More than any food, drink or cultural icon, tartan is the globally recognisable symbol of Scotland. At once traditional and a emblem of ancient rebellion, it has also served that dual purpose for more contemporary designers and refuseniks. From haute couture to tourist nik-naks, it has been all things to all people, certainly since the advent of Romanticism in the eighteenth-century. Now the first exhibition for 30 years to look solely at tartan is opening at V&A Dundee on April 1 and runs until January 2024.

As Scotland’s design museum, it will look at the broad sweep of tartan’s history through that particular lens.

“Rather than approach it in a chronological fashion, we’ve chosen to do something quite different with it,” says Kirsty Hassard, curator at V&A Dundee. “We look at it as a form of design and how it has impacted on other forms of design.”

Bringing together more than 300 objects, the exhibition shows how the significance of tartan across fashion, contemporary graphic design, sculpture, glassware, ceramics and architecture. There is a structure to the show, which takes the visitors through five aspects of tartan’s influence.

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“There’s no tartan without a grid, so we begin with Tartan and the Grid,” says Kirsty Hassard. “We show traditional tartans and how they’ve been constructed that way, but then how that has been blown apart by various designers and architects.

“Obviously, tartan is a very Scottish textile, but I think the visitor will be surprised by where it appears. In this section, there will be the feeling of being inside a grid, providing an understanding of those principles. As you walk around, you start to recognise them in other forms.”

The next section is Innovating Tartan, which looks at how tartan has been at the forefront of technology, inspiring new designs and art forms.

“One example of this is how the first mechanically reproduced image was a tartan ribbon, by James Clerk Maxwell in the 1860s,” says Kirsty. It looks at how tartan has been spread across a multitude of other materials, including Mauchline Ware, which is the first form of what we would now call ‘tourist tat’.

“We also look at the geographical spread – in particular Japan and France, two markets where tartan has really taken off.”

The next section, Tartan and Identity, is one that will be familiar to many of us. The idea of tartan as something that identifies us as Scottish, or for the diaspora, something that signifies Scottish heritage.

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“There are clan tartans, of course, but we also look at how tartan can signify other identities – you definitely don’t have to be Scottish or have Scottish ancestry to find some form of identifying nature in tartan. It could be sexual identity, performing identity, identity in terms of sports. Everything from Bay City Rollers’ trousers to the Tartan Army.”

The duality that has always existed in tartan is examined in Tartan and Power; its use in everything from the military to being used to clothe slaves during the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries.

“It has always been a symbol of rebellion and has been used as a political textile. We also look at the idea of tartan and diplomacy and how people have used tartan to influence people, to their way of thinking, just by wearing something,” says Kirsty.

“What’s really interesting is that it can be two things at one time, depending on how it’s worn. For example, post-Culloden when highland dress was banned by the British government, it was still allowed to be worn, as long as you were in military uniform. So, when the Jacobites were being repressed by the British Army, a lot of their repressers were still wearing tartan.”

The section on Transcendental Tartan is “the power of tartan to move you to alternate spaces”, says Kirsty. “That can be literal movement, with railway advertising, The Flying Scotsman, and its use by designers such as Marion Dorn for upholstery on the London Underground.

“We have Jackie Stewart’s racing helmet with its Royal Stewart band and the tartan uniform from the British Caledonian airline. But then, there’s also the idea that it can metaphorically move you. So the idea of these sort of alternate realities, such as films and folklore.”

The curators have worked with more than 80 lenders to bring together an exhibition that offers the familiar but also surprise. Fashion enthusiasts will be attracted by pieces from Chanel, Dior, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood.

The Herald:

“Westwood researched her collections carefully, so the link between tartan and rebellion would not have been lost on her. McQueen’s connection to his roots was always strong and this might the first time a piece from his Highland Rape collection has been displayed with the Jacobite relics that inspired the collection.”

An important part of the exhibition is The People’s Tartan, crowdsourced following a public call-out last year.

“We have been so fortunate with our loans but there were important stories to tell and we knew those objects wouldn’t exist in any archive. These are the things that people collect and are passed down through families. It was important to capture that and The People’s Tartan has done that beautifully.

“There is everything from a draught excluder to a car. We received a call from a man who said he had a car that was one of the last to be produced in Scotland. It was a Hillman Imp, made at Linwood, and with a totally tartan interior.”

The success of the exhibition lies in its accessibility and, like tartan itself, is based on the grid but is woven differently.

“Although it remains ubiquitous, there is a generation of people who were maybe put off tartan slightly,” says Kirsty. “Here we see that tartan always has, and still means something to everyone.”

Tartan opens at V&A Dundee on Saturday, April 1, and runs until January 14, 2024.