The Definitive History of Tartan Trews
Updated: Jun 18, 2020
Few things are more iconically Scottish than tartan trews. Go anywhere in Scotland or anywhere that sells Scottish clothing, souvenirs, and iconography, and you’re sure to find the iconic plaid trouser patterns.
Tartan trews are as Scottish as cold rainy weather and Sir Walter Scott – both of which feature prominently in the story of their popularisation. But what are tartan trews exactly? And how have they become so interwoven with Scottish fashion and culture?
We first see it in its recognisable form in the 15th and 16th Centuries. These trews were essentially breeches and stockings cut in a single piece. A 17th Century source from Skye describes these early tartan trews as being “very fine woven, like stockings of those made of cloth,” with some “coloured” and others “striped.”
It was quite a distinctive article of clothing, and challenging to make, one that the source declared “requires more skill to make it, than the ordinary habit.” Descriptions of tartan trews being “tied round with a belt above the haunches” points to their place as a predecessor to modern trousers. Indeed, “Trousers” is an Anglicization of “Trews” and its Gaelic form, "Triubhas."
Part of what set tartan trews apart was their unique cut, which was done at a 45-degree angle. This allowed the fabric a greater degree of stretch around the leg as well as giving it its unique diamond and later plaid design.
By the 1600s, tartan trews were changing. While they were always cut to provide warmth, these later tartan trews were made with the intent of creating something that would cling closely to the body in the fashion of Renaissance “hosiery.” Think of the tights that dominated the Jacobean stage, which are forerunners to modern-day tights and leggings. These tartan trews too were cut to cling closely to the body. The fabric was quite stretchy, allowing a fair amount of mobility while helping to trap heat as they clung to the wearer’s legs.
National Identity and Culloden
As the Jacobean Period gave way, tartan trews changed their cut to become more like modern trousers. They no longer clung quite as closely as the hosiery-style tartan trews of the Jacobean Period and before.
Tartan trews weren’t the only aspect of Scottish life that was changing during this period. The mid-1600s were among the most tumultuous times in the history of Britain, with turmoil up and down the island, from the English Civil War to the South to brewing questions over national identity in Scotland.
Since the unification of the Scottish and English Crowns in James VI/I, questions over English and Scottish union were set against nationalist tensions, which escalated after the Act of Union in 1707.
This culminated in the Jacobite Uprising led by Charles Edward Stuart, descended from the Stuart line of kings and immortalised afterwards in Scottish lore as “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” The Uprising culminated at the Battle of Culloden in 1745.
Tartan trews were a symbol of Scottish nationalism and identity, so much so that they feature prominently in David Morier’s painting An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745. Where the British side is made up of Redcoats, the Scottish side is identified by their kilts and tartan trews.
The battle itself was a decisive English victory, costing the Scottish their national ambitions and identity – including the tartan trews. They were inextricably linked with Scottish national identity in the aftermath of Culloden that the English Parliament passed the Dress Act of 1746, which declared that “No Man or Boy” would be allowed to wear “Plaid, Philabeg, or little Kilt, Trowse, Shoulder Belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb.”
Sir Walter Scott, George IV, and the Tartan Revival
The Dress Act of 1756 was repealed in 1782, and tartan trews were once again allowed to be legally worn in Scotland and throughout the British Isles. However, it would take an unlikely pairing of a Romantic Scottish icon and Hanoverian English king to bring it back into prominence.
George IV had been regent for some years before his ascension to the throne in 1821. By this time, Sir Walter Scott had already emerged as one of the most famous writers in the English language as well as a Scottish literary icon.
George IV was already a national punchline and frequent target of cartoonists at this point for everything from his weight to his disastrous marriage to Caroline of Brunswick. As Lucy Worsley points out in her BBC series on the Regency, George IV liked to compensate for these factors by being a man of military importance and style.
Upon a state visit to Scotland in 1822, Sir Walter Scott arranged for the proceeding to be decked out in tartan pageantry – and, in keeping with his taste for fashion, George IV went along with it. Just decades after the English victory at Culloden and humiliation of Scottish identity with the banning of Highland clothing, the King of England was wearing tartan trews in Scotland. The political significance of George IV’s fashion statement was recorded by both official portraitists and political cartoonists.
In Scotland itself, however, it marked the rebirth of Scottish identity, with tartan trews once again at the centre of it.
Military and Modern Tartan Trews
Tartans are traditionally associated with the Highland region of Scotland. In keeping with George IV’s state visit and taste for military pomp, tartan trews have remained part of the military uniforms of many Highland regiments over the past two centuries.
A visit by the Prince of Wales popularised tartan trews in the United States when he wore them there in the early 1900s. Finally, Scotland’s most famous game and fashion statement have long been a natural couple, as tartan trews have long been popular with golfers around the world.
From its humble beginnings to its place at the forefront of Scottish fashion and identity, tartan trews are inextricably interwoven with Scotland’s proud and colourful past, informs its present, and is sure to continue far into the future.
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