Whether you love it or find it a symbol of all things hipster, plaid has been remarkably successful. It’s one of the most widespread, recognizable and ubiquitous designs in the world, coming in almost every color and shade under the sun. But while it may be a major part of the hipster dress code, plaid has meant a lot of different things to many different people and cultures during for thousands of years.
AND technically, plaid isn’t the pattern’s proper name. That honor goes to the word “tartan,” which was first used to describe the individual colors and patterns used to decorate the clothes of different Scottish clans.
So, without further ado – Let’s take a look at how this pattern became so popular.
1500s: THE ORIGIN OF PLAID
Most of us don’t know the difference between plaid and tartan. Tartan refers to the unique cloth patterns which distinguish one Scottish clan or geographical region from another. By the original Scottish definition, a “plaid” was a Celtic kilt or blanket which served as an outer layer to battle the Highland elements.
Plaid, as we know it, was later appropriated by British and American manufacturers, who created patterned fabric which resembled tartan. Written records from 1538 place the fabric in high esteem amongst royalty including King James V, who gifted his wife with several bolts of the material.
1700s: BANNED IN THE UK
Though many of us may want to impose a plaid embargo on our most hipster-adjacent friends, tartan was actually forbidden in Britain during the 18th century. The fabric’s rebel uniform association with the Scottish Rebellion of 1745 against the union of Scotland and England, making tartan prohibited in the country for nearly half a century under the Dress Act. The print didn’t really resurface again until 1782, when plaid became legal, and it became in vogue to wear plaid gowns to formal occasions.
1850-1950: LUMBERJACK LORE
During the 19th century, the pattern made the leap from Europe to the U.S., where it became known by the informal pattern we know today: plaid. Midwest company Woolrich Woolen Mills gave plaid’s popularity a boost when they originated Buffalo plaid in the 1850s. Buffalo plaid’s distinctive red and black checkered pattern became a staple amongst those in outdoor professions — most notably, lumberjacks.
Clothing company Pendleton debuted a mass-produced plaid shirt for men in 1924, which became an instant casual wear hit. In 1936, flannel caught its next big break: During a particularly bitter winter snowstorm, the little town of Cedar Springs began to produce its own red flannel, and the print began to take root as a winter staple. Pendleton responded to the upswing in interest by debuting a female version of the shirt in 1949.
After several decades of developing into one of the United State’s favored patterns, plaid returned to its origins as a form of liberated style. Plaid became ubiquitous in the 1970s, adorning everything from suits to interior design elements. Though originally imbued with sweet, rustic connotations, the plaid shirt became part of a more risqué look when The Dukes of Hazard’s Daisy knotted hers above the waist and wore it with daring hot pants.
Across the pond, Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal Stewart Tartan was appropriated by the punk movement in the form of ripped layers and shredded shirts. The look was famously intended to give the fabric, associated with the monarchy, an anarchic spin. Inspired by the cultural phenomenon, Vivienne Westwood began to popularize her famously punk-inspired plaid on the coattails of the movement. Plaid was about to become a symbol of rebellion once more.
1980s: COUNTERCULTURE REVOLUTION
The 1980s proved a pivotal decade for plaid. Movies from The Heathers to St. Elmo’s Fire had plaid in a preppy stronghold, and public figures including Princess Diana exhibited the fabric’s more pristine potential. But meanwhile, the grunge movement was starting to take form in the Pacific Northwest, spurring what would become plaid’s most notorious decade yet.
1990s: THE GRUNGE ERA
The plaid flannel shirt became the unofficial symbol of the grunge movement in the early 1990s. Bands like Nirvana, The Breeders, and Pearl Jam rocked plaids in their signature, grungy fashion. Newcomer to the fashion scene Marc Jacobs appropriated the style with his line in his notoriously grunge-inspired Spring 1993 collection, and has continued his love affair with plaid ever since.
Empire Records followed soon after, and Liv Tyler’s ultra-mini plaid skirt and fuzzy blue sweater became an iconic countercultural image.
In 1995, couture designer Alexander McQueen took up Jacobs and Westwood’s gauntlet by infusing his collection with tartan, naming the collection “Highland Rape” in reference to Scotland’s mistreatment by the English in 1800s.