photographs by simon watson styling by kim ficaro clothing styling by lauren goodman market editor monika biegler eyers
Born centuries ago in the Scottish Highlands, revived in the 1970s by British punks and now everywhere in fashion, this bold and versatile design is never out of style. Reinterpreted for new settings and combined with modern elements, it’s the freshest way to take classic for a spin.
on pillows and throws Decorative accessories are a commitment-free way to try out the trend and give your room a seasonal makeover. Here, the simple combination of a red-checked pillow and a complementary cashmere throw bestows wintry warmth on a minimalist living room. The light, neutral palettes of the fabrics (these plaids with a white background are known as “dress tartans”) are key: Thick, dark ones would be too heavy in such a spare and silvery setting.
on seat cushions and floors There are more than 5,500 registered "setts" (or patterns) in existence—but because they simply don’t clash, you can mix them with abandon. In this mod salon, we used four fabrics (from a company based in the wee Scottish village of Peebles, known for its huge range of historic tartans) to make seat covers for a set of iconic ’50s Saarinen Tulip chairs. On the floor, a "hunting tartan"—a design of subdued colors meant to blend with the natural environment—operates like a neutral to ground the plaid party around the table.
on walls and lamp shades Upholstering the walls in masculine wool transforms a typically formal dining room into a cozy, pass-the-port oasis. Keeping the floor bare, and going with a white tablecloth and chairs, offers an airy contrast. With a pattern similar to the Gunn clan tartan, shades bring unexpected jauntiness to a blown-glass chandelier.
as a decorative element Hung in any odd-man-out space where art would feel cramped—a corner of a large kitchen, a long corridor—a casual assemblage of checked handmade stoneware (from a Scottish company known for reinterpreting old-school Scot style) and neutral vintage plates delivers visual bang that’s still homey. A Gustavian sofa covered in a ticking stripe fits in with the plates’ menswear-ish patterns, and a couple of wool pillows that echo the muted palette complete the down-to-earth tableau.
“What does the bagpipe-playing Scotsman of yore have in common with Catholic schoolgirls today? Their tartan skirts, of course,”says domino's Antiquarian, Louis Bofferding. “A kilt is a type of skirt, after all, and many of those Scottish Highlanders—leery of their Protestant English kings and queens—were dyed-in-the-wool Catholics too.
“There are two common myths about this plaid, woolen cloth. One is that its origins are shrouded in the mists of time, when in fact tartan only dates from the 17th century. The other is that, from day one, the design and color of a particular tartan identified the wearer’s clan. But this wasn’t the case until the 19th century—and even then, mixing patterns was common.”
celtic fashion statement
Sir Mungo Murray, scion of a noble Scottish family, donned several plaids when he struck this pose around 1683. While the patterns look good together, the outfit is an incongruous one—tartan kilt, cloak and hose combined with a doublet, blouse and hat in the latest taste of cosmopolitan London. Deadly accessories (the tools of his soldier trade) are thrown in for good measure: gun, pistols and sword. Murray would meet his untimely end fighting the Spanish in far-off Panama.
Parliament passed the Act of Proscription 1747, stripping Scots of weaponry that might be used to support the Stuarts, a native Catholic dynasty claiming to be rightful heirs to the throne. The act also prohibited the wearing of the kilts and tartans that came to symbolize these political aspirations. Long before the proliferation of golf clubs, the Macdonald boys played a round in garb that flouted the law. But since they were probably on one of their father’s estates on the Isle of Skye, the danger of being caught was remote.
out of the closet
By the time King George IV visited Scotland in 1822, the Stuart threat had evaporated and native attire rehabilitated. Kilts now struck the English as picturesque. The king—a great fop—slipped on local threads for celebrated painter Sir David Wilkie.
home sweet home
Tartan pushed its way into interior decoration next. In Queen Victoria's England (she was George IV’s niece), it was no longer “tainted” by Catholicism and seemed more British than specifically Scottish. At the castle of Balmoral, her Highlands retreat, it became a common motif for upholstery, carpeting and curtains.
In America, tartan (unburdened by politics and religion) was never more than just a great-looking fabric. This 1890s day suit would flatter any woman—its overscale grid highlights those feminine curves.
on the high seas
In 1949, the Duchess of Windsor, en route to New York, hit the first-class deck of the Queen Elizabeth in a tartan coat. The Duke, also a clotheshorse, was even more partial to plaids than his wife.
a room with sass
Tartan looks romantic in traditional interiors, snazzy in modern ones. In the 1960s, Billy Baldwin went full-throttle modern in the Long Island living room of Frederick Guest II. There, he placed a battleship-size, tartan-upholstered sectional, with cushions both matching and contrasting in acid green.
prince of prep
Beginning with Plymouth Rock and ending with the rise of meritocracy in more recent years, Anglo-Saxons long called the shots in what’s now the U.S. But even in these multicultural times, Ralph Lauren has tapped a nostalgia for those highball-drinking, roadster-driving, polo-playing descendants of the Pilgrims. Celebrating 40 years of empire, Ralph Lauren offers tartan—in clothing and furnishings—for the modern age.
In this Ralph Lauren ad from the ’90s, even
the bureau gets the tartan treatment!
current fashion trends
In the 1970s, Malcolm McLaren opened a London boutique called Let It Rock, where Vivienne Westwood sold torn and safety-pinned tartans that merged punk with “ye olde” English style. Early customers included the Sex Pistols, who sang, with apt dissonance, “God save the Queen/her fascist regime.” But if the counterculture has since lost its spark, tartan hasn’t....