My relationship with tartan* traces my entire life. It began at the tender age of nine months, when my mother squeezed my sausage-y baby-self into a tartan dress for Christmas and plonked me — for photographic opportunity, naturally — rosy-cheeked and thrilled, among the presents under the Christmas tree. By the age of five I was in kilts. By 18, I was a dab hand at sourcing swaths of vintage checkered prints via vintage stores and internet marketplaces. Now, age 31, my love for the print continues unabashed: Just this week, I accidentally found that I had dressed both me and my daughter in a complementary red check (me in Musier blazer; her in a romper from Next Baby).
*If you live in the US, you may have heard the word “plaid” used interchangeably with “tartan.” In Scotland, however, “plaid” is an accessory slung over the shoulder. In deference to my Scottish heritage, I’ll be calling the pattern tartan throughout and hope we can get down with the checkered stuff together.
I’ll forever hold tartan close to my heart. Since my teens, I have surfed eBay for kilts on a near monthly basis (my best one is knee-length and bright blue and cost a mighty $6). I bought tartan flannels with the sleeves cut off from Urban Outfitters during my 90s grunge phase. When Stella McCartney brought out an eye-wateringly expensive tartan sweater in 2014, or thereabouts, I parked my yearning for its mohair munificence and instead shook out the turtleneck you see in these pictures from its vintage stack (snapped up from a random market for $30 at the start of my journalistic career) and remembered all over again my fondness for it. I have tried on more tartan-lined vintage Burberry trenches on Portobello Road than my rotator-cuffs thought possible (like finding the perfect Levi’s, it’s taking me a long time to find my match).
So firmly entrenched is tartan in my repertoire and so used to decent checks being in short supply in the UK anywhere other than such vintage outlets, I am thrilled by tartan’s recent ubiquity. It’s in designer collections again (at Alexander Wang, MSGM, The Attico, Gucci, Tibi, to name a few…) and in high street stores’ inventory. But heed my warning: tartan is not a trend. Tartan is a way of life. Opt for tartan because it is ageless, caveat-free and steeped in nostalgia. Because it is democratic and limitless in opportunity (yellow for the nineties, Clueless-style; gray or brown for the muted, classic Katharine Hepburn look; red for the Scottish tartan; spliced colors for the experimental) and because it is one of the best things to unearth when vintage shopping.
To share such a lifestyle with you today, I have avoided a key cornerstone: the kilt. That’s not to say that I don’t love the kilt (I cherish my vintage kilts; my decade-old particularly good mini kilt from Topshop; my black and white, and multi-colored versions by Le Kilt); the Alex Vauthier one I’d buy in my dream bank account world that’s currently taunting me on MATCHESFASHION.COM). I did, however, want to demonstrate just how versatile tartan is, starting with the trench coat.
The Trench Coat
I truly believe that a trench coat with a tartan lining, or a tartan trench if you’re going for the full monty, should be a part of every woman’s wardrobe. I wear it daily over a tracksuit when I go and get coffee, as a chic cover-up for the chaos within and, as you see here, I often wear it over a formal look for a work dinner. This particular (reversible!) one is by Warehouse — it’s not available online just yet, but, they have great trenches under $200.00. Another one I recommend: this trench from Rejina Pyo x Label Mix with tartan-trim cuffs.
(Also on my mind: a brown and purple one by new label Rokh.)
I’ve always loved wearing tartan with tartan. Today, I do so with a vintage turtleneck and the best pair of wide-leg trousers I’ve worn in a while by Emilia Wickstead. Typically, as I’m pretty short, wide-leg trousers swamp me. Let it be known that in my dream bank account world, these, with their most excellent fit, would also be entering my wardrobe. (Scroll through the bar below for more affordable options.)
The Tartan Dress
Finally, even as a 30-something mother, it seems I can’t kick the urge to dress like I did at nine months old, installed under the Christmas tree while merrily chomping on a piece of tinsel. This flippy Isa Arfen dress is both childlike and thrillingly feminine, hugging the bust and kicking out over the hips. Pairing a pinafore with an extravagant vintage cotton blouse like I did here will forever be my favorite combination, just like I’ll forever embrace the best print ever: tartan.
Photos by Frances Davison.