Anna Pulley: I couldn’t figure it out, I was hitting on a lot of straight people.
AT: This is Anna Pulley. She’s a writer. And when she moved from Chicago to San Francisco, she didn’t know who to hit on anymore.
AP: Midwestern queer culture is extremely different than Bay Area queer culture. and one of the things that was most noticeable to me was fashion.
AT: Some of the queer signals from the midwest didn’t hold. Like plaid flannel shirts.
AP: I wear flannel and I feel gayer. In the Midwest, way more so, I think.
AT: If you’re part of a group, there are things you can wear or ways you can style your hair, signs that show that you are part of that group.
AP: Flannel was one way to signify, like, I exist.
AT: But you can’t stop other people from wearing these signals, and so eventually the power of that signal gets diluted.
AT: So if you see someone wearing plaid now, does it mean anything to you?
AP: Well, I might first think, “Are you a bike messenger?”
AT: And the next thing you know, you can’t even tell what clothing is signaling what anymore!
AP: Yeah, one night I was rebuffed by this straight lady, and I got upset about it. And also I had been thinking about hipsters a lot because they appropriate a lot of working-class culture motifs, and flannel is one of them.
AT: So it doesn’t seem like lesbians are appropriating working class wear?
AP: Yeah, so that’s interesting. I don’t know who actually owns if anyone can own, a fabric.
AT: Lumberjacks wore plaid, punks wore plaid mini skirts, The Beach Boys, I kid you not, used to be called the Pendle-tones, and they wore plaid with their surfboards. So many different groups have adopted plaid so it almost doesn’t mean anything anymore. And really, why are we all wearing this? This particular pattern which once upon a time was worn primarily in the upper corner of this one Island off the coast of Europe.
Peter Macdonald: Certainly for Scotland its dress; the dress is the thing that identifies people in Scotland. Dress. People say bagpipes as well.
AT: This is Peter Macdonald, historian at the Scottish Tartans Authority. They call this pattern tartan, not plaid.
PM: We don’t use that word for patterns in this country. Plaid is a garment.
AT: The Scotsmen who lived in the highlands, the northern hilly part of the country, used to wrap themselves in a cloth, almost like a blanket. Kind of like an Indian sari.
PM: So if you’d like, “it’s a tartan sari” would be the nearest equivalent.
AT: That bolt of cloth was called a plaid. And it had a tartan pattern on it.
PM: That’s how the term got in the U.S. and that word then becomes synonymous with the pattern.
AT: It’s not like back then there were tartan shirts and scarves. No, tartan was on these traditional plaids and overcoats, and on the traditional pants, which were called trues.
PM: And then trues are tartan trousers, but they’re not trousers because they’re tights, they included the feet. So they’re more like ladies tights you know.
AT: So tartan was kind of this parochial little pattern that Scotsmen in the country used to wear. It was pretty much only used in these obscure traditional highland garments that I had never heard of before. And then something happened. Something that would end up turning Tartan loose on the world. These obscure traditional highland clothes were banned.
PM: The act banned kilts, plaids, and other elements of highland dress. And outdoor coats and tartan you can’t wear as well.
AT: The act Peter MacDonald is talking about is The Dress Act of 1746. Scotland was being taken over by the Hanoverian Empire, and many of the Scots who fought back were from the highlands, and they wore tartan coats and kilts and plaids.
PM: To put it in modern parlance, they would be seen as terrorists. Or freedom fighters, depending on which side you were on, but that’s the reason for the ban.
AT: It was a way to suppress the resistance, by limiting what they wore. Men were not allowed to wear Highland clothes for 35 years in Scotland. But here’s the thing: Just like banned books become the cool thing to read, when Scottish clothes were banned, they became the cool thing to wear.
Jonathan Faires: And as always, when you’re not allowed to wear something, that means somebody else immediately will!
AT: This is Jonathan Faiers, author of the book Tartan. And he says what the ban did, was it made highland clothes trendy outside of Scotland. Suddenly, tartan was also being worn in England.
JF: And that moment made tartan a fashionable fabric. It was no longer a sign of indigenous highlanders. It became something that perhaps lowlanders or English people with Scottish Sympathies started to wear.
AT: But Scottish men had an option, if they wanted to keep wearing their traditional clothes during the ban, there was a loophole. They could go fight for the British Empire. The ban didn’t apply to Scotsmen who joined the Army.
PM: So over time, it encouraged people if they wanted to continue to wear their native garb, to join the military.
AT: This meant Scotsmen wearing tartans were deployed around the world. Which influenced the style and popularity of similar-looking patterns across the colonies, like Madras in India.
PD: Although I would say Madras
AT: And checkered bandanas in Jamaica, and the Shuka cloth of the Maasai warriors. The colonialism of the British Empire spread these influences around, and increased global demand for tartan, and tartan-like fabrics.
JF: The presence of highland regimental soldiers wearing tartan in some form or another would influence people directly in a purely aesthetic way.
AT: And meanwhile, people in England with Scottish Sympathies all got together in 1778 and made a kind of booster group to advocate for Scottish culture.
JF: Something called the Highland Society of London was formed in order to try and preserve the customs and manners, what was called the Highland Revival. The Great Highland Revival. They were responsible for the repeal of The Dress Act, in 1782.
AT: And so by the time the dress ban was finally lifted, it was just like tartan-MANIA. The Great Highland Revival was in full swing! Scottish soldiers were coming home, and now, they could wear their tartan and now Englishmen were wearing tartan! And people all over the colonies were wearing tartan! And North Americans were really wearing tartan.
JF: Obviously, the kind of work shirt that you would particularly identify with America, is a kind of plaid working shirt. If you go back, some of the earliest cloths that we used to make those work shirts were exported from Scotland.
AT: Tartan became a massive export to the United States.
PM: Tartan was a huge export to America in the 1700s, early 1800s.
AT: In the United States, tartan was also a symbol of heritage, and belonging, if you were a Scotsman who was made to flee your homeland, or if you literally belonged to a Scotsman.
JF: There were lots of very powerful Scottish families very active in the slave trade.
AT: These kinds of records are hard to find, but it’s said that enslaved people across the colonies also wore tartan patterned cloth, because tartan is bright and noticeable. Slaves would be made to wear cloth with a particular tartan, which said who they belonged to.
JF: You were being marked. you were being branded by your owners, by your oppressors. Which is pretty chilling, but it certainly for those people was very much a cloth of oppression.
AT: Tartan has been, in many ways, a cloth of oppression, whether the Scots were being oppressed themselves, or acting as the hand of the British empire, or perpetuating the global slave trade. And it functions efficiently as a cloth of oppression, because, it is so loud and highly visible.
JF: I do think it has this idea of almost negating the body and becoming literally just the pattern, so you are literally kind of becoming the brand.
AT: And tartan can be a brand of so many different conflicting things. In the United States, tartan be a nod to a rugged Highlander…
JF: Yeah, the idea of the incredibly macho highlander who’s running around looking after his sheep only wearing a kilt.
AT: Or a monarchic colonizer.
JF: Quintessentially American designers such as Ralph Lauren for example, frequently use tartan. I think it is probably associated with ideas of colonialism and empire.
AT: And that’s aside from its associations with queerness, or lumberjacks or cowboys or bike messengers. Quite literally, there is a tartan for everything.
Dee Williams: these are the tartan swatches.
AT: Dee Williams works at the National Records of Scotland.
DW: In these boxes here…
AT: And she is showing me The Scottish Register of Tartans. Which is very much not open to the public.
AT: How often does someone come to actually…
DW: They don’t. That’s the point. You are the first.
AT: Apparently I was the first journalist in there?
DW: But generally we don’t offer this. We don’t say, “Come in and look at all the swatches.”
and anybody can look online by the way. They can look up every tartan online that is in that register, they just need to put in a search, they just need to put in a name and it will come back.
AT: Tartans, traditionally have been associated with Scottish names. So if your last name is McClain or Maclean or Hanney, you can look up the traditional tartans associated with your clan.
DW: I had the clan chief, Dr. David Hanney come in today and he was looking up his Hanney tartans.
AT: But it’s not like everyone who lives in Scotland has this long family history with a traditional last name and family tartan. And in Scotland, you wear tartan kilts to weddings and funerals and parties…And so, what are you supposed to wear if you’re not from a clan?
DW: That’s where you get other people who have got personal tartans.
AT: Personal tartans for?
DW: For themselves. They’ve designed a tartan they really want it just for them? You’ve also got organization, corporate ones. Lots of military ones being registered lately.
AT: No matter who you are, or how not-Scottish you are, I will bet money, that if you peruse the register of tartans, you will eventually find a tartan for something you like or identify with.
DW: The zoo panda one.
AT: The Panda at the Edinburgh Zoo has a tartan. It’s not like it has pandas on it, still just a tartan. But it’s black and white.
DW: San Francisco!
AT: There’s a San Francisco tartan! That one?
DW: The San Francisco tartan is sandy and scarlet like the colors of the 49ers.
DW: New Jersey?
AT: New Jersey’s tartan is sand and blue and little slender bits of red.
AT: Most states in the US have an official tartan. A lot of countries have one. Zimbabwe, New Zimbabwe, Kenya. Oh wow, this is the Africa folder. Volkswagen, American Express, and Coca-Cola have tartans. Nike has a couple. And there is a tartan for the Scottish Register of Tartans.
AT: Wait, there is a Scottish Register of Tartan tartan?
AT: And you too can register your very own official tartan. The certificate costs 70 pounds and it’s 100 pounds if you want it in a wooden frame.
DW: But you’ll get the tartan name, you’ll get the registration number.
AT: You can design your own tartan in literally ten minutes. Because official tartans don’t have to be cloth anymore. You can go to any number of online tartan generators and input the colors you want and the thread count and, ta-da! You have a tartan.
PM: You’ll get tartan people designing a tartan for their dog. You know, or their dead relative. You’re thinking, “why?”
AT: Our historian friend Peter Macdonald is part of the committee that accesses the incoming tartans. They get around 8 proposals a week.
PM: Quite a lot of what I’d call “Vanity Tartans.” They’re never going to be woven, they’re never going to be worn. It’s because they can. which doesn’t make them good or tasteful or meaningful frankly.
AT: Do some of these tartans get denied?
AT: And of the new incoming tartans, the majority of them are not from Scotland.
PM: Off the top of my head. 70% come from North America. Probably most from the U.S. but a sizable proportion from Canada as well. Quite a few from Japan, a lot of Japanese schools seem to like tartan for uniforms and indeed some from Scotland! But yeah the majority of them come from America.
AT: America is really into Tartan. I mean, just go to New York City on April 6th, that’s National Tartan Day, and they put on this huge parade with bagpipes and Scottish terriers and Scottish associations from all over the U.S. Tartan is one way that white people can claim some sort of cultural heritage.
PM: Because you’re a young country, you all want to claim your heritage. And actually, a lot of people claim either Scots or Irish ancestry because it has the cultural icons and identity which help you belong.
AT: And everyone wants to belong to something. Somewhere. Somehow.
DW: There was about a 30 percent increase last year of tartans registered. So it’s definitely on the increase.
AT: In some ways, if you don’t get the tartan actually woven, the Register of Tartans might seem like a cheesy thrill. Like one of those online services where you can pay to register a star or a plot of land on the moon. But those “authentic” clan tartans, the ones that represent last names? Those were also kind of made up!
PM: When you look actually at early examples of surviving tartans it would not really have been associated with particular families. And there is no way that, you know 600-1200 people, clansmen, could all be wearing the same tartan.
AT: This idea of official clan tartans was part of that Great Highland Revival.
PM: Gosh. Clan tartans start around 1810.
AT: Ok yeah 200 years is old, but that’s nothing when you compare it to the ages of the clans themselves. The MacDougals, MacDuffs, Macquaries, and Macallans are closer to a thousand years old. But basically, in the 1800s, many of the clan leaders just went and picked out tartans they liked, and renamed them after themselves.
AT: It’s just kind of like, what’s your favorite?
PM: Yeah, absolutely. Yup. You know, the Campbell chief used the Blackwatch tartan, The Chief of Mackenzie used the 78th or Seaforth tartan. The MacPherson sealed as his true clan tartan, a tartan that, ten years earlier, had been being sold as Caledonia!
AT: Tartan, plaid, whatever you wanna call it, the pattern has taken on so many different meanings and associations and has been used symbolically, to unite so many different groups of people. On the surface plaid seems simple, right? It’s just a series of overlapping threads, a warp and a weft. But really, if you look at it, get your nose right up close and notice the number of colors. The stripe width. The variation in the ways the threads overlap, you can see it’s quite complex. It can be particular enough to be specific, and general enough to be for everyone.
AP: I mean, just yeah, like, cultural recognition, just visibility. Being able to walk down the street and be like, “Oh that’s another person who’s like me, I feel less alone.” That can be, something that plaid does, which is kind of amazing if you think about a fabric, having power culturally.