Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Mad for Plaid: The Prince Regent, a Bestselling Author, & Flirtatious Plaid Boots

Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Isabella reporting,

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 Time softened the symbolism to the English, and the laws were repealed in 1782.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.


Lauriana said...

As a seamstress and a history geek, I've been interested in tartan for a while. And I've just visited Scotland last month. While I agree with all the information in this post, I think it is worth mentioning that originally, before the Highland Risings, the vast majority of tartans did not have specific clan connections. Colours and patterns could be unique to a region, rarely to a family. Most of those links were retrospectively invented when the popularity of the romantic Scottish past grew more prominent.
Events you described in this blog post were instrumental in this: Nobles attending the grand ball which was a high point of George IV's tour of Scotland were required to wear their 'ancient clan tartan'. Many had to have local weaving mills design them a family tartan for the occasion.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Lauriana ~ You're completely right, and many thanks for adding the extra information about the tartans. I believe Sir Walter had a hand in requiring the dress for that grand ball, too.

Much the same thing happened with the Irish fisherman's sweaters. The "lore of the cables" and how each village supposedly had its own cable-patterns is a largely invented marketing device from the 20th c. Not to demean either tartans or cabled sweaters, but both do show that people long for an attachment to their heritage and to the past, even in a romanticized form. As a Nerdy History Girl, I can hardly argue with that. :)

Anonymous said...

Victoria's love of plaid was displayed at Balmoral castle. The pictures I have seen of the plaid there makes my eyes ache.

Charles Bazalgette said...

Prinny was wearing tartan much earlier than this - see:

Yve said...

'Plaid' is not a word we really use in Britain. Tartan is referred to proudly as Tartan or more likely by the actual name of the Tartan such as Black Watch or the clan name if known. Not that has much to do with anything ;o)

Yve said...

Me again... agree with everything Lauriana said about each clan having it's own tartan. Early Victorian romanticism applied "Traditional" costumes to the rural British Celts as we became "quaint" to the chattering classes. The Scots took up the newly designed "Traditional Highland Dress" with the same enthusiasm as my own female Welsh ancestors donned those Tall Hats. If you are interested in the true origins of Welsh National dress look no further than the wonderfully eccentric (and canny - she owned a textile mill!) Augusta Hall, Baroness Llanover.

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