harsh: imprisonment for the first offense, then deportation. The act was repealed in 1782, but by then many of the weavers had died and people had lost interest in wearing Tartan. It wasn’t until 1822 that the tartan revival began, when George IV visited Edinburgh and suggested that people attending the official functions should wear their family tartans.

Battle of Culloden sourced from Education Scotland

Battle of Culloden sourced from Education Scotland


Plaid And Tartan Are Not The Same Thing

By the original Scottish definition, a "plaid" was a Celtic kilt or blanket which served as an outer layer to battle the Highland elements. So technically all tartans are plaids, but not all plaids are tartans.  Plaid became synonymous tartan once the patterns became popular with British and American textile manufacturers who would recreate fabrics that looked like tartans, but without centuries of symbolic meaning.

The Modern Plaid Craze Began With Buffalo Check

The introduction of plaid into modern fashion started in the mid 1850s with Pennsylvania Company, Woolrich Woolen Mills’ distinctive red and black Buffalo Check plaid shirt. The shirt became a hit with those in outdoor professions, lumberjacks in particular, which is where plaid became associated as “lumberjack apparel”.

Vintage Woolrich Advertisements

Vintage Woolrich Advertisements


Plaid Was The Uniform of The Rebel in the 70’s-90’s

Royal Stewart Tartan has always been associated with aristocracy and so it was fitting that anti-establishment British punks wore this tartan as a symbol of rebellion against the Queen and monarchy. Then a few years later in the 90s, plaid became the symbol of the grunge movement with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam sporting checked flannel shirts. 


December Is The Month For Plaid

As we all know the internet and Google tells us everything we need to know in the modern era, so I turned to Google trends to analyze trends for plaid in the last decade. During the winter months we pull out our plaid flannel shirts and decorate our houses with plaid stockings and pillows. So it is not surprising to find out that Google searches for plaid spike every December.



Check out our new fall winter collection to get your plaid game on this December. 

Laura Moffat