Ten reasons to wear tartan

Designers are drawing on tartan’s storied past – and reworking it in bold new ways, says Tom Stubbs

Connolly wool jacket, £1,650, and matching trousers, £470
Connolly wool jacket, £1,650, and matching trousers, £470

Worn by both landed gentry and rabble-rousers, tartan has a history as varied and vibrant as the check itself. Although the pattern, most commonly associated with Scottish clans, is steeped in tradition, this season brands are reinterpreting it in all sorts of fresh and stylish ways. Used in tailoringouterwear and accessories, the punchy check looks by turns luxurious, elegant and edgy in different hands.

John Lydon wearing Vivienne Westwood in 1979
John Lydon wearing Vivienne Westwood in 1979 | Image: Mirrorpix

“Tartan looks wonderful with everything – even tartan with tartan looks great,” said Vivienne Westwood after her autumn show, which was typically festooned with all manner of arresting tartan. The collection included a bottle‑green heritage check on a double‑breasted jacket and cropped wool trousers, both of which looked as if they had been plucked straight from the punk scene of the 1970s. 

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In a similar style, emerging British brand Charles Jeffrey Loverboy uses tartan as a rebellious code, working with different mills to create exclusive house checks. “It felt so right for tartan to be part of our identity,” says designer Jeffrey. “It’s romantic and anarchic.” His collection for autumn/winter included a wool chore jacket and tapered trousers in the house’s sky blue and red Shepherd tartan, channelling that vintage punk aggression but with a new, upbeat energy. “We are unpacking tartan’s history again,” adds Jeffrey. Paul Smith has also referenced punk-inspired tailoring, although the pattern he used for suiting was actually an expanded English equestrian Tattersall check made by the Lanificio Luigi Ricceri mill. This black, yellow and green pattern appears on a wool blazer and bondage trousers with distinctive, punk-inspired zips across the legs.

Gloverall wool duffel coat, £610
Gloverall wool duffel coat, £610

There are plenty of brands with a more traditional take on tartan and using more dialled-down colourways. Hackett has an earthy purple and blue single-breasted jacket made with a beefy check woven by Robert Noble, while Ralph Lauren Purple Label has used Black Watch tartan for a bomber jacket with shearling collar and traditional cashmere trousers that are ideal for black tie. The American house has also gone a step further with a matching jacket, vest and trousers in dark muted green and grey velvet tartan that looks like something Gatsby might have worn to a posh ceilidh. Connolly’s tartan tailoring has a ’70s-feel, though not in the same way as Westwood’s: the London brand’s brown and green tartan – used for a double-breasted wool jacket and cinched-waist trousers – emulates the hues developed with natural dyes in the mid-19th century. 

From left: Ralph Lauren wool jacket, £5,215. Begg & Co lambswool/angora scarf, £98
From left: Ralph Lauren wool jacket, £5,215. Begg & Co lambswool/angora scarf, £98

Gloverall has taken the evocative Black Stewart tartan and dramatically enlarged it on a Lochcarron woven-wool duffel coat, proving how the pattern also works for modern outerwear. The British heritage brand has also collaborated with Lou Dalton on another exclusive Locharron cloth, made from a double-faced Melton wool and used on a short duffel-style jacket. “It has a workwear feel to it – more industrial, less Celtic – and is subtle in colour,” says Dalton. Further tartan outerwear comes from Oliver Spencer, which has used an earthy brown and navy check for its urbane Bermondsey bomber and straight-cut grandpa coat – a natty take on smart-casual.

From left: Paul Smith wool blazer, £960, and matching bondage trousers, £455. Oliver Spencer cotton-mix coat, £390
From left: Paul Smith wool blazer, £960, and matching bondage trousers, £455. Oliver Spencer cotton-mix coat, £390

A glorious tartan scarf is a smashing way to inject clan spirit into wardrobes without diving headfirst into the trend. Two new contemporary styles from Begg & Co catch my fancy: the house’s Jura Lockwood tartan, which has a unique grid of elongated rectangles instead of squares, is used for a lambswool/angora scarf in conifer/yellow and navy/turquoise; and the Jura Ingles scarf, which comes in unusually vivid colours such as beetroot and shamrock. Johnstons of Elgin has revamped this space with cashmere stoles that actually verge on blankets, made from tartan spun in the brand’s own mill. The merino Contrast reversible stoles are also brand new and come in jolly  colour combinations, such as orange and black “Dutch Dress” and blue and red “MacFadyen”. 

From left: Hackett wool jacket, £495. Vivienne Westwood wool trousers, £595
From left: Hackett wool jacket, £495. Vivienne Westwood wool trousers, £595

From venerable artisan producers to edgy British designers, these new tartans are packed with craft and codes – and seem set to be more than a Highland fling.

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