Well Plaid.

Royal Stewart Tartan. Then there is everything else.

Editor’s Note:  Jonathan Boorstein is a regular contributor who also has curated an image library of the most fantastic automobiles.  He can be reached on the Facebook Group as well.  

“Christmastime is prime time for tartan plaids,” proclaims the latest catalog from The Vermont Country Store, which, like Yankee Magazine, is one of those minor, often forgotten, sources for things Ivy in general and New England Ivy in particular.

Indeed, it should be. After all, Saint Andrew’s Day, which celebrates the patron saint of Scotland on 30 November, also marks the beginning of Advent and the Christmas season as well as such other winter season events on the Scottish calendar as Hogmanay and Burns Night. In addition, the 30th  is now both Scotland’s National Day and Flag Day. It’s even a bank holiday.

The stores and cataloges used to be filled with tartans, from shirts to skirts. Back in the 1960s, Lord and Taylor offered tartan trousers to be worn with blue blazers. Brooks Brothers sold tartan dinner jackets with shawl collars as far back as 1944, if not earlier. For several years, it maintained a Scottish shop for tartans in its Madison Avenue store. The boutique was run by Kinloch Anderson, which holds a Royal Warrant and provides kilts to HRH The Prince of Wales, among others. Kinloch Anderson was also one of a number of Scottish textile firms which helped develop the Brooks Brothers tartan.

The Brooks Brothers Signature Tartan

While the Scots have celebrated the Feast of Saint Andrew for about a thousand years, St Andrew’s Day celebrations as we know it today only goes back to the 18th Century and didn’t begin in Scotland. It started in Charleston, SC, when a group of well-off Scottish immigrants got together and founded the Saint Andrew’s Society of Charleston on 30 November 1729 as a social and benevolent association to celebrate their ancestry and fund good works. That the organization was founded during the height of the Jacobite movement (1688 to 1745) cannot be just a coincidence. The idea caught on and spread across the colonies as well as overseas to Scotland itself. Incidentally, Charleston is also the home of Ben Silver, which includes a Black Watch tartan dinner jacket among other tartan garments.

The event has become a celebration of Scottish culture: food, drink, dance, music, and, of course, tartans and history. The annual St Andrew’s Day celebration at a fencing club I used to belong to emphasized drink, tartans, and history.

The club was attached to a college.  The fencing master and I discovered that the students didn’t know the British history they thought they knew since it had been gleaned from references in prestige BBC productions broadcast on PBS. (The standing joke back in the 1970s was that PBS did not stand for Public Broadcasting Service, but rather Pretentious British Series.) The students couldn’t be bothered to look up the references in an encyclopedia to find out what the characters were talking about.

To combat that in a way that would be both informative and entertaining, I concocted a Royal Mess and Maffick to be held on each St Andrew’s Day. The tradition of the military loyal toast at a mess was coopted and disguised with a bit of word play. The conceit was to toast each of roughly a dozen claimants of the Jacobite succession to the thrones of England and Scotland in turn as a way to challenge misunderstandings of the biases in British history. In short, a series of toasts to the kings and queens who might have been rather than the kings and queens who actually wore the crown and sat on the throne (the Sophia Succession).

The McLeod

The toasts started with the old and young pretenders – the son and grandson (Charles Stuart, a.k.a., Bonnie Prince Charlie) of James II – proceeded through the houses of Savoy, Este, and Wittelsbach until it ended with then then current Jacobite pretender, Albrecht, Duke of Bavaria. His son is the present claimant, but describes the succession as “purely hypothetical”. Included in the list, but not toasted, was Count Roehanstart (the de Rohan-Stuart claimant) who was the illegitimate son of Charles Stuart’s daughter, Charlotte, the Duchess of Albany, and the Cardinal de Rohan. 

In passing, issues of empire, succession, and primogeniture were explained, including such points as England and Scotland being two separate countries with a common monarch until the 18th Century. Questions of Royalists v Parliamentarians, Church v State, Catholic v Protestant, and the like, were glossed over because the fencing master was a conservative Catholic who actually did believe in the Divine Right of Kings and that no Protestant monarch could be legitimate. (I’ll never know how a Cavalier wound up with a Roundhead as a sidekick and I was that Roundhead.)

The then widespread dislike of the Whigs and the Hanoverian kings (who seen as foreign and conducting foreign policy that was more favorable to their continental holdings than to Britain) was ignored. However, that French, Papal, and Spanish support for the Jacobite movement was limited to how it could advance their respective political agendas and even then, it was often minimal, as well as how Jacobite naivete, incompetence, and plain old bad luck undermined their own cause was touched upon, but only in answer to direct questions.

Each pretender was toasted with a sip of Drambuie; each toast over a bowl of water: that is, toasting the king over the water – in exile in Europe – and not the king in London. That practice lead to finger bowls being banned from royal tables.

Drambuie was used because of its dubious connection to Bonnie Prince Charlie (the Young Pretender). The legend is that Charles Stuart gave the “secret recipe” to John MacKinnon as a thank-you for providing shelter and protection while Charles was on the run from the British after the Battle of Culloden. Drambuie was actually developed in the late 19th Century and the “legend” was – and still is – pure marketing twaddle. And, yes, a good many of us back then were fencing while drunk, with a sword in one hand and a glass of Drambuie in the other.

The event grew in size and complexity and soon moved off-campus to my apartment. It went from a few bottles and no decorations to quite a few bottles and a space festooned with Royal Stewart bunting and white roses (the Stuarts were indirectly descended from the House of York). Some of us even affected wearing the Jacobite tartan for the evening. (According to the Scottish Register of Tartans, the Jacobite tartan “is associated with the Scots national identity” and was worn during the 1715 Rebellion. The Register notes: “It is often worn by those with no clan connections as an alternative to a district tartan.”) The apartment building corridor was used as a fencing piste and the swordplay included historically accurate weapons and fighting styles of the period. It says something about that point in time in New York that none of my neighbors who happened to walk out of the elevator showed a glimmer of surprise.

Given how St Andrew’s Day and tartans are so intertwined with Scottish history and identity, it is reasonable to wonder about cultural appropriation. Any question about whether wearing a tartan is cultural appropriation can be asked about wearing Ivy itself, if the person wearing Ivy did not come from the Northeast and was educated in a certain set of private schools and universities (or the equivalent).

At least in the case of tartan, it was inherited from the British who had a tartan and Scottish craze back in the 19th Century, due in no small part to the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Nevertheless, Richard Press wrote in piece for Ivy-Style posted earlier this year in honor of National Tartan Day, “Employment of tartan embroidery was a tad too ethnic, even though derived from “roamin’ in the gloamin bank O’ Clyde.” Incidentally, J. Press offers a tartan dinner jacket.

Regardless of questions of cultural appropriation, tartans remain as much a staple of Ivy Style as that other plaid, the madras. Both Take Ivy and The Preppy Handbook take tartans as a given for the look and the lifestyle. Teruyoshi Hayashida captions a photograph of a young man in a buffalo check: “A student wears a tartan wool sport shirt”. The buffalo or lumberjack check was derived from the Rob Roy tartan by Woolrich in the U.S. in the 19th Century, but the check’s Scottish origins are rarely identified. The Handbook dumps tartans under “Anglophilia” in “Fashion Fundamentals”: “The British have a lot to answer for: Shetland sweaters, Harris tweeds, Burberrys, tartans, regimental ties”. Actually, it’s the Scots. Four of the five items on that list have clear connections to Scotland.

A tartan is a check that mixes thin and thick stripes and three or four colors. Tartans are identified by clan, district, or regimental names. How much of the history of the older tartans is real and how much is romance is an open question.

The New York City Tartan

The more important question is who can wear tartans? For some that means the plaid; for others that means the kilt as well. The general consensus on both is anyone, but it turns out it’s not that simple. It depends on the tartan and the context. There are tartans anyone can wear and there are tartans that only a few can wear.

… and the NYC Tartan Tie

The feeling at Kinloch Anderson is that anyone can wear a tartan kilt, but “[I]t’s important when choosing a fabric for a kilt to respect private tartans that belong to one family or organization and instead go for an ‘open’ tartan that’s available to call comers,” according to Mansel Fletcher in a piece he wrote for Mr Porter. The Scottish Kilt Collection agrees, pointing out on its website, “You should not wear organizations kilt if you are not a part of that organization”; also noting, “You should not wear a military kilt if you are not a veteran or service member”. For most that would mean a regimental tartan, but, as The Celtic Croft says, “[E]ven the various US military branches carry their very own tartans”.

In other words, someone has to be a member of a particular clan or regiment (or military branch) to wear the corresponding tartan. District tartans, which are associated with a city, region, or country, are less exclusive. A surprising number of countries have national tartans. David McGill, a tartan designer, lists between two and three dozen on his website. The most interesting might be the European tartan. McGill comments, “In 1999 a Scottish Parliament assembled for the first time in almost three hundred years, and to celebrate this historic occasion, the European tartan has been created as a gift to our fellow Europeans as a symbol of pean and understanding between nations”. The most curious might be Japan and the Sakura tartan.

Not that the United States doesn’t have its own tartan. The American National Tartan was designed by Kenneth MacDonald in 2004. In an interview, MacDonald says, “If a customer’s family name isn’t associated with a clan tartan the American National Tartan is a fine choice”.

The American National Tartan

Some two dozen states also have tartans, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. New York State doesn’t have a tartan, but New York City does. It was created by Alistair Buchan (Lochcarron of Scotland) in part to honor 9/11. There are also tartans for Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Los Angeles. The Celtic Croft suggests that district “tartans represent pride in a region rather than a clan. Anyone who shares an appreciation for a particular place can enjoy its tartan”.

It might be better to have a more direct connection to the country or city in question. As someone who was born, brought up, and still lives in New York City, I probably have a better claim to that tartan than someone who faithfully and passionately comes in once a year for a few weeks to visit. I wear my New York City tartan tie sparingly, perhaps a dozen times since I bought it at Brooks Brothers several years ago. It is also the only tartan I wear.

Ivy and tartans coincide with the open or universal tartans: Rob Roy and Royal Stewart (as well as Dress and Black Stewart), Lindsey and MacLeod, Jacobite and Caledonia (Wilson 155), and, of course, Black Watch. Royal Stewart and Black Watch are probably the best known and most popular, both a mix of England and Scotland in origin. Royal Stewart was created in the early 19th Century and was selected by Sir Walter Scott for King George IV’s visit to Scotland. It was supposed to reserved for the royal family only, but wearing and displaying the tartan became an insanely popular way to demonstrate loyalty to crown and country. It’s exclusively was lost, but it became a design classic. Black Watch was an early regimental tartan for the Black Watch, a Scottish militia raised by the English to keep the Jacobites, among others, in line. It also became the basis for restricted regimental tartans.

Open tartans also include commercial tartans, of which Burberry’s is a good example. Less obvious are the tartans specially created for Outlander, though wearing any of those tartans might be more Ren Faire than Ivy.

For all that Fletcher says that the “Scots are happy to share the kilt with the world, perhaps because it, like whisky, is so indubitably Scottish that its cultural potency can’t be diminished”, it is important to distinguish between wearing tartans and wearing kilts. With new tartans being created all the time for reasons that have less and less connection with anything truly Scottish, tartans have become the Scots gift to the world.

While kiltmakers are happy to sell anyone and everyone tartan kilts (or they won’t stay in business very long), they do warn about not wearing kilts as an ethnic costume. “[W]earing a kilt at Halloween as a costume can offend the Scots,” notes The Scottish Kilt Collection. Wearing a Black Watch dinner jacket and a domino mask at a costume or fancy dress party would probably pass muster; wearing a Black Watch kilt with full Highland regalia would not. Perhaps tartan kilts would be best left to those who have some sort of Scottish connection. That said, Fletcher has a good recommendation for those who want a casual Ivy with tartan kilt look: a button-down shirt and crew neck sweater.

For those who would like to try a kilt but wish to be culturally sensitive, there is the M.U.G., or men’s unbifurcated garment, which is definitely not Ivy. As part of a movement to liberate men from the “tyranny of trousers”, M.U.G.s have a small, devoted, and vocal following. Based on the kilt, some M.U.G.s have “modesty snaps”, which turn them into something akin to skorts. People who need modesty snaps to wear a kilt or a M.U.G. might wish to stick with bifurcated garments.

And for those who wish to sport a kilt or a M.U.G. for St Andrew’s Day: Avoid manspread and updrafts.

Jonathan Boorstein

11 Comments on "Well Plaid."

  1. Very interesting and informative article indeed. Unfortunately, though, Mr. Boorstein needlessly raises the ever-thorny issue of authenticity and, worse, frames it with a term entirely new to the conversation here: cultural appropriation. Yikes. This gives even more powerful ammunition to the Ivy purists who can now argue that you are not only a phony but are also appropriating their culture if you dress Ivy but never belonged to the culture.

    Hey T. I thought about that a lot before posting this piece. Where I netted out was that Mr. Boorstein raises the question of cultural appropriation, but doesn’t go so far as to say that it has occurred. My own take on cultural appropriation is that it is Horse S across the board. The idea of sharing one’s culture is so that others can absorb it, appropriate it. In fact, I don’t even understand the word. I understand theft of culture – but not appropriation. At any rate, I decided to print it because it raises a question, and so that, if this became a subject, we could glean from one of, if not the only, civil places on the internet and hear what you all think. – JB

  2. This was a fascinating read and it helped fill in some of the gaps in my understanding of tartans. There’s a great little book, Robert Bain’s Clans & Tartans of Scotland. The edition I have is from 1964, and I’m not sure whether it’s still in print. The book is handsome and no-frills and features full-page color plates depicting the various clan tartan patterns and variations with a brief historical summary of each.
    I think it’s very interesting that “official” tartans are still being created for various things. And why not?
    On cultural appropriation, I of no known Scottish heritage am not about to go around wearing a clan tartan kilt. That doesn’t make sense to me. I see it almost as a parallel to wearing military surplus clothing: I have a couple of such items, but they have no insignias or ranks or patches. Having never served in any branch of the US military, it wouldn’t feel right to me to wear anything bearing a rank I didn’t earn. And I think cultural appropriation is more about privilege and cluelessness: If someone is in a position to know better, they shouldn’t wear something particular to an ethnic group or culture (particularly if there is an imbalance of privilege) without at least some real awareness of and appreciation for its meaning. I don’t know where to draw the line there and I won’t attempt to. I’ll instead defer to what people of whatever ethnicity or culture is being appropriated think about it. For me, the question is academic and might not mean much, but for them, it probably means a great deal.
    I do like wearing some tartans casually: I think my Black Watch tartan shirt looks nice. I’ve got a clan tartan scarf I like. I’ve never been to Scotland and don’t know whether or not I’d bring them on a visit. I don’t imagine most people would notice, but I would feel a little self-conscious. Hey, Baracuta jackets are lined in Fraser tartan. They’re all over the place. What are you gonna do?

  3. In Texas of all places, it is sometimes hotly debated whether Tex-Mex is a cultural appropriation of the Mexican food that Latinos ate at home as children. That food is a warm, fuzzy memory for them and they are sometimes pissed when “pinche gringos” mess with their tacos. It sometimes can take several beers to settle these epic battles.

    How does one acquire an invitation to these epic battles? – JB

  4. JB, you invite yourself.

  5. Cornell has its own tartan. As far as I know, it’s the only Ivy with an official tartan:

    https://www.tartanregister.gov.uk/tartanDetails?ref=5783

  6. My rules for respecting the culture of others when it comes to how I dress:
    1. Is it demeaning in any way?
    2. Does this particular piece have a strong spiritual/importance connotation? i.e. military service, heavy religious meaning, etc.
    3. Am I supporting the people of that culture when I purchase the item or am I just giving some more money to a huge company that makes everything in China?

    Decidedly not Ivy, but I come from a rural western background so cowboy hats, boots, and the like are a part of my style. I’ll wear bolo ties with native American designs if I buy it from a native person/business. I’m sure I’d do the same thing if I wanted to buy a kilt. I stay away from large feathers on hats because of it’s religious and military connotations to many native cultures just as I stay away from rank and unit patches on my fatigue jacket.

    This is a remarkably well thought out approach. May I reprint it? – JB

  7. Sure! Have at it.

    THANKS!!! – JB

  8. Tex-Mex is Mexican food for wealthy Mexicans of the past and Texans. Tex-Mex actually has meat in it. Having traveled the outback of Mexico in the late 50s, the food was damn near vegan. It was good.

    Ivy’s British military appropriations are vast, especially in neckwear and outerwear.

  9. Matthew MacLeod | December 1, 2021 at 4:09 pm | Reply

    Seriously? A discussion about cultural appropriation? In modern history, America itself is the definition of cultural appropriation. E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. We’re a melting pot, or at least that has always been the goal. Dividing ourselves by group and demanding no one else appropriate parts of “our” culture will be the downfall of this great nation. America is about making yourself into whoever you want to be. I’m the grandson of poor immigrants. That doesn’t mean I can’t wear penny loafers.

  10. If anyone wears or eats or uses anything from another culture with respect and good taste, is that not a compliment to the culture? Should we give up coffee since it did not originate here? Or stop supporting any ethnic-based restaurant? I’m Norwegian but not upset with the Minnesota Vikings. To be certain, if someone is using products unique to a culture in a demeaning manner, that should be avoided. But otherwise embrace anything that brings one enjoyment.

  11. Do you have any photos of Brooks Brothers tartan dinner jackets from 1944?

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