Story of tartan through the centuries to unfold in V&A Dundee exhibition

It has been woven into Scottish culture and identity for centuries.

Tuesday, 6th July 2021, 11:59 pm

Now Scotland’s national museum of design is to stage the biggest ever celebration of tartan and its global impact.

Billed as “a radical new look at one of the world’s best-known fabrics,” the V&A Dundee show, which opens in April 2023, will also “tell the story of Scotland through tartan.”

The five-month exhibition will explore how the patterned fabric – famously embraced by designers like Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, the author Walter Scott and musical acts like Rod Stewart and the Bay City Rollers – has shaped, influenced and been reflected in advertising, fashion, film and fine art.

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However it will examine how tartan has been both “adored and derided,” been seen as a symbol of being radical and rebellious for centuries, and is still making its mark around the world in modern times.

The exhibition will also explore the “sometimes painful” history of tartan, which was famously outlawed in Scotland following the defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, but would go on to become a symbol of the British Army and Empire, and embraced by the Royal Family.

It first major in-house exhibition, which has been announced four months after the attraction secured national status and an extra £6 million in funding from the Scottish Government, will be staged nearly five years after the museum was unveiled.

V&A Dundee director Leonie Bell said: “Tartan is a ubiquitous and universally recognised fabric of Scotland, which is loved and loathed in equal measures, but lives on into new interpretation all the time. It is seen as a cliche, but is also seen as a really interesting fabric for contemporary designers.

A kilt under construction at the Keith Kilt School in Moray. Picture: Jonathan Faiers
A kilt under construction at the Keith Kilt School in Moray. Picture: Jonathan Faiers

“We're going to be telling its full design story for the first time – we don’t think any other exhibition has done that before. We will be looking at its history of attachment to tourism, tradition and the clans, how it was used across the Empire, how it has been subverted by punks and fashion designers, and how it has endured from quite simple beginnings to be something that is recognised by everybody.

“We will be going back as far as we can. It’s an ancient fabric that has not really changed very much but has continually been adapted again and again by people in all kinds of different sectors.

“It’s really fascinating when you start to get under the skin of it and you realise it’s something that we live with in Scotland all the time but maybe don’t understand the true story of it and the potency it still has – as a cloth that can be about being radical and rebellious, but also about tradition.

"It’s really interesting that the Tartan Army can own it at the same time as Vivienne Westood. It transcends ownership in a way that no other fabric does.

Thousands of tartan clad Scotland fans travelled to London for the recent Euros match against England at Wembley.

"The exhibition will be deeply about Scotland and our understanding of identity. But it will also be very much about V&A Dundee opening up to the world again in a way that we’ll probably be a tentative about this year and into 2022. It will tell the story of Scotland through tartan, but it will have a real internationalism to it as well.”

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A Vivienne Westwood-designed tartan jacket is already on display at V&A Dundee. Picture: V&A

Neil McIntosh

Editor

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