V&A Dundee

The People's Tartan

Be part of reinventing tartan’s story

Written by: James Wylie

Tartan is a pattern of contradictions that amazes, commemorates, sparks debate, and inspires. It has been an extraordinary journey to date curating Tartan, which opens here at the museum next April. My colleagues Kirsty Hassard, Mhairi Maxwell and Jonathan Faiers have been part of numerous exciting conversations and have deep dived into the archives of designers, researchers, museums, manufacturers, and collectors across the country. The exhibition will present an opportunity to reconsider Scotland’s turbulent relationship with the textile, while unpicking the many strands that make this woven pattern a global staple of style, from the stages of Broadway to the streets of Harajuku. We are scheduled to open in April 2023 and will run until January 2024.

Exhibitions in Japan and Italy in 2018 and 2003 made introductions to tartan in their respective countries but, incredibly, there hasn’t been a major exhibition solely focussed on the textile in Scotland in recent memory. Whether this is because of the nation’s uneasy relationship with ‘tartanry’, a stereotypically kitsch representation of Scottish culture, remains to have a definitive answer. However, the material and pattern continue to be popular and relevant as ever - watch any current film or TV programme and you are bound to find plaid shirts and tartan skirts. Tartan is a core ingredient in the playbook of contemporary fashion houses and is one of Scotland’s most recognisable outputs, so it has been amazing to have been given the opportunity fully embrace its contribution to global style and finally invite Tom Nairn’s ‘Tartan Monster’ in from the cold.

Two young girls wearing tartan dresses holding bouquets of flowers at a wedding.
A pair of tartan boots.
A doll wearing a tartan dress.
  • Louise and her sister wearing a tartan pinafore and kilt at their mothers wedding in 1992. Image courtesy of Louise Kirby.

  • Stephen's pair of McMarten Tartan boots. Image courtesy of Stephen Watt.

  • Judy's rag doll called Siobhàn Anna, wearing Robertson tartan. Image courtesy of Judy Robertson.

Tartan is not a material consigned to the past – tartan is ever present. The textile keeps reinventing itself and evolves to fit the needs of the next generation in Scotland and throughout the world. We want to represent this, so we need to platform the voices of the public. To further enliven the exhibition, V&A Dundee is launching a public call-out to find the ordinary that is extraordinary, gather personal connections, as well as images of people animated by the tartan they wear. For this we need to hear from you!

From the most cherished keepsakes to the fashion of your rebellious youth, we want to represent what tartan in its many forms mean to you. What does wearing tartan make you feel? How does tartan reflect your personal or collective identity? Do you have images of you wearing tartan at home, at parties, or on the high street? If not you, then perhaps a family or friend? If you think you can help us out, then please get in touch by sending an email to tartanproject@vandadundee.org to send in your images and stories. We are particularly keen to source:

  • Tartan material connected to the Tartan Army that has seen many a football match.
  • Items of contemporary tartan street fashion, specifically connected to online trends.
  • Homemade items produced during the fandom craze for the Bay City Rollers.
  • Tartan comforts of the home. Ornaments and mementos, such as Staffordshire pottery or Christmas decorations, or a dressing gown.
  • Tartan products and packaging such as the infamous tartan shortbread tin.
  • Tartan garments and related material connected to early punk.
  • A tartan-lined Harrington and Barbour jacket.
  • A well-travelled tartan travel rug.

For an opportunity to be included in the exhibition, we ideally require the items to be presentable with information on where the material was acquired, its relationship to you, and a good knowledge of whom the item is connected. Though we list some specific requests, we’d love to hear from you if you think you have something rather unexpected. Hopefully, through this appeal we’ll come across some inspirational items with insightful stories about what tartan’s many connotations mean to you.

Be part of the Tartan call out’s future developments and conversations. Email us at tartanproject@vandadundee.org and share stories and images on social media via #VADTartan

Deadline for submissions is Thursday 27 October.

Header image: Valentines staff wearing kilts at a company sports day, courtesy of Jan Sturrock.