V&A Dundee presents a radical look at a revolutionary textile
From Scotland’s oldest-known piece of tartan to a tartan-clad Xbox controller, V&A Dundee presents a radical look at a revolutionary textile
“Tartan is a textile, a pattern, a cultural phenomenon, a byword for all things Scottish. Traditional and rebellious, adored and derided, tartan is a pattern of endless contradiction.”
30 March 2023
Free to use images for Tartan at V&A Dundee
Tartan, the first major exhibition in Scotland in 30 years to focus solely on the iconic textile and pattern, opens at V&A Dundee this Saturday, April 1.
Running until January 2024, the exhibition presents a radical new look at a globally recognised design and brings together many different voices from around the world.
More than 300 objects illustrate tartan’s universal and enduring appeal with examples of fashion, architecture, graphic and product design, photography, furniture, glass and ceramics, film, performance and art.
It highlights the ways tartan shapes identities, embraces tradition, expresses rebellion and conjures fantasy. From a checked cloth woven in multiple colours in the Highlands, tartan’s distinctive pattern can now be found upon every surface imaginable. No other textile pattern has been categorised to such a degree, with more than 11,000 known examples of tartan recorded worldwide proving its iconic grids continue to offer unlimited possibilities and inspiration.
Tartan at V&A Dundee is sponsored by Arnold Clark and supported by LNER and the V&A Foundation. Set to be a major event in 2023’s cultural calendar, Tartan at V&A Dundee marks the 5th anniversary of Scotland’s design museum.
The exhibition has, for the first time ever on display, the oldest-known piece of tartan found in Scotland. On loan from the Scottish Tartans Authority, recent scientific research revealed the tartan specimen found in a peat bog in Glen Affric can be dated to circa 1500-1600, making it the oldest known surviving specimen of true tartan in Scotland.
One of the newest exhibits is a handcrafted tartan-covered Xbox Wireless Controller from 2022. The Xbox tartan was created to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Xbox in Scotland in partnership with Gordon Nicolson Kiltmakers, and weavers Lochcarron of Scotland Est 1892. This design is an innovative example of weaving, using only single green, white and black threads to create a digital pixelated effect.
Tartan at V&A Dundee is organised around five themes, where historical and contemporary, everyday and luxurious objects are juxtaposed and fact and fiction explored in equal measure.
Exhibition designers Plaid have created an immersive environment for visitors using tartan’s key principles of colour, pattern, and proportion. The colour scheme is directly inspired by natural tartan dye samples collated by Strathpeffer Highland Home Industries.
Tartan and the Grid introduces the principles of colour, pattern and proportion and how tartan’s rules of the grid have influenced fashion, art and architecture.
Tartan and Innovation positions the textile at the intersection of industry, science and technology and charts its journey as a global brand.
Tartan and Identity looks at the pattern as an icon and symbol of expression adopted by individuals and diverse communities across the world. Tartan’s political, royal and military force is presented in Tartan and Power.
Transcendental Tartan explores the textile’s myth-making potential and ability to create fantastical worlds.
Inspired by Jonathan Faiers’ book Tartan, the exhibition gathers objects from more than 100 international lenders. From the high fashion of Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, to amateur footage from 1938 showing weaver Willie Meikle at work on his handloom at home in Kilbarchan, Renfrewshire. Meikle kept a sample of every tartan he wove on the 200-year-old handloom, which is still in use today in his cottage, now cared for by the National Trust for Scotland.
Architectural drawings by Dutch Benedictine monk Hans van der Laan exhibit the amazing ways tartan can inspire across design disciplines.
Tartan’s enduring appeal for makers and designers is reflected through work on display from present-day fashion designers including Charles Jeffrey, Grace Wales Bonner, Nicholas Daley, Louise Gray, Siobhan Mackenzie, Owen Snaith and Olubiyi Thomas.
Olubiyi Thomas has created a brand-new tartan as part of an installation commissioned by V&A Dundee called Intersectional Family. Working with Glasgow-based micro-mill VEVAR and weaver Kirsty McDougall, Olubiyi has dressed the Intersectional Family in his green and white tartan, a colour scheme shared by both the Nigerian flag and Glasgow’s Celtic football club, reflecting the designer’s cross-cultural identity.
The exhibition focuses on tartan’s importance in the global marketplace. Scotland and France’s diplomatic and cultural links through the Auld Alliance extend back to the 13th century, fostering an intertwined textile heritage, with French fashion houses such as Dior and Chanel continuing to champion tartan.
From Chanel, an Ottoman silk cape from 1922 in Gordon tartan is an example of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s tartan work from this period, likely to have been influenced by her relationship with the Duke of Westminster and visits to his Highland estates. Also highlighting the continued use of tartan in the fashion house’s work is an ensemble designed by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel in 2012, for a show inspired by Coco Chanel’s love of Scotland and Mary Queen of Scots.
From Dior, there is a Blouse and Kilt Ensemble, designed by Marc Bohan in 1963–1964 . It was worn by Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. She and the Duke of Windsor wore tartan often, as have many members of the British royal family for both its diplomatic and sartorial powers.
In 2019 the first female head of the house of Dior Maria Grazia Chiuri designed a T-shirt and skirt ensemble, which is on show. Full oversized tartan skirts were teamed with T-shirts emblazoned with 'Sisterhood is Powerful’.
There are tartan outfits owned by Frances Farquharson, the American journalist and fashion editor of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar who married the 14th Laird of Invercauld in 1949. Farquharson harnessed the power of tartan to assimilate herself and fit in with her new family when she moved to Braemar Castle, resulting in some of the most impressive reinterpretations of traditional Highland garments.
In complete contrast there is a kilt worn in a First World War battle of Auber’s Bridge on May 9, 1915. Its wearer, Private James Calder, serving with the 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, survived but returned home injured no longer physically fit for service. The kilt which was kept in his family unwashed and donated to the Highlanders Regimental Museum in Fort George, Inverness, is a poignant reminder of the tragedy he witnessed and endured.
Much of tartan’s early handwoven Highland material traces are lost, except for some rare survivals including garments on display in this exhibition from the Highland Folk Museum and West Highland Museum. So much of tartan’s heritage has survived and is revived through spoken word, poetry and song.
Contemporary Gaelic culture is celebrated in a soundscape by Freya Macleod, who lives in Lewis, Outer Hebrides, commissioned by V&A Dundee specially for the exhibition. Also commissioned for the exhibition is a bespoke Tartan typeface. David McKendrick Studio collaborated with Atelier Carvalho Bernau to develop the typeface following the principles of symmetry and balance and the warp and weft of tartan.
Tartan in conflict is explored in two film exhibits. 1745, the BAFTA-nominated film by Gordon Napier focuses on tartan worn by enslaved people who fought against their situation.
Also an extract from the 2006 production by the National Theatre of Scotland, Black Watch by Gregory Burke which tells the story of new recruits from the the legendary Scottish regiment. The ‘Fashion’ sequence is a stunning piece of choreography of the dressing of young soldier Cammy by the rest of his company staged as a runway-meets-history lesson of Black Watch uniforms from 1739 up until 2004 and inspired by the military exercise of assembling a cannon.
In the portrait by Gerard M. Burns, rugby legend Doddie Weir 1970-2022, wears one of his famous suits in the Doddie’5 Tartan - a tartan Weir used as a force for good to raise funds for research into motor neurone disease. There are fragments of tartan worn by Bonnie Prince Charlie, along with the MacBean tartan which rocketed to the moon on Apollo 12.
There are significant pieces from the Jacobite period, including the 1748 Act of Parliament prohibiting the wearing of certain items of Highland dress, a Staffordshire Jacobite teapot from around 1750 which would have subtly signified the owner’s political stance and a 1753 snuff-box depicting names of Jacobite martyrs. V&A Dundee also asked the public to contribute to the exhibition. This is The People’s Tartan, an eclectic selection of objects and memories that represent the personal stories of people from Scotland and beyond.
The largest item is one of the last Hillman Imps to roll off the production line in Linwood on the outskirts of Paisley. The 1976 Hillman Imp Caledonian with tartan-inspired interior has been loaned by Paul Coulter.
Athlete Eilish McColgan has loaned her own tartan kilt and scrunchie worn at the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony in Birmingham in 2022. The tartan and outfits were designed by Glasgow-based designer Siobhan Mackenzie.
Cultures come together with Clan MacGoldblatt, the first Jewish family-owned tartan to be registered in Scotland – Professor Goldblatt, based in Edinburgh, has donated his tartan tie. For teenage girls in the 1970s, tartan meant the Bay City Rollers and Karen Gillanders from Dundee loaned her collection of homemade items including ‘I Luv Les’ emblazoned flared trousers, scarf and schoolbag.
Outlander and Men in Kilts star Graham McTavish has loaned his G9 ‘Harrington’ jacket with the iconic tartan lining.
Alongside Tartan, there are free family-friendly activities beginning with fashion textile workshop, Use Your Voice running from Saturday 1 April to Sunday 16 April, where visitors can take part in a workshop designed in collaboration with Fashion Revolution using scrap tartan and paper templates to design a fashion activist T-shirt. Fashion designer, Louise Gray has transformed the museum’s learning studio in preparation for the workshops, taking inspiration from Tartan’s themes of activism, expression and rebellion.
From Monday 10 April to Friday 14 April, Gordon Nicolson Kiltmakers and The Edinburgh Kiltmakers Academy will be demonstrating how to pleat and pin different tartans, giving families an opportunity to try out making their own handmade kilts. Kilts at different stages of construction will also be on display.
To commemorate this landmark exhibition, V&A Dundee has worked with Kinloch Anderson to design a new tartan to be used as the museum's exclusive tartan and developed a range of merchandise in collaboration with designers in Scotland.
Also, in collaboration with V&A Dundee, the cinema at Dundee Contemporary Arts is showing a short season of tartan-inspired film. These explore aspects of tartan’s cultural effect with The Ghost Goes West showing on April 2nd, Clueless is on May 4th and Highlander on June 10th.
Leonie Bell, V&A Dundee Director, says:
“Tartan is a symbol of Scotland, representing tradition, rebellion, innovation, legend, power, and multiple identities, which is at home around the world.
Tartan is an iconic, international textile, with humble Highland roots, it has been to the moon and back, is found on almost every imaginable designed surface from souvenirs, football strips and uniform, to racing helmets and interiors, it’s never out of fashion. The exhibition plays tribute to the range and versatility of tartan, and it rightly marks V&A Dundee’s 5th birthday. The exhibition brings together new and old stories through 300 objects, some that have never been seen in Scotland, or anywhere before. As Scotland’s design museum, the exhibition reveals and shares the incredible design history and enduring impact of tartan and its unique ability to continually renew in extraordinary, and everyday ways."
Consultant curator Professor Jonathan Faiers, says:
“Incredibly excited to welcome you all to Tartan, an exhibition that we hope will surprise and delight. The culmination of extraordinary research undertaken during extraordinary times, the dazzling objects gathered together here position tartan at the centre of global design culture while telling its varied stories, both rebellious and traditional."
The curatorial team at V&A Dundee are Kirsty Hassard, Mhairi Maxwell, and James Wylie.
“For V&A Dundee’s first home grown exhibition, we have travelled Scotland and beyond to explore collections, bringing objects, new stories and discoveries together for the first time to bust age-old myths, and re-examine tartan’s elusive origins.
“We explore fact and fiction in equal measure to look at the enduring impact of this textile as a set of rules for designers in the 21st century. “It also feels very timely to be exploring tartan from a global and diverse perspective, and we are grateful to our advisory group for underpinning this expansive research.”
Entry to the exhibition is free for 18s and under and members. General entry is £16 for adult tickets, Concessions apply and £2 discount when booking online.
Tickets are now on sale at V&A Dundee · Tartan (vam.ac.uk) @VADundee #VADTartan