It's a pattern that can rock a stage with the Sex Pistols and also find its place in the Queen of England's wardrobe. It’s can be simultaneously subversive and mainstream—the iconic plaid.
Its journey begins with the unexpected—a mummified figure found in China's Taklamakan Desert in 1978, sporting a pattern reminiscent of what we now know as 'tartan.' Estimated to date back to 1000 BC, this unexpected encounter hints at the enduring legacy of plaid.
Delving deeper into history, we arrive in 1700s Scotland, where plaid first blossomed. More than a mere design, it symbolized unyielding loyalty and identity for diverse Scottish clans, each boasting its unique pattern crafted from locally sourced dyes.
But plaid's metamorphosis didn't stop there. From a symbol of familial allegiance, it evolved into a military uniform during the Jacobite uprisings. Transitioning from clan tartans, the Black Watch pattern adorned the Royal Highland Regiment, blending heritage with military attire.
The Black Watch Tartan
However, the Dress Act of 1746 aimed to suppress this rebellion by prohibiting tartan. Its repeal in 1782 marked a triumphant resurgence of plaid, symbolizing Highland pride and familial connections.
This dynamic pattern transcended borders, gracing royalty's attire. King George IV showcased his Stuart heritage in the Royal Stewart Plaid in 1822, igniting a trend that captivated Queen Victoria and subsequent monarchs, endorsing plaid as a symbol of regal approval.
Across the Atlantic, plaid embarked on a unique American voyage. Scottish immigrants brought it to the shores in the late 1700s, but it took an ad man named William B. Laughead to etch plaid into the American cultural fabric. It's on Paul Bunyan, the legendary lumberjack, that plaid found its American allure.
Yet, it was Pendleton Mills' 1924 release of their iconic plaid shirts that truly etched plaid into the American mainstream. The shirts were such a hit that a band once called themselves The Pendletones, later known as The Beach Boys—a testament to plaid's cultural influence.
A vintage Pendleton plaid shirt.
But beyond mere fashion, plaid became a symbol of rebellion during the 1970s punk rock movement. Bands like the Sex Pistols embraced it as a countercultural emblem, imbuing it with an edgy statement of dissent.
Plaid's influence extended even further, permeating cultural niches such as the Cholo subculture and the landscape of Los Angeles gangs. The adoption of plaid by these groups in East Los Angeles, particularly the Mexican-American Chicanos, added another layer to its complex narrative. Originating from the Pachuco culture of the 1930s and 1940s, the Cholo subculture embraced plaid as a symbol of pride and identity, intertwining it with their distinctive fashion. Plaid-patterned flannel shirts became a staple, often paired with khaki pants or baggy denim, reflecting the Cholo aesthetic.
A punkhead wearing plaid pants.
However, during the 1980s and 1990s, gang culture in Los Angeles adopted certain plaid patterns to signify affiliation. This shift in usage influenced how plaid was perceived within urban communities, a shift captured in this notable article from the Los Angeles Times discussing dress codes in schools.
Plaid's journey from clan emblem to countercultural icon reveals its chameleon-like ability to traverse eras and cultures, etching itself into history as a pattern that defies boundaries and signifies diverse narratives.