Tartan barmy

Both adored and derided, tartan appears everywhere, from kitsch souvenirs to haute couture. As V&A Dundee prepares to showcase it in a large scale exhibition, Susan Mansfield looks at its enduring appeal to artists and designers.
Cheddar Gorgeous in a suit designed by Liquorice Black
Doddie Weir by Gerard M. Burns (National Galleries of Scotland)
Doddie Weir by Gerard M. Burns (National Galleries of Scotland)

Visiting the New York home and studio of the late minimalist Donald Judd, restored to how it was at the time of Judd’s death in 1994 and now open to the public, Mhairi Maxwell, a curator at V&A Dundee, found herself taking a peek into the wardrobe. A few surprises were in store, not least the artist’s plaid tartan jackets.

Maxwell stepped back in astonishment. She had heard Judd was a scotophile who hired a piper to play at his gallery openings. Now she remembered the print series he made in the early 1990s using bright colours in a grid pattern. Suddenly it made sense. He was inspired by tartan.

Maxwell says: “Judd was fascinated by symmetry, pattern and colour and how that interacts in space. That’s exactly what tartan is. He was unpicking the warp and weft of a tartan, taking it back to its building blocks.”

So, if you visit Tartan, a large scale exhibition opening at V&A Dundee on April 1, one of the first things you will see is not a shortbread tin or a painting of Bonnie Prince Charlie, not even a Vivienne Westwood gown, but a set of prints by one of the fathers of American minimalism. This is a show which sets out to surprise.

Maxwell, who organised the exhibition with colleagues Kirsty Hassard and James Wylie, admits that she took some convincing that tartan was the best subject for the museum’s first home-curated show.

She admits: “My first reaction was to back away and say ‘I wouldn’t touch that with a barge pole’. I had the Commonwealth Games, Tunnocks teacakes and shortbread tins swirling around in my head. But that’s what makes it such a rich subject for a design museum to explore.”

Portrait of Alan Cumming by Christian Hook
Portrait of Alan Cumming by Christian Hook

Jonathan Faiers, Professor of Fashion Thinking at the University of Southampton and author of an influential book also titled Tartan, has been consultant curator on the project. He says: “We all understand tartan associations with the kilt and Highland tradition and big fashion designers like Westwood and McQueen. This show has all that, but also so much more. It’s really exciting and surprising how widely tartan has been used and adapted as a pattern beyond its use in fashion. You will see things you expect to see, but you’ll see a lot of other things you never thought you’d come across.”

While the myriad uses of tartan in fashion will be explored, from punk to Dior and Japanese street style to the Bay City Rollers, the show will also include art, design, film, theatre and even architecture.

Faiers continues: “Tartan is unique. It’s both high culture and low culture. It’s intrinsically Scottish, but there are different versions across the world. It can be associated with independence, anti-establishment and subversion, but it is also deeply associated with Conservative rule, the establishment and the royal family.

“Normally, if a fabric is associated with street fashion, couture stays away and vice versa. But tartan is both. It can be incredibly democratic or exclusively high end. It comes and goes on the runways from season to season, but it never goes away.”

“Part of its appeal is that it’s a patterned cloth both men and women feel okay to wear, though I don’t think you can help but make a statement, even if you wear the more subdued colours. A number of contemporary designers who are interested in non-binary, who don’t see design as exclusively for men or for women, are using it. It is continually being reinvented.”

Kilted dressing table by Precious McBanecalled Perfectly Peek-ed
Kilted dressing table by Precious McBane called ‘Perfectly Peek-ed’

While tartan has been used to sell Scotland around the world, it still divides opinion at home. Its history is complex. It is both a symbol of Jacobite rebellion and a romantic affectation imposed on Scotland by Walter Scott for the visit of King George IV in 1822. It has suffered from being used for kitsch souvenirs for more than 150 years.

However, Faiers believes the political charge in tartan – banned by the Government following the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden in 1746 – has added to its appeal. He says, “Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood were very shrewd. They were aware of the cultural references. Even if to many people there might be associations with royalty, tartan was seen as having so much power it had to be legislated against. It was a rallying call for the resistance to English rule. Whether every punk understood that is doubtful, but it doesn’t matter.”

As the portraits in the exhibition show, tartan is powerful, whether as a status symbol or an act of ironic subversion. Lord Mungo Murray, painted in full Highland dress by John Michael Wright in the late 17th century, was parading his credentials as a Scottish laird. Three centuries later, Alan Cumming by the artist Christian Hook lounges with his kilt provocatively around his neck. Gerard M. Burns celebrates a contemporary hero in his portrait of Doddie Weir in a tartan suit, while Liverpool-based artists The Singh Twins depict Sikh millionaire Sardar Iqbal Singh, the self-styled “Laird of Lesmahagow”, with gentle irony. Singh, who made Scotland his home, registered his own tartan.

Mhairi Maxwell believes that the secret of tartan’s endurance and ubiquity lies in the strong grid structure which so fascinated Donald Judd, a set of rules and creative parameters within which designers can explore all sorts of design possibilities and art concepts.

A woman’s boot, 1950s, courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum
A woman’s boot, 1950s, courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum

Take, for example, the Dutch architect (and Benedictine monk) Hans van der Laan, a leading figure in the modernist Bossche School, who used the grid of a Scottish tartan to devise a system for understanding architectural space. Materials relating to van der Laan and his buildings will be displayed in the exhibition, the first time they have been loaned outside the Netherlands.

Also included are examples of The Manhattan Tartan Project by American artists J. Morgan Puett and Suzanne Bocanegra, who designed several tartans to represent New York, matching colours and thread counts to demographic and economic data to map the city’s racial and economic inequalities.

Lincolnshire-based artist Michael Sanders had a suit made of Polaris tartan (developed for the US naval base at Holy Loch in Argyll, where Polaris submarines were kept during the Cold War) and wore it to make “gentle interventions” at nuclear sites. His suit and Polaris tartan telephone box will be in the show.

The Singh Twins, Laird Singhs his Tartan’s Praises (National Museums Scotland)
The Singh Twins, ‘Laird Singhs his Tartan’s Praises’ (National Museums Scotland)

Mhairi Maxwell says the show aims to bring a “global perspective” on tartan, which is made in Japan and the Caribbean as well as in Scotland. A new installation has been commissioned by artist and fashion designer Olubiyi Thomas, who grew up in Glasgow and fuses aspects of his Nigerian and Scottish heritage in his work.

Maxwell says: “We wanted to decolonise tartan, to de-centre it, and that has been a really rich theme, to see these takes on Scottish nationality looked at in a very inclusive global way. It poses interesting questions around ethnicity and national identity.”

Tartan is all of this, from Jackie Stewart’s tartan racing helmet or a kitschy kilted dressing table by interior designer Precious McBane to a Hillman Imp with tartan upholstery or a gorgeous 1950s evening gown, loaned by the Philadelphia Museum, made of beads in a tartan pattern by the American designer James Galanos.

One of Jonathan Faiers’ personal favourites, he says of it: “Not only does it look super-contemporary, it’s also typically American mid-century Mad Men. It was a surprise to me that tartan can look that glamorous and chic and American. From a monk who made architecture based on tartan to an utterly glamorous piece of New York design. That sums up the show.”

Tartan runs at V&A Dundee Apr 1-Jan 14, 2024. Further info: www.vam.ac.uk


Cheddar Gorgeous in a suit designed by Liquorice Black

Doddie Weir by Gerard M. Burns (National Galleries of Scotland)

Portrait of Alan Cumming by Christian Hook

Kilted dressing table by Precious McBane called Perfectly Peek-ed

A woman’s boot, 1950s, courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum

The Singh Twins, Laird Singhs his Tartan’s Praises (National Museums Scotland)

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