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A History of Plaid

Plaid! You can’t go to Mission Dolores Park on a Sunday in San Francisco without seeing at least a half dozen long sleeve plaid button ups. If there is a hip crowd of any flavor, there will be long sleeve plaid button ups. Plaid has even spread into mainstream fashion recently. It got me thinking, where did all this plaid come from? What’s the origin of this hipster-turned-fashion-staple?

As it turns out, this print style goes back as far as 100 BC, created by ancient Celtic populations. As early as the Roman conquest of Britain in Julius Caesar’s day, the Celts of Scotland and Ireland wore primitive tartans.

Tartan is a pattern consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colors. Tartans originated in woven wool, but now they are made in many other materials.

3 types of Scottish Tartans (credit: wikipedia)

Three types of Scottish tartans (Credit: Wikipedia)

Plaid first made its mark on fashion in the late 17th century as a signature in Scottish society. Mostly fashioned in kilts, plaid actually became a symbol for rebellion against England. So much so, that it was banned for four decades! Wearing plaid after the Scottish rebellion in 1746 was forbidden. Plaid still holds as a symbol against society in general.

By the 1960’s, plaid fabrics were used in skirts and shirts for women. It was used a lot for service and labor-orientated jobs. Outdoor men — think lumberjacks — became synonymous with red flannel plaid shirts. Hence, that iconic, rugged outdoors man became associated with long sleeve plaid buttons up! Remember the Brawny man, the brunette one? He’s in a red plaid flannel shirt.

Credit: Blasco Creative

The Brawny man in his red plaid shirt (Credit: Blasco Creative)

Here is a great little pop culture and plaid time line from the folks at Blue Ridge Outdoors:

1850 Woolrich unveils the two-tone plaid Buffalo Check shirt, which is still available today. According to the Pennsylvania-born company’s history books, the pattern designer owned a herd of buffalo.

1914 Ad copywriter William Laughead personifies lumberjack folk hero Paul Bunyan in a series of pamphlets for the Red River Lumber Company. Bunyan’s legend has since been immortalized in cartoons, statues, trails, and theme parks.

1939 Red Flannel Day is started in Cedar Springs, Michigan, after the town became nationally famous for producing red flannel sweaters. The town still holds a massive Red Flannel Festival over the last weekend in September and first weekend in October.

1963 The Beach Boys make the Pendleton plaid shirt famous by wearing it side by side holding a surfboard on the album “Surfer Girl.”

1978 In his quest for the Tennessee governor’s office, now senator Lamar Alexander walked 1,000 miles across the state in a red and black flannel shirt. The populist stunt helped earn him the office for eight years.

1979 “The Dukes of Hazzard” first airs on CBS. Guys suddenly started making wives and girlfriends wear their plaid shirts.

1990 The Red Flannel Run debuts in Des Moines, Iowa. Earlier this year, 1,600 plaid-clad runners entered the race.

Whatever the case may be, plaid is associated with living on the edge, being rough and rugged, or being a rebel against society. There was a good period of time during the punk rock era of the late 70’s and into the 80’s that embraced plaid as a staple as well. Punk rockers with a mo-hawk, kilt and suspenders were not uncommon.

During the Seattle music scene of the 90’s, plaid got re-associated with a new rebellion. Kurt Cobain often rocked a plaid flannel shirt and who was cooler than Kurt in the 90’s? Plaid went quiet for a while after that and even went a little collegiate. But in recent years, it has come back with a vengeance with both hipsters and main stream fashion.

Plaid is hot, you can’t deny it. I bet you own a plaid shirt of some sort. Come on now, how many?


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  1. dan bosworth says: February 15, 2015

    great article, thanks for the research/post!

  2. Emily says: April 30, 2015

    I did not know this. As trends change, one goes with it and wears it, because it is ‘in’, and it is interesting that one wears articles of clothing without knowing it’s origin or it’s symbolic message. I did not know the correct origin of plaid, I honestly believed it originated in Texas, because from stereotypes, those from Texas wear plaid. After this and other articles about fabric origin, I now believe it is important to know where the articles of clothing one wears originated and what it means. One can learn a lot from the smallest things that make up one’s clothing, even if it’s just overlapping, multicolored squares.

  3. D.B. Willliams says: February 22, 2017

    I have been in Kenora Ontario since the mid 80s and before that in the 70s I visited my uncle who lived here. At that time he red and black plaid Doe skin shirt was known as the Kenora Dinner Jacket because this was the cottagers destination of choice for Winnipeg campers since Lake of the Woods has over 14,000 islands and more shoreline than Lake Superior and borders two countries and is a relax, kick back location.

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