Research 34/021
Checkerboard and Tartan: How Two Patterns Changed Connotation Through Centuries.

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Checkerboard and tartan are two similar patterns but distinctive, each one with ancient origins, they became worldwide known and now represents two of the most recognizable pattern.

They were both conceived mainly for woven cloth, with both of them being made on a warp with a stripe pattern, characterized by various size stripes and colors.

The difference between checks and tartan is the repeating pattern, checks are composed of two solid colors, and the cloth is always symmetrical, while tartan is comprised of more colors, and it features a variety in the stripes pattern, very similar to tartan there is also plaid, which is formed from crisscrossing lines of varying widths in one, two or three colors.

These two patterns have ancient origins, but they still gained modern notoriety and cultural connotations between various communities. Their origin is in Scotland and Ireland. Since the 16th century, clans and families each had their distinctive pattern, similar to the concept of a monogram that features unique designs and initials. In the following centuries, they became deeply intertwined with British traditions. They became synonymous with British countryside style, thanks to royals often wearing tartan clothing while on holiday in their luxurious castles around the country.

In the 20th century, these patterns became very popular also in the US, but in a very different demographic.Thanks to their flannel and heavy clothing use, they soon became the favorite pattern for lumberjack and workers, cementing the connection between the check pattern and the outdoors and becoming a symbol of loggers, as immortalized in numerous movies and tv series.

What happened in the second half of the last century changed the concept and connotation of these two patterns utterly, and is a perfect example of how specific clothing style, patterns, and materials, are, more often than not, a symbol, and with that, usually change their meaning and audience with time.Both the check and tartan had a revolution in the ‘70s, in different ways and parts of the world, but both linked to the explosion of youth culture and a new look towards clothing.

Checks became one of the symbols of one of the most renowned footwear brands globally, Vans. With Vans being one of the most relevant brands in the skating and music scene it’s not difficult to imagine the importance and cultural connotation of the iconic black and white checkerboard that, worldwide, immediately is linked to subcultures.

But how Vans decided to use this distinctive pattern, well it all started in 1976, then years after the founding of the company, when Steve Van Doren, son of one of the founders, Paul, saw that teen skaters colored the midsole of their shoes to create a checkerboard effect. This discovery gave Steve the idea to print this pattern on the upper of their new iconic design, the Slip-Ons.

The tartan pattern had a similar but different revolution, while in the 70s in California, teenagers started drawing checks patterns on their shoes, in Britain, a new revolutionary genre was born, punk.

This new rebellious music was characterized not only by its sound, lyrics, and topics but also by its aesthetic, thanks to legendary British designer Vivienne Westwood.

At the start of her career, she was the designer who dressed the Sex Pistols, the most influential and famous punk group of all time (she was also the wife of Malcolm McLaren, the manager who put the group together, and many members of the groups worked previously at Vivienne Westwood boutique, but this is a story for another time).

Vivienne Westwood saw in tartan the possibility of subverting one of the most famous symbols of British royalty. So, she created outrageous garments for her boutique and the Sex Pistols, and tartan, with that, became one of the most relevant icons of counterculture and rebellion.

We need to go back to the US for the last revolution that took tartan to new heights of popularity, specifically in the South of California. Brands like Dickies were producing tartan flannel and workwear for decades, but, starting in the ‘70s, they became omnipresent in California thanks to Cholo style, a specific style of clothing popular between Mexican-Americans living in California.

Thanks to this, soon Dickies and tartan patterns became very popular in another genre that was reaching new height in the same state, Hip-Hop. In the ‘90s, rappers such as Snoop Dogg and Dr.Dre were often wearing tartan shirts, usually set to match the colors of their neighborhoods or gang, this put tartan in the spotlight, and thanks to Hip-Hop becoming mainstream in the ‘90s, it propelled tartan has a global trend and phenomenon, and a pattern with heavy cultural connotations.

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