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How to Wear Tartan Plaid for AW18

Heritage is one of those words menswear brands regularly toss around. It’s used often as a synonym for classic, but comes with historical connotations – particularly, that things once done a certain way should always be done to those exacting specifications. Tweed clearly falls within those parameters, and for supposed American heritage workwear brands, it’s good enough when Carhartt and Levi’s respectively stick with cotton duck and denim, even though it’s rare to find true American-made garments.

So, what to make of the tartan trend that spread through and lit up the AW18 runways like a wildfire? You couldn’t have missed it: Brilliant red and primary colour-based prints (often magnified) came off as an explosive punk-preppy hybrid that only distantly nodded to the material’s Scottish origins. Clashing combinations, drawn-out variations on tradition and all-over application were taken out of a modern-day streetwear playbook and almost intentionally ignored the fabric’s history. So, is that just misguided appropriation, or simply reviving a stalled classic for the younger consumer?

It’s up to you to be the judge. In its most classic form, tartan consists of overlapping horizontal and vertical stripes, in multiple colours and varying thicknesses. Although woven originally with wool, few materials these days are off limits, and you might’ve spotted the print on a button-down, sweater, trousers or even a blazer geared toward the daring gentleman at some point. From a purity standpoint, the material’s threads are woven at right angles to each other in a standard twill pattern. Overlapping creates blended areas – and new colours – from the typical three shades that repeat over the fabric. Visually, we think of tartan as a red-based material, often seen on kilts and blankets and here’s where AW18 runs off on a tangent – one that briefly touches its origins but also plows through plenty of pop culture references. What’s different and specific to this updated, very loose version?


Say “tartan,” and maybe something like Braveheart or even ‘80s preppy style comes to mind. Or, if you’re being cheeky, you think about those skirt suits Cher Horowitz wore in Clueless and wonder why menswear hasn’t yet had its full-on equivalent. But, most associations up to this point – whether strictly heritage or based in film – are largely tame. For AW18, Charles Jeffrey Loverboy essentially sets the tone, with tartan fit for an early ‘90s club kid party in New York City. It’s a strange juxtaposition – at once recognisable, yet simultaneously smouldering and bright. Contrast-heavy prints, with occasional emphasis on blue and black, hint at an all-night celebration undercut by sadness. Yet, all-over application suggests the wearer has nothing to hide – you’re putting it all out in the open, so why not be your most vulnerable, multifaceted self? In short, this season, there’s no use in taking a stiff upper lip with this print. It’s better to try every direction and bring it all together in a rainbow-tinted cornucopia.

Under the Microscope  

You know the traditional rules of wearing patterns: Start small, stick with neutral and cool hues, and only apply the print to a single piece. Yet, last year, oversized floral prints turned many of these long-held style points on their head, and now, plaid is catching up. To sum it all up, your two-tone gingham button-up is way too plain and basic – even for the office. If one running theme ties all of AW18’s tartan attempts together, it’s this: You oversize the standard, until you can see every overlapping stitch, or you just don’t try it at all. With Astrid Andersen’s AW18 collection as a guide, you can go through multiple bases – red, yellow or blue – and traverse across matte and metallic-sheen materials, but that print should always seem magnified enough that all of the details emerge to the naked eye. Added to that, head-to-toe application – Andersen used sweat suits and long jackets in this case – makes sure the viewer doesn’t miss a thing.

Clash of the Plaid Prints  

One other old rule you’ve got to let go of? Never mix plaid and checks in a single outfit. While most use these two terms interchangeably, the former tends to be synonymous with tartan, and the latter with every other variation – windowpane, argyle, buffalo and even a standard checkerboard print. But, menswear in the present is all about partially breaking those older rules, so now here’s your chance to thumb your nose. Yet, even if you want to throw windowpane, tartan, and buffalo checks together, you’ve got to find some kind of meeting point – or element of cohesiveness, specifically. You’re not grabbing plaid shirts off the rack at a secondhand store left and right and stitching them together into a kind of loose, asymmetrical patchwork. Rather, whether through layering, simple pairings or even multiple prints within the same garment, know what to contrast and which similarities to hold onto. For instance, mix around the checks and try out different sizes, but make sure the colours hold it all together.

How to Wear Tartan Plaid for AW18
How to Wear Tartan Plaid for AW18

Move Past the Shirt 

We know, we know. If you’re going to begin with plaid, your shirt’s a familiar place to start, particularly something buttoned up and structured – flannel’s acceptable, too. But, why take the tried-and-true road when runway presentations hint at all the possibilities? That’s like sticking to vanilla ice cream when there’s chocolate-covered bourbon cherry right next to it. You’ve just got to experiment. So, even with your shirt as a solid starting ground, give up the buttons in favour of knitwear, or better yet, try out a bomber or utility jacket sporting a primary colour-based variation on tartan. Then, up your game with a plaid pullover, crew, or button-down shirt. To truly broadcast it, lengthen the jacket, switch up the pattern to your trousers, or coordinate your tops and bottoms with different but matching tartan prints. Now’s not the time to hold back and play it safe.

Ivan Yaskey

Philadelphia’s streetwear scenes and working as a copywriter for a Boston-based menswear brand sparked Ivan's passion for fashion and style more than a decade ago.



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