By the Blouin News Business staff

A short and all-commercial history of tartan

by in Europe.

burberry screen grab

Of all the reasons advanced for China’s revocation of Burberry’s exclusive use of its signature tan, black and red check, one is clearly bogus. That one is the accusation leveled by local rival, Polo Santa Roberta, that the upscale U.K. fashion retailer was monopolizing Scotland’s cultural heritage.

According to the official Scottish Register of Tartans, Burberry’s distinctive design, called Haymarket Check after the location of the British company’s London flagship store, was believed to have been created by an Italian luggage company. There is no historical record of a fashionably kilted Scots clan that would have looked as at home on the runway as in the glens.

The Register first dates the design to 1920. It says it became so associated with Burberry over the years that the retailer trademarked it and the check was recognized as a corporate tartan, the Burberry (Genuine). The company first used it in the 1920s for the lining of its gaberdine Tielocken overcoats designed for British military officers. The style had become popular after World War One with civilians, who called them trench coats.

The first recorded reference to Scottish tartan dates back to 1538. Originally tartan was the result of home weaving of the plain, everyday wear of Scottish highlanders, with the warp and weft sometimes creating a dull check. Wool, then, would have been naturally dyed; only the wealthy would have been able to afford brightly colored wool.

Though tartan and plaid are today used interchangeably for the design, a plaid then was a fuller, belted version of the dress and the term is still used for the cloth worn over the shoulder in formal Scottish dress. A short version of the plaid, the shape of the modern kilt, was invented by an Englishman in the 1720s as less cumbersome workwear for Highland laborers cutting trees for charcoal.

Following the Jacobite rebellion in the mid-18th century, wearing tartan was outlawed in the Highlands for three and a half decades. Its return to fashionability came in the 19th century when wearing Highland dress was taken up by King George IV and subsequently even more enthusiastically by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. By then chemical dying had been invented and weaving machines had advanced to allow the addition and mass production of over-checks, bands and stripes in contrasting colors to the basic two-color check, creating the bright, multi-colored tartans known today.

Commercial weavers produced these in unprecedented variety. To market their designs, they registered their new designs with clan and Scottish family names, cashing in on the combination of royal patronage and the rise of Highland romanticism among lowland Scots. There never had been any particular connection between a clan or a Highland family and the tartans its members wore. Those had been whatever what could be woven at home or locally.

Such historical detail did not deter the burgeoning tartan industry. An early pioneer was William Wilson & Sons, a leading firm of Scottish weavers, whose sales catalogue listed more than 200 tartans. After George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822, the Scottish tartan industry turned to clan tartan invention in full force. One influential book published in 1842, the Vestiarium Scoticum, would be revealed as a fake and not the reproduction of a historical catalogue of tartans it purported to be. That did not stop many of its designs being produced and registered as official tartans. There are today some 7,000 registered tartans from around the world. Almost all clans have several tartans bearing their name.

Burberry has never claimed any clan association for its tartan. Far from monopolizing any Scottish cultural heritage, as it stands accused of doing by Polo Santa Roberta (no relation to Polo Ralph Lauren; Burberry sued the company in 2009 for copying its iconic Haymarket Check handbags), the company’s check has, if anything, honored a Scottish tradition of canny tartan marketing and invention.