Plaid: the iconic pattern is a seasonal fashion staple, found in every classroom and coffee shop on campus. Comfortable, versatile and historic, with meaning and symbolism bursting from every seam. Yes, those flannel button-ups available in every form and color combination have an extensive past and ties to culture, conflict and change. Whether you found your favourite at a high-fashion boutique, or at the student equivalent; Value Village, that top has tales to tell.
The crossed horizontal and vertical bands of woven cloth, have origins in Celtic populations dating as far back as 100 B.C, making plaid older than Jesus but younger than dinosaurs. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century though, that plaid began to appear in the form we know today. The Scottish donned tartan kilts as a sign of clan identity and rebellion against the English. This symbol had such an impact that it was banned by the British in 1746, and has since been a signature textile of revolt against a multiplicity of societal norms.
Once the 37-year ban on tartan was lifted, American factories began mass-producing it, under its new name; plaid. By the 1960’s, plaid made the move from skirt to shirt and became the uniform for men in the labor force.nFollowing this, as the women’s liberation movement was getting its wings, feminists reclaimed the plaid shirt in an effort to reconstruct gender norms. For these women, the garment represented the systematic assignment of material goods for masculine roles.
In an extension of this shift, the androgyny of the plaid button-up was taken in by the lesbian community and has remained a signature piece in the history of identity since. For them, flannel was not just for lumberjacks, or railroad workers, but for women and women who like women too, and thus ended the association between plaid and patriarchy. Barriers were once again disassembled using plaid in the 1990’s, with the introduction of the grunge scene. Oversized flannel shirts were used to revolt against ‘the man’ and to show dissatisfaction with the established idea of pop culture. From here, the millennium brought in a new wave of plaid through the music scene, from guitar-wielding sad-hearted songsters, to gangster rappers’ iconic top-button-only ensembles.
Through the years plaid has been adopted by a widely diverse range of demographics and cultures. This makes plaid truly unique, because, how many other garments have at some point been a defining look for wageworkers, farmers, truckers, handymen, feminists, lesbians, rockers, rappers, preps, politicians, Olympians, hippies, hipsters, celebrities, the young and the old?
Oh plaid, how you are loved. There is a universal trait in plaid, the endless combinations of plaid flannel shirts allows the style to keep reinventing itself. It has been called the populous print for the masses, a fashion-craze, but whatever you call it, you know you’ll be wearing it.
And you won’t be alone, some University of Ottawa students weigh in on why, when and how they wear plaid:
Mackenzie Barnett, a third year Psychology student loves to wear plaid because “you get to mix so many different colors in one article of clothing that wouldn’t normally be in one shirt, and there is such a variety of garments in plaid now.”
Brie McFarlane, a fourth year Theatre student wears her plaid buttoned up to the top, with rolled sleeves, tights, and a high bun. “It’s my comfy clothes, plaid has become the new hoodie, instead of grabbing a sweater, now I just put on a plaid shirt, and its nice that everyone can wear their own version of it.” She also said that when she wears plaid she feels close to her Scottish roots.
Becky Swift, third year Criminology and Women’s study major thinks plaid makes the perfect weekend fashion choice. “It’s functional and cozy for whatever I’m doing, casual but looks good at the same time, and it’s easy to match.” She also enjoys the history that plaid represents, “if the plaid fits,” she said.
So although we may not all be fighting for freedom every time we rock a plaid shirt, we certainly are champions of the Canadian chill. Bravely representing all those who have worn plaid for more than just fashion and functionality purposes before us. Keep that in mind the next time you button up your favourite flannel top. Consider all the history and meaning woven in to every thread. Each plaid unique, like those who wear it.