When Emma Watson stepped on the red carpet in her McQ tartan puffball minidress and spiky heels for the GQ Men of the Year Awards earlier this autumn, she became, to even her own surprise, the fashion story of the evening. Dubbed “the tartan rocker” by MTV she also recorded a 90 per cent approval rating for her outfit in an AOL poll of the day; stealing the show from fellow presenter Sophie Dahl who also turned up in a tartan minidress.
So why is tartan hip again? “It’s the sense of rebellion,” says London-born Marcus Wainright, co-owner of cool New York label Rag & Bone, referring to the counter-intuitive use of Scottish plaid in Watson’s otherwise adventurous frock. “It’s taking something real or royal and treating it without respect.”
This idea was also the basis of a sartorial revolution as imagined in the mid 1970s by Vivienne Westwood, whose tartan bondage pants defined her punk aesthetic, and later adopted and adapted by Alexander McQueen, whose 1995 collection, “Highland Rape”, featured battered and bruised models sauntering down the runway in shredded plaids. Today’s tartan, however, is less aggressive in its presentation, relying on surprising juxtapositions for its allure as opposed to outright destruction, whether symbolic or real.
“The traditional kilt with loafers is boring,” says Wendy Dagworthy, dean of the school of material and head of fashion at the Royal College of Art. “But if worn in a modern way and mixed with other things like a flower or stripe, tartan works.” And not just for Christmas or Scottish line dancing – though that’s not to say it isn’t good for Christmas, especially as reimagined in a rainbow of different options, from day to elegant evening.
“This year tartan is ginormous,” says stylist Maureen Vivian, who works with celebrities from Victoria and David Beckham to Pierce Brosnan and George Clooney’s ex, Lisa Snowden. “It is literally everywhere.” It’s on hip tiny tartan shorts from Dsquared2, tartan Rollergirl flats by Christian Louboutin and a Vivienne Westwood signature bag. Even the mascot of the BBC’s charity appeal Children in Need, Pudsey bear, was given a tartan makeover by Henry Holland and E Tautz designer Patrick Grant. Auctioned for the charity, the bears raised £820 and £530 respectively.
Andrea Panconesi, chief executive officer of luxury online fashion retailer luisaviaroma.com, for example, notes: “[Joseph] Altuzarra used the print on silk this autumn/winter, taking it out of its daywear element and projecting on to pieces that can be worn in the evening” – specifically a silk satin wraparound tartan skirt and silk chiffon layered dress that clings elegantly to the body. Meanwhile, Ruth Runberg, buying director at Browns, cites “Opening Ceremony, which lined a very dainty dropped waist lace minidress with an unexpected bold tartan, making a pretty lace dress a bit more cool” as a prime example of the trend.
According to the New York designer Thakoon Panichgul, who gave his autumn/winter tartans a luxe sporty feel: “I wanted to take plaid out of the traditional and do something more popular and street. We ruched up the taffeta anorak with drawstring, which makes it sporty, and puffed up a skirt into a bustle, turning tartan into a Rococo [18th century style] sport couture.”
Then there’s Rag & Bone’s Wainwright, who believes: “It’s all about layering. We juxtaposed the soft tartan fringed skirt with a cream padded biker jacket on top and 70s padded ski pants underneath to give a harder, more modern edge.”
“People want easy to wear pieces they can dress up or down, like East by East West tartan shirt dresses, which they can chuck on by day with leggings and high heels by night,” says Sam Robinson, owner of The Cross boutique in west London.
Pointedly, the bright new colours and blown up prints also work very well commercially, particularly online, where the pattern and tone sends an eye-catching message and encourages consumers to spend extra minutes looking at clothes. Luminous yellow plaids at Prada on 1960s-inspired dresses or Isabel Marant’s bold red checks on punkish cropped tartan trousers make a bold, instantly appealing statement.
A case in point: Watson’s much-looked-at dress, as well as the floor-skimming, figure-hugging evening looks at Oscar de la Renta. Indeed, dramatic silhouettes give the classic print a more directional edge, according to Suzanne Pendlebury, Buyer at Matches Spy, who favours the fuller, umbrella-shaped navy and cream tartan skirts at Cacharel, oversized cashmere pieces at Crumpet, such as a beige and black biker jacket with hard-edged zips, and cocoon coats with shimmering bugle beads at MaxMara.
Stylist Maureen Vivian says ultimately it’s tartan’s longevity that is at the heart of its value. “In the economic downturn, we look for one great piece,” she says. “Tartan has a history of being incredibly well made, so it also has an automatic stamp of quality.” No matter how surprising the form.