Words: Niamh McNeela
An early, misjudged (aren’t they always) styling choice of mine involved the purchase of a classic red and black pleated tartan skirt. Rebelling against my oppressive upbringing and channelling my hero, Avril Lavigne, my forays into independent dressing were accompanied by a black shirt, suede tassel boots and tights. All debuted at Midnight Mass, 2003. The use of tartan as a bulwark against the established order has a misunderstood past, complicated by its romanticisation in novels by Sir Walter Scott. Frequently thought to have been the uniform of ancient and patriotic Scottish clans under the leadership of a hirsute Mel Gibson, tartan was initially worn only by peasants. The pattern of criss-crossing horizontal and vertical stripes in its modern form of the kilt only became common in the late 18th century and was later banned (except as military garb) in a form of English oppression, placing a degree of Scottish nationalistic importance on tartan and checkering its signification. The concept of clan-specific tartans was strategically popularized by wool-merchants with a view to generating business, capitalising on the now common-held view of tartan as the attire of the dispossessed Scotsman.
A resurgence of the recognizable pattern was seen in the 1970s with the creation of punk culture in fashion and music and pioneered by figures like Vivienne Westwood, Malcolm McLaren and Stephen Sprouse. Westwood has long championed traditional British fabrics and weaving, reworking them into silk and velvet, creating pieces far beyond the pattern’s original intention, yet so relevant to the seditious punk brief. The same could be said for Alexander McQueen, now synonymous with high-octane punk; skull scarves and savage studs. Tartan is at once incredibly refined and iconoclastic. It inspires respect and tradition but simultaneously can be worn in such a way that overtly subverts the established regime. Recognisable as attire for the aristocracy, every member of the Royal Family reverts to the variegated pattern for their annual, festive trip to Balmoral. But worn torn-up, with a Mohawk and Doc Martens, it instantly evokes a gritty, hedonistic picture of a directionless youth.
As a reaction to the minimalism that has pervaded catwalks over the past few seasons, designers have embraced a myriad of checks and patterns, tartan included. Always ahead of the curve, Karl Lagerfeld presented Chanel’s pre-fall collection in appropriate Scottish surroundings with a range of multi-coloured stripes and squares. For Autumn/Winter 2013, punk infiltrated designs, from scarlet-infused military coats at Moschino to the less conventional laundry-bag print at Céline, proving that tartan can transcend class, weaving its way in and out of conventional rules of attire. Perusing the high street rails, I could play it safe and enter the prim and proper realm of stiff upper-lipism, purchasing a tailored black and white tartan dress coat. Or I could revert to type, sticking to my categorically dissident roots with a pair of Johnny Rotten red tartan pants. If I were to pair them with a straight-laced pair of loafers, I think I’d find myself on more comfortable middle-ground; Avril Lavigne was latterly dropped as I entered my SoCal Lauren Conrad phase.
1. The Little Museum of Dublin hosts the Where Were You? photographic exhibition until January 2014, allowing visitors to pinpoint moments of the city’s development through a myriad of cultural snapshots. The punk years in particular make for stark, insightful viewing.
2. Channel your inner Sid Vicious and check out Asha (at the top of Stephens Green shopping centre), Dublin’s original alternative clothing store, established at the height of the punk vibe. Alternatively, try American Apparel for a vintage-inspired tartan kilt. Hoots mon.
3. Or eschew the fashion and punk pretence altogether and go retro with a few fingers of Walkers Shortbread, all its buttery sugary goodness encased in distinctive tartan packaging. For reasons unknown, an Irish house at Christmas is incomplete without this tea-time staple.