The unofficial uniform of farmers, grunge rock enthusiasts and many a twee hipster, plaid has been in style for some 3000 years. The proof: a group of archaeologists inspecting an ancient Chinese cemetery in 1978 uncovered the mummified body of a Celtic male wearing a red twill tunic and a pair of tartan leggings. Experts estimated the Caucasian male—later dubbed the Cherchen Man—died around 1000 BCE, showing the crosshatch pattern was cool with the ancient set. Read on to check out more fun facts.
1. IN 16TH CENTURY SCOTLAND, WEARING TARTAN WAS A WAY TO SHOW REGIONAL PRIDE.
As Brian Wilton, director of the Scottish Tartan Authority, explained to Pacific Standard magazine, residents in remote Scottish towns dressed the same by necessity. They bought their garb from the same place, “and the weaver would not be reproducing a choice of patterns, but a standard pattern using the colors available to him.” As trading increased access to different hues and patterns, sticking to the materials from your region became a way of showing off where you came from—the way a proud Boston native might rock a Patriots jersey on the streets of New York.
2. PLAID AND TARTAN AREN'T TECHNICALLY THE SAME THING.
Tartan weaving in Lochcarron, Scotland, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Tartan is the correct word for that specific pattern unique to each Scottish clan or region. But the term plaid comes from the Gaelic word, plaide, which referred to the actual blanket or outer layer that kept Scots toasty during harsh weather. Though the terms are often used interchangeably nowadays, it's worth noting that while all tartans are plaids, not all plaids (simple checkered patterns, for example) are tartans.
3. FOR ALMOST FOUR DECADES, PUTTING ON PLAID WAS ILLEGAL …
After the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, the British parliament passed the Dress Act of 1746, which made wearing any tartan—the uniform associated with the rebel armies—illegal. Punishments for disobeying were harsh: imprisonment for the first offense, then deportation. And according to Jude Stewart’s 2015 book Patternalia, suspected plaid-lovers even had to take an oath: “I do swear … never [to] use any tartan, plaid or any part of the Highland garb; and if I do so, may I be cursed in my undertakings, family and property—may I never see my wife and children, father, mother and relations—may I be killed in battle as a coward, and lie without Christian burial, in a strange land.”
4. … YET A BRITISH MONARCH IS CREDITED WITH MAKING IT POPULAR AGAIN.
King George IV, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
In 1822—40 years after the ban on plaid was lifted—King George IV made a visit to Scotland. It would be the first sojourn to the area by a reigning monarch since 1650. To mark the occasion, novelist Sir Walter Scott organized a welcome ceremony featuring hordes of Scots dressed in their regional tartans. The event led residents to become mad about plaid once more, helped by a king who decided to wear his own kilt (which turned out to be too short, requiring him to accessorize with some pink tights).
5. THE PLAID CRAZE HIT THE U.S. IN THE 19TH CENTURY.
In the mid 1800s, Pennsylvania company Woolrich Woolen Mills began producing the red-and-black Buffalo Check Plaid shirt, which became a hit with workers braving the cold outdoors. Legend says the pattern’s designer owned a herd of buffalo, which inspired the name.
6. A HARSH WINTER BOOSTED PLAID SALES.
During the particularly bitter winter of 1936, a New York feature writer bemoaned the lack of available red flannels. Writers at a Michigan newspaper, the Cedar Springs Clipper, read the piece and answered it with an editorial of their own, explaining that a local shop in their town had a plethora of such underwear available. When the Associated Press picked up the story, Pollock’s Store was inundated with orders for the cozy flannel. Today the small town (population: roughly 3500) marks the moment with a series of fall events called the Red Flannel Festival.
7. THE PATTERN GOT EDGY IN THE 1970s …
When Daisy Duke knotted a plaid shirt above her, well, daisy dukes on the popular series The Dukes of Hazzard, the rustic look gained a sexy edge. Meanwhile, across the pond, punk enthusiasts were reappropriating Queen Elizabeth II’s classic Royal Stewart Tartan. Wearing it in torn-up strips or as bondage wear was their way of giving the proverbial middle finger to the proverbial Man.
8. … THEN GRUNGY IN THE '90s.
As bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam began, er, rocking plaid shirts, the checked flannel became the unofficial symbol of the grunge movement. The trend was also popular with the more fashionable set. See: Cher and Dionne’s stylish skirt suits in the 1995 hit Clueless, and Marc Jacobs’ plaid-heavy 1993 grunge collection for Perry Ellis.
9. THIRTY-FOUR STATES HAVE THEIR OWN OFFICIAL TARTAN.
Much like official flowers and birds, the patterns in these states have been adopted by legislators as legitimate state symbols. The entire country also celebrates National Tartan Day—established by Congress in 1997 as a way to recognize Scottish-American citizens—on April 6.
10. PLAID HAS EVEN BEEN TO THE MOON.
When astronaut Alan Bean traveled to the moon on November 19, 1969, as part of the Apollo 12 crew, he took half a yard of his family’s MacBean tartan with him. However, despite popular legend, he did not leave a scrap behind.