When writing about scarves earlier this week, I mentioned a few of the many forms the garment has taken over the years. Personally, the style that immediately comes to mind for me as the dictionary definition of ‘scarf’ is one woven in a Royal Stewart tartan print.
You might pin this particular bias on any number of factors. I live in Edinburgh, where Royal Stewart has a habit of showing up in every tourist spot the city has to offer; there was a punk rock dalliance in my teens that got me coveting a pair of skin-tight red tartan trousers I sadly never got; and I have spent more hours online looking at Vivienne Westwood designs, Ralph Lauren interiors, and photos of Princes Diana than I care to admit in mixed company.
On the other hand, I suspect I’m not alone in this. Nearly every one of the books on tartan I consulted in the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection of the city’s library on the subject of Royal Stewart tartan led with the same sentiment: It is almost certainly the best-known and most prolific of all tartan designs.
While the Royal House of Stewart dates from the 12th century, the origin of their eponymous print is usually dated circa 1800. Little is known about its early development apart from it evolving from an early pattern commonly called Prince Charles Edward and that early samples show the present-day blue streaks appearing as light azure. The design was anointed in the public consciousness in 1822 when King George IV wore it during his landmark state visit to Edinburgh, the first Scottish tour by a reigning monarch in nearly two centuries. About a century later, Royal Stewart was again adopted by King George V for the House of Windsor as a means of establishing his family’s ancient link to the Stewart line.
It’s probably worth noting that Royal Stewart isn’t the only Stewart tartan. In fact, of all the tartans in existence, there are more Stewart iterations than any other, running to some 100 versions in total, including Dress Stewart, Old Stewart, Stewart Hunting, and many others. Royal Stewart — sometimes known simply as Royal Tartan — remains a personal tartan of members of the Royal Family to this day, although its paterfamilias George V is reputed to have said all members of his family could wear it, which was taken at the time to mean all of his subjects throughout the British Empire, hence its proliferation and liberal application in the present day.
So while the print is still known for its royal associations via the garb of the regimental pipers of the Scots Guards and various members of the Royal Family (The Princess of Wales, Princess Diana, and Queen Elizabeth II included), it also has a much broader set of uses and associations. Perhaps most curious of all is the tartan’s aforementioned connection to the punk movement — an ironic twist put on this erstwhile symbol of the establishment. It was used prodigiously by bands like the Sex Pistols and by the architect of all things punk in fashion, Viviene Westwood, in addition to many non-punk musos like Axl Rose, Madonna, Annie Lennox, Gwen Stefani, and Pharrell Williams. Then there are the innumerable scarves, skirts, and other bits of kit worn by the general populace, in addition to the countless applications outside apparel including blankets, biscuit tins, wallpaper, and even the occasional racing helmet.
You would imagine that such widespread use and repetition would turn it into something that feels washed out and overexposed, and for some it no doubt does. For me, though, Royal Stewart represents a kind of near-universal appeal that seems somehow archetypal. Rather than coming off as passé or cliched, it has the rare quality of being at all times poised for rediscovery and reinterpretation. Not unlike a set of Levi’s, a pair of All Stars, or a plain white tee, this ubiquitous and attention-grabbing variegated red print feels infinitely versatile and, somehow, altogether timeless.
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