The History of Plaid - Pacific Standard
Tracing the origins and evolution of every hipster's favorite fashion item.

It's taken me a long time to admit this, but I'm ready to come clean: I'm probably a hipster.

The aesthetics are all there. I wear thick-framed glasses, have cultivated a beard without the proper outdoorsman bonafides, ride a bicycle (at least it's not a damn fixie!), drink a decent amount of PBR, and have a collection of vinyl records. But while I've maintained a wide berth from “skinny jeans,” the biggest clue that I'm a card-carrying member of the Hipster Brotherhood is my closet full of plaid. It's gross, I know.

While dominant in the hipster world, plaid is certainly not owned by the circle. Rather, it's a ubiquitous design: donned by Humboldt County lumberjacks and Los Angeles streets gangs, every Hilary from Duff to Swank, even used as the design for the 2010 United States Snowboarding team's uniform. Seventeen different states, in fact, have their own official plaid, with West Virginia's standing as a clear winner. There's even a plaid commemorating 9/11.

Before the turn of the century, plaid spent time crossing various cultural circles, from the '90s Seattle grunge scene, to the United Kingdom's '70s punk culture, to the Pendleton shirts of '60s surf rock. Previous to copywriter William Laughead distilling Paul Bunyan folklore tales into a visual for a 1916 lumber mill advertisement, the iconic red-and-white plaid was unveiled by Woolrich in 1850. It is kind of for everyone, no matter the era.

But where did it first come from?

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In 1978, archeologists inspecting an ancient cemetery in China made a fantastic discovery. Among the remains laid to rest in the tombs was the body of a farmer from 1,000 B.C.E. Frankly, it seemed out of place when compared to the rest of the bodies discovered nearby.

“He was about 6-foot-2, tall, brown hair, and long-nosed,” says Brian Wilton, the director of the Scottish Tartan Authority, a charity devoted to preserving, promoting, and protecting the history of the tartan, which is referred to on this side of the pond as plaid. “He was Caucasian.” DNA tests confirmed later that the man was of Scottish descent.

But more relevant than his ancestry was the outfit of the Cherchen Man, as he came to be called. When the archeologists discovered this 3,000-year-old body, it was dressed in a “twill tunic and tartan leggings.” Various colors of wool were interwoven. They are the oldest preserved pants in the world and the first example of what we know as plaid. (Which isn't to say this is the first plaid ever made: There are references to the design that pre-date the Cherchen Man; his just happen to be preserved.)

“There were so many Scots that immigrated to Canada and the States, one of the very obvious artifacts they would take with them was their home tartan.”

While it's still not entirely clear how persons of Celtic descent ended up in China, the discovery is proof that the Scottish people have been using plaid/tartan as a design for more than 3,000 years. That's as far back as we can trace the design featured prominently in every overpriced second-hand “vintage” store in the country.

Rather than being laced with meaning, the colors used to create these early versions were simply chosen out of necessity. “If you lived in a remote land, you would buy your woven cloth from the same weaver,” Wilton says. “And the weaver would not be reproducing a choice of patterns, but a standard pattern using the colors available to him, many of which were vegetable dyes.”

It was only later, when clans of different regions began regularly communicating and trading with one another, that specific colors and patterns came to take on regional significance. Despite more colors and options becoming available, people from certain regions chose to keep the same colors and designs they were brought up with; kind of like someone in Los Angeles buying a Yankees cap because they grew up in the Bronx. If you saw someone walking around with a specific color, you knew where they originated from. The tartan stood as a sentiment of regional pride until the early 1700s, when it became a uniform of war.

With the death in 1714 of Britain's Queen Anne—who left behind no heirs—James Francis Edward Stuart tried to rally his Scottish troops and re-gain what he considered to be his rightful throne. Leading the battle was the Royal Highland Regiment, also known as the Black Watch. To distinguish themselves from the rest of their Highlander brethren—and, no doubt, to help show off how badass their design work was—they wore a tartan composed of green and dark blue.

Fast forward to 1746 and the Battle of Culloden, the final fight between British and Scottish forces over the throne. The British won the battle and, as victors of war are wont to do, they cracked down on the rights of their vanquished foes. Primarily, they banned the enemy's symbol, the checkered multi-color pattern of tartan. This may explain why plaid has a perceived feeling of toughness, particularly when used in music communities. “It smacks of rebellion,” Wilton says. “As soon as you ban anything, that tends to make it more attractive.”

But it wasn't until the next century that tartan/plaid gained wider appeal. In 1822, King George IV tried to patch things up by becoming the first monarch to visit Scotland since 1650. His arrival was met with much pomp and circumstance, including a congregation of Scottish clan chiefs each wearing the “traditional colors” that represented the various regions of the land. This event led to a revitalization of heritage colors, both for those in Scotland, but more importantly for those of Scottish descent around the globe. The tartan became a way—not unlike a coat-of-arms—for those abroad to connect to their homeland.

“There were so many Scots that immigrated to Canada and the States, one of the very obvious artifacts they would take with them was their home tartan,” Wilton says. “People have discovered them in their attics or basements, they've been put away in their old chest for the last 100 years or so.”

As Scottish immigrants helped construct U.S. cities and provided the bodies needed for Western expansion in the 1800s, the tartan look spread. In the middle of the 19th century, a Scottish trader by the name of Jock McCluskey traded his home tartan with Native Americans for their buffalo. And so began the popularization of the famed red-and-black Buffalo Plaid, and the subsequent designs that followed.

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Whenever Wilton gives presentations about tartan's history, he starts with an image of the moon. He asks the audience why, they believe, he's doing so. “Everyone looks blank,” he says, until he takes out a small piece of tartan, the dominant colors being white and red and black. This, he explains to everyone, was an actual tartan that was taken to the moon.

The piece is part of a larger tartan that belongs to Commander Alan Bean, a NASA astronaut that was part of the Apollo 12 mission. On November 19, 1969, the mission's lunar module landed on the moon. To mark the occasion, Bean, who is of Scottish decent, took his family tartan with him. “He chose to celebrate what still stands as the greatest achievements of modern man by bringing down this tartan to the moon,” Wilton says.

Why are simple lines and colors beloved by everyone from NASA astronauts to gang leaders to vinyl shop nerds? Why has something like this lasted more than 3,000 years and transcended so many social and cultural boundaries?

The answer is certainly located somewhere in its long and winding history, but it's impossible to pinpoint with a succinct answer. For those with Scottish heritage, it's a linkage to their past. For the rest of us, it's some combination of its rebellious tradition, its pure and elegant aesthetics, and the fact that so much meaning can be conveyed in a few carefully chosen lines of color. Or, more realistically, maybe it's just because it looks really, really cool.

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The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.

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