The rich history of tartan to be celebrated at V&A Dundee exhibition

A tartan Xbox controller, made for the 20th anniversary of the console’s launch in Scotland
A tartan Xbox controller, made for the 20th anniversary of the console’s launch in Scotland Copyright Copyright - Microsoft / V&A Dundee
Copyright Copyright - Microsoft / V&A Dundee
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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The iconic fabric and its rich history is to be celebrated at a V&A Dundee exhibition which will display 300 pieces of tartan from all walks of design


While you may associate tartan as simply a mainstay of Scottish landowners, a new exhibition is aiming to show there’s so much more to the fabric than just that.

The V&A Dundee in Scotland is launching its show - aptly named ‘Tartan’ on 1 April and aims to take a radical look at the fabric in all its varied iterations.

Gallery director Leonie Bell explains: “Tartan is linked to a hugely diverse range of identities. It is the cloth of the establishment, of political power, regal power, military power. Yet at the same time, it’s a symbol of subcultures and new identities, whether that’s 1970s punks or Japanese fashion influencers today”.

The exhibition will be made up of more than 300 objects from more than 80 lenders from across the globe.

Copyright V&A Dundee
A pair of woman's wool, leather boots from c. 1850 via Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, CanadaCopyright V&A Dundee
Copyright V&A Dundee
A pair of Dr. Martens boots in tartanCopyright V&A Dundee

Tartan has traditionally been a favourite of British royalty, and while it’s typically used in clothing and accessories - a pair of Dr. Martens in the material will be on display (see above) - it is also used across the design spectrum, from architecture to furniture and art.

The late Princess Diana was a fan of tartanAP/AP
Royal Collection Trust/Royal Collection Trust/© His Majesty King Charles III 2023
Watercolour 'Balmoral Castle: the Queen's Bedroom' by James Roberts, 1857Royal Collection Trust/Royal Collection Trust/© His Majesty King Charles III 2023
Courtesy of Fashion Museum Bath via V&A Dundee
Traditional tartan dresses - (L) Silk dress for Queen Alexandra, c.1870, (R) Satin day dress, c.1865Courtesy of Fashion Museum Bath via V&A Dundee
Copyright 2014 Invision - AP
Late designer Vivienne Westwood was one of many creative who used tartan motifs throughout her long career, as displayed in this look from her A/Winter 2014 showCopyright 2014 Invision - AP
Copyright V&A Dundee
A piece from designer Charles Jeffrey's LOVERBOY's S/S 2022 collectionCopyright V&A Dundee
Copyright Cheddar Gorgeous
A photograph of drag queen Cheddar Gorgeous in a suit designed by Liquorice Black, 2017Copyright Cheddar Gorgeous

A particular standout at the exhibition will be a piece of what is said to be the oldest ever tartan found in Scotland. 

Copyright - V&A Dundee
V&A Dundee curator James Wylie with the Glen Affric tartan, with the Scottish Tartans Authority's Peter MacDonald and John McLeish looking onCopyright - V&A Dundee

Researchers say the fabric, named after the Glen Affric bog in which it was found, was most likely made between 1500 and 1600. A curator at the V&A Dundee, James Wylie, called the discovery “a historic find” and added that it’s “immensely important” to put it on show to the public.

‘Tartan’ is at the V&A Dundee from 1 April to 14 January 2024.

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