Plaid, or “tartan,” is one of the closet staples we can be sure will never go out of style. In fact, it has been around for at least 3,000 years—the oldest fabric was found on the “Cherchen Man” mummy.
Plaid or tartan, which is which?
The pattern we now call plaid is originally known as “tartan” in Scotland where the design we’re familiar with emerged. These checkered fabrics communicated one’s family or clan, as we see in traditional Highland Dress, while plaid was simply a thick wool garment, such as a cloak or blanket. Tartan was, as a London poet in the 17th century described, a "warm stuff of diverse colours."
When the pattern made its way to North America, through Scottish immigrants, it was an instant favorite. As a flannel, it was the go-to clothing to stay warm, as preferred by pioneers and outdoor laborers. By the early 20th century, the word plaid was used interchangeably and this time women were adding the style to their closets.
How to wear plaid today
Though it carries many cultural and stylistic associations, we can’t help but reach for it in colder months. With so many ways to wear it, here is some inspiration from across Instagram.
The pattern most associated with America, Buffalo Plaid, became popularized in the Midwest when Woolrich Woolen Mills created the iconic red and black squares in the late 19th century. We often think of plaid as a go-to for hipster or punk fashion, but it can also be dressed up. Though it’s often seen as a casual Paul Bunyan look with jeans and boots for a day outdoors, it can be tucked into a black pants or skirt for a work-appropriate ensemble. In Paula's look below, we love how pattern-mixing with a leopard print belt adds an even more festive vibe!
Beyond Prep School Vibes
Some of us may associate wearing plaid skirts with school uniforms. Interestingly our schools used a particular sett, or pattern, to distinguish it from other schools—kind of like the Scots would do for their region. By using warm, neutral tones or longer lengths, we can still wear plaid as adults without being confused for a schoolgirl. We’re loving all the plaid inspiration from Francophone blogger Louise and Rhode Island influencer Sarah Patrick.
If the weather is not chilly in your neck of the woods, we can still get a seasonal look by making a few tweaks. Rather than wearing head-to-toe flannel or wool, wear a checkered headband or belt. Alternatively, try plaid on cotton button-downs or blouses for the same look with a lot less bulk, as style bloggers Megan Pinckney Rutherford in Charleston and Emily Godoy in Miami have done in their temperate climates.
Keeping It Classic
There are some plaids that are oh-so-perfect for the holiday season such as Black Watch tartan (which has a fascinating history, btw) as seen here on blogger Victoria Ford. There’s also the iconic Royal Stewart tartan, which is worn by the Queen of England. Though technically not supposed to be worn without permission from HRH, it has become so popular, the Scottish Register of Tartans eventually noted that it has become a universal pattern, and it can now be worn by anyone who doesn't have their own clan. These two setts add a timeless look for the holidays and can be sported on a dress, scarf, hat, or purse.
Plaid has come to mean different things to many people—cultural affiliation and ancestry, or even political or social dissent. It’s simultaneously traditional or nonconformist, formal or casual. Whether we’re keeping it timeless or adding a modern twist to it, we’re glad there’s a plaid for all people.