There is a prevalence of plaid to be seen when looking at vintage photos and ads from the 1950s. In addition to boomerangs and pastels, plaid seems to have held a predominant place in the hearts of designers and consumers alike. Having noticed this trend, I decided to do some research and figure out why plaid was so popular in the 1950s.
Plaid, as it is known today, is a popular version of what was originally called “tartan.” Dating back three thousand years, tartans were woven Scotland, as well as other areas in northern Europe. Vegetable dyes were used to achieve the variety of colors in the woolen fabrics. Due to limited availability of vegetation in a region, colors that could be made locally were also limited. The color of a tartan came to be an indicator of different clans and the region they were from.
The exportation of Scottish tartans into other cultures was aided by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert following their first trip together to Scotland in 1842. They so fell in love with the Scottish countryside that they decided to build a castle there. Balmoral Castle became the royal couple’s getaway in the Scottish Highlands. They dressed in Scottish tartan and decorated their castle rooms with it, including upholstery and carpets in fabrics like the Victoria tartan and the Balmoral tartan, designed by Prince Albert.
Eventually, tartans came to be known as “plaids”, a term originally used to describe tartan fabrics used as traveling cloaks among the Scottish people. American and British textile manufacturers made fabrics with similar styles as tartans, but without the tartans’ meanings. These plaids were no longer symbolic, rather they were used because of their cheerful, decorative qualities. As with foot-binding and drawn-on moles, if it was good enough for royalty, it was good enough for everyone else. The fashion forward Victoria inspired other ladies to wear silk and woolen gowns in tartan fabrics and to decorate their homes with colorful plaids.
“Scotch plaid”, as we call it in the US, is a variation on the Royal Stewart tartan worn by Queen Elizabeth II who ascended to the throne in 1952. (Perhaps another factor in the favoring of plaid in the US?) The red-and-black plaid is the personal tartan of the Queen and was first seen being used by Stewart family royalty in the late eighteenth century.
The plaid pattern proved very useful when creating an identity for a tape brand (of all things) in 1945. Beginning in 1930 Scotch brand tape was packaged in a plain, round, white tin. In 1945 Scotch products had a packaging redesign. Now the tape was pulled from a handheld plastic dispenser with Scotch-plaid-printed paper backing. Humble packages of Scotch brand tape were now bedecked with the same tartan plaid seen on Scottish Highlanders and British royalty. How is that for a distinguished provenance?
Soon after the redesign of the Scotch tape package, “scotch” or “tartan” plaid appeared on all types of other brands and products like shirts, skirts, dresses, pants, blankets, car upholstery, luggage, wallpaper, furniture, tableware, picnic coolers, thermoses and picnic baskets. The famous Oregon sportswear maker, Pendleton, led a resurgence in the popularity of plaid woolen clothing for men and women. They also offered a plaid stadium/picnic blanket that was sold in a handy carry case called the Robe-in-a-Bag. Plaid clothing and other items appealed to those able to enjoy the American lifestyle of the 1950s that allowed for more leisure time, including camping, picnicking and a variety of outdoor weekend activities.
In case you haven’t heard, Plaidurday is the worldwide celebration of plaid. It is the first Friday of October. This first was on October 7, 2011. There are eight rules that apply to Paidurday that include, of course, that one must wear plaid on that day. Another is that you’re not limited to only one plaid garment or pattern—in other words, you can never wear too much plaid! Today, plaid may be the domain of the modern day ‘hipster’, but it is a pattern with a long history and enduring popularity and it was treated with a particular fondness in the 1950s.