In 18th c. Britain, tartan plaids were politically charged textiles. As I mentioned in this blog about a 1785 Scottish wedding gown, the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 led to laws prohibiting the wearing of plaids by Highland Scots as a sign of rebellion. Time softened the symbolism to the English, and the laws were repealed in 1782. But whenever a caricaturist wished to portray a less-than-flattering image of a Scot, the figure was always swathed in plaid, and the distinctive graphic fabric continued to carry a whiff of rebellion and treachery.
That all began to change with the publication of Sir Walter Scott's historical novel Waverley in 1814. Long fascinated by the stories and legends of the Scottish Borders, Scott set his novel against the dramatic events of the Jacobite Uprising. Waverley became a publishing sensation, selling thousands of copies in Britain, Europe, and America, and inspiring Scott to write many more novels with Highland settings.
Among Waverley's fans was George, the Prince Regent, who invited Scott as the "author of Waverley" to dine with him in 1815. The prince became so fascinated by the romanticized world of Scott's books that, once he ascended to the throne, he became the first reigning monarch to visit Scotland nearly two hundred years, making a lavish tour in 1822. Always one to enjoy the pageantry of the monarchy, George embraced Scot's suggestion that he portray himself as a new Jacobite ruler, a regal clan chieftain through his Stuart blood, as a way to help restore the pride - and the loyalty - of the Highlanders.
For the festivities, George ordered an elaborate highland costume of a scarlet tartan. His outfit was supposed to represent the "ancient dress" of the Highlander, but with the gold braid, plumes, and pink tights to cover his bare knees - and at the cost of over £1,000 – it was more fancy-dress than ancient. He wore the outfit for a heroic portrait in 1829, right. As can be imagined, the caricaturists were less kind, lower left.
But the rehabilitation of the traditional Scottish plaid had begun. As Loretta featured earlier this month, tartans were already appearing in stylish dresses as early as 1822. Queen Victoria was another fan of Sir Walter Scott's romantic version of the Highlands, and she, too, embraced all things Scottish - including tartans. Fashionable society followed where the queen led, and by the mid-19th c., Highlands-inspired plaids were everywhere, from children's clothing to lavish silk gowns for evening.
Which brings me (finally) to the women's tartan boots, above left. These were probably the "fast fashion" of their time; their construction is inexpensive, and no effort was made to match the plaids. But their bright colors and fringed tops are cheerfully fun, and it's easy to imagine these boots peeking flirtatiously from beneath the hem of a crinoline skirt - and all less than a century after that symbolic Highlands wedding dress.
Many thanks to Kimberly Alexander for first spotting these boots.
Above left: Women's Tartan Boots, c. 1860. Cora Ginsburg.
Right: George IV in Highland Dress, by David Wilkie, 1829, Apsley House.
Lower left: Detail, Turtle doves and turtle soup! by George Cruikshank, 1822. Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images.