Plaid has a surprisingly varied meaning. It could refer to a specific type of cloth, a pattern, or a particular item of clothing. When we speak of plaid today, we usually refer to the distinct pattern with long horizontal and vertical bands of different colors and widths intersecting each other. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, plaid is not checkered. Checkered fabric consists of patterns that create squares of two or more different colors. Plaid fabric has those distinctive lines, both horizontal and vertical. The lines on plaid fabrics could create squares, as seen on check fabric, but this does not always happen.
The history of plaid fabric.
The very first evidence that someone wore plaid dates back to over 4000 years ago. The person who wore it was found in an archaeological site in China, and their remains are surprisingly Caucasian. The fabric found in the site also very closely resembles the tartan fabric that Celts, and mainly Scots, are known for.
Traditionally plaid, or rather tartan, was used to make traveling cloaks for Scottish clans. Each clan had its own distinct pattern and color of tartan. This was partly coincidental as people from a specific area bought their fabrics from the same weaver. The weaver created the fabric by using the colors and dyes available to them. Because people who lived in the same area were usually from the same clan, different clans from different areas wore clothing made from fabric unique to the region. These distinct colors and patterns became inherent and distinct to each clan.
In the 18th century, tartan was adopted as the military uniform when James Francis Edward Stuart led a rebellion against the English monarchy. The Scots were defeated in 1746, and tartan fabric was banned (except for military wear) for nearly one hundred years. Tartans became known as plaid when they started to become popular in Britain and America. There are two competing stories of how plaid made its way to America. One documents Jock McCluskey (believed to be a descendant of Rob Roy MacGregor) trading Scottish tartan with the Sioux in Montana and Dakota. Another story credits an outdoor wear company called Woolrich Woolen Mills with introducing plaid to American consumers. It quickly became a trademark for pioneers and lumberjacks.
Plaid fabrics grew in popularity, and in 1924 Pendleton Mills’ introduced a new fabric used to make woolen plaid shirts. Pendleton shirts became so famous that a small band from California decided to call themselves ‘The Pendletones.’ The band later became known as ‘The Beach Boys.’
Pendleton launched their plaid women’s range in the 1940s. Soon people from diverse subcultures were wearing plaid. Punks sported Royal Stewart Tartan in the UK, and plaid pieces were the fashion staple for anyone who identified as being anti-establishment. Today plaid is making (another) comeback. It can be seen during fashion weeks and on runways decorating everything from scarves to blouses and frilly skirts.
Plaid has its very own day – two, in fact! Plaidurday is the internationally celebrated plaid day and happens on the first Friday of October. North America (especially Canada) has adopted April 6th as National Tartan Day. Plaid fabrics have its roots in ancient times, inspired the Beach Boys, and is as popular today is it has been for millennia!