Why Everybody’s Mad for Plaid

Plaid jacket on a mannequin
Image credit: Robert Sheie / CC BY 2.0

Having covered flannel shirts earlier this week, I’d be remiss not to give equal billing to plaid. The term ‘plaid’ is, after all, often used synonymously with ‘flannel’ to describe those aforementioned shirts. There is a difference, though. The former specifically refers to the design while the latter describes the material. Easy to remember really: plaid’s the print, flannel’s the fabric.

I feel particularly inclined to dig a little deeper into the history of plaid because it’s been a default shirt pattern for me at every stage of my life so far, including now when I live in Scotland, plaid’s ancestral home. While the flannel shirts I still wear have come to represent a particularly American sensibility — that of working people and rugged outdoor living in the land of opportunity —  the patterns they typically bear hail from the similarly hardy environs of the Scottish Highlands, where plaid’s mythic progenitor, tartan, got its start. 

Before delving any further, however, it’s worth doing another bit of semantic clarification. While plaid shares its ancestry with tartan, the two are not synonymous. Tartan describes specific patterns composed of coloured checks and intersecting lines, with each unique design distinguishing one Scottish clan or region from the next. Plaid, meanwhile, is like tartan in appearance but lacks any such specific signification or historic affiliation. So while tartan always describes something very particular, plaid can come in just any old colour and pattern. It also means that all tartans are plaid, but not all plaids are tartan. Make sense?

Before plaid reached its current status as a catch-all for cross-hatched clothing, as early as 1512 the word referred more specifically to a length of woven twill cloth used for garments and bed coverings. It was worn mostly by men and measured roughly six yards lengthways and two yards across. By the seventeenth century, it came to be known as a ‘belted plaid’ or Feiladh Mor (‘big wrap’ in Gaelic) and constituted the outer layer of Highland dress, used to fend off the bitter Caledonian winters. 

Lord Mungo Murray wearing a belted plaid in a portrait by John Michael Wright
Image credit: Scottish National Gallery / Public domain

It was only when weavers elsewhere in Britain and America began to imitate tartan patterns that generic plaids took off. The Dress Act of 1746 (also known as the Proscription Act) banned the wearing of ‘Highland Dress’ for several decades following the defeat of Jacobites at the Battle of ’45. But once the act was repealed in 1782, plaid, freshly imbued with a spirit of rebellion, took off as a pattern du jour. 

By the nineteenth century, the design made its way from Europe to the United States, where it would find a new home, a new moniker, and, as time went by, entirely new sets of associations. It’s on American shores that tartan became plaid and that plaid became working class. 

Jonathan Faiers reflects in his book, Tartan, on this transatlantic transition when he writes about plaid/tartan as ‘the cloth of unofficial, self-imposed and distinctly American workwear’. He calls it ‘a vestimentary sign of the American working man, not so much blue collar, but rather tartan collar’.

These lunchpail associations are primarily thanks to the efforts of early (and still popular) workwear manufacturers like Woolrich Woolen Mills, who created the iconic red and black checkered pattern known as Buffalo plaid, and Pendleton, who began mass producing plaid shirts for men in 1924. 

With the working credentials of plaid thus firmly established, it took half a century and a new generation of wearers to revamp and repurpose these associations. The 1970s saw plaid prosper anew in a flurry of different contexts on both sides of the pond. 

It also got risqué. In America, your daddy’s workshirt suddenly got a whole lot of sex appeal when Daisy from The Dukes of Hazard appeared wearing her eponymous Daisy Dukes paired with plaid shirts knotted above the waist. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Her Majesty the Queen’s own Royal Stewart tartan was appropriated by punks the nation over, injecting a symbol of the monarchy with a subversive dose of anarchy. 

Man walking in plaid pants
Image credit: Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

These punk rock plaids inspired the iconic designs of Vivienne Westwood, who took the look from the streets to the runway, thereby opening the floodgates for countless fashionable plaids made by everyone from Ralph Lauren to Alexander McQueen. Other plaid-clad musical subcultures followed too: grunge and hip hop in the 1990s, indie rockers in the 2000s and 2010s. 

The design has also been all over the big screen. There is, just to name a few, Liv Tyler’s skirt in Empire Records and Judd Nelson’s shirt in The Breakfast Club. Or, in more recent memory, Saoirse Ronan’s pinafore in Lady Bird and Kristen Stewart’s blazer in Spencer. But, really, nothing can compare to 1995’s cult-favourite Clueless, which may as well be a 1h 37m advert for the stuff. 

So long a history with so many transformations and iterations speaks to an eternal appeal. And, on reflection, that appeal seems somehow innate. Built into the fabric of the thing, you might say. As a pattern, plaid is literally whatever you want it to be. Unburdened by tartan’s centuries-long bonds of heritage and history, plaid is the product of whatever colours and configurations you could want to plug into it. It’s the unique outcome of infinite iterations of wefts and warps, each singular and also somehow similar. 

Given these properties, it seems only natural that plaid should represent such boundless and often contradictory possibilities. It is at once classic and rebellious, preppy and punk, institutional and anti-establishment. It can equally be normcore or attention-grabbing, workmanly or glamorous, utterly styleless or seriously stylish. It is a canvas for endless experimentation and, as such, is a wardrobe staple that’s engineered to keep us interested for an eternity. 

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