Runaway Brides: Tartan Wedding Dresses and Scottish Rebellion

Tartan is a fabric of rebellion, and it has long held appeal with those who consider themselves to be outsiders.

In 1745, the Scottish House of Stuart led the Jacobite Army in an unsuccessful attempt to seize the British throne from King George II. Following the uprising, a series of laws were enacted to subdue the fiercely independent Jacobites. The Dress Act of 1746, one of these laws, made tartan dress illegal in the United Kingdom. Anyone who wore tartan or other signifiers of traditional Scottish dress could face fines, imprisonment or exile.

However, The Dress Act of 1746 seemed only to strengthen the power of tartan. People across the United Kingdom began wearing full tartan outfits in defiance of the British government. Artists painted influential figures dressed in tartan but left their paintings unsigned, fearing that they would be punished for these public displays of dissent. Tartan became a signifier of anti-establishment attitudes, a very punk choice in the 18th century.

In 1974, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren opened their boutique SEX to cater to the burgeoning Punk rock scene in London. Westwood stocked the shop with every type of plaid imaginable, and soon the Sex Pistols were singing out against the British government in full tartan suits, just like the Jacobites nearly two hundred years before them.

Vivienne Westwood, Wedding Ensemble, Anglomania, Autumn/Winter 1993, National Gallery of Australia, NGA 94.278.1-4.A-B.

This 1993 wedding dress by Vivienne Westwood is a vision of tartan excess, crafted from yards of plaid silk that cascade over a bloom of tulle in coordinating colours. Though the concept of a tartan wedding dress is unorthodox, it is not purely a whim of Westwood’s wild imagination and is rooted deeply in the history of Scottish fashion. The Isabella MacTavish Fraser Wedding Gown provides an example – a rare one, albeit – of a tartan wedding gown dating back to 1785. Though many details about the spectacular Isabella MacTavish Fraser Wedding Gown remain shrouded in mystery, the tartan of the dress can be identified as one woven between 1775 and 1784. This means that it was likely created while The Dress Act of 1746 was still in place, making this wedding dress an illegal creation.

Isabella MacTavish Fraser Wedding Gown, 1785, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery.

The headpiece that accompanies Westwood’s dress makes reference to a traditional piece of women’s Highland dress known as the earasaid. The earasaid is a length of pleated fabric that would be wrapped around the head like a veil and affixed at the waist. Although there is little information available on women’s dress in the Highlands before the turn of the 18th century, some historical evidence suggests that the wearing of the earasaid could date back to Pictish times. By the 1800s, written accounts and sketches of working-class women in earasaids were circulated across the United Kingdom, solidifying the trend as a hallmark of Scottish brides, even though the accuracy of these accounts remains contestable. Westwood recalls the earasaid with her veil’s gentle pleats and billowing volume but elevates its humble origins by pairing it with a regal gown of matching plaid.

A Victorian interpretation of how the earasaid may have looked. Robert Ronald McIan, plate from The Clans of the Scottish Highlands, 1845.

In a thoroughly contemporary interpretation of bridal traditions, Kate Moss first wore this gown down the runway at Westwood’s Autumn/Winter 1993 show with the bodice lowered to reveal one of her breasts. Preserving her modesty was a handful of flowers that once again harken back to tartan’s origins. Moss’s bouquet is studded with white roses, the symbol of the Jacobite army. Women participants in the Jacobite rebellion would often have their portraits painted with white roses tucked into the bodices of their dresses and their hair to signify their allegiance to the cause.

Vivienne Westwood, Wedding Ensemble, Anglomania, Autumn/Winter 1993. Runway photograph courtesy of Vogue Runway.

The bride who selects this dress to wear on her wedding day, likely one of the most publicly visible events of her life, chooses consciously not to perform the societal role expected of her. This wedding gown eschews the notion of brides dressing in virginal white, and it recalls a raucous national identity far more than a standard wifely one. With its earasaid and Jacobite references, this dress pays homage to the oft-overlooked women participants in the radical movements of Scottish history.

Westwood is one of the foundational contributors to tartan’s punk reputation, but she has also worked to ensure the medium’s longevity beyond the punk rock movement and, almost certainly conscious of her status as an Englishwoman, to emphasise its unique Scottish heritage. This dress is cut from MacAndreas tartan, a sett of tartan created by Westwood as a romantic tribute to her husband and collaborator Andreas Kronthaler. MacAndreas tartan is now officially listed in the Scottish Register of Tartans. Westwood has also created many of her tartan garments in accordance with the Harris Tweed Act, a 1993 Act of Parliament which seeks to protect and promote the traditional methods of woollen fabric weaving in Scotland.

From the Dress act of 1746 to the Harris Tweed Act of 1993, the lawmaking that surrounds tartan begs the question: why is tartan something institutions feel the need to control? Is it a dangerously influential pattern that incites revolt across centuries? Is it a precious national resource that must be protected at all costs? For the bride who dons a tartan wedding dress, one thing is certain. Tartan is a testament to fierce individuality and national history, suitable to dress herself in for one of the most sacred days of her life.

By Ruby Redstone

Sources:

Faiers, Jonathan. Tartan. London: Bloomsbury, 2008

Inverness Museum and Art Gallery online. ‘The Isabella Project’. Published February 2020.https://www.highlifehighland.com/inverness-museum-and-art-gallery/the-isabella-project/

MacDonald, Peter Eslea. ‘Musing on the Arisaid and Other Female Dress.’ Scottish Tartans online. Published 2016.https://www.scottishtartans.co.uk/Musings_on_the_arisaid_and_other_female_dress.pdf

Maspero, Ida. ‘Tartan Romance,’ National Museums Scotland online. Published 26 May 2019. https://blog.nms.ac.uk/2019/05/26/tartan-romance/

Scottish Tartans Authority. ‘Tartan and the Dress Act of 1746.’ Accessed 28 February 2021. http://www.tartansauthority.com/resources/archives/the-archives/scobie/tartan-and-the-dress-act-of-1746/

The Scottish Register of Tartans. ‘Westwood MacAndreas.’ Published 1 January 1993. https://www.tartanregister.gov.uk/tartanDetails?ref=5530

V&A online. ‘Vivienne Westwood: A taste for the past’. Last accessed 15 February 2021. https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/vivienne-westwood-a-taste-for-the-past

Watt, Patrick and Rosie Waine. Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland. Edinburgh: National Museum of Scotland, 2019

A Personal Collection of Vivienne Westwood Shoes Exhibition Review

A Personal Collection of Vivienne Westwood Shoes juxtaposes Westwood’s outlandish designs with York Castle Museum’s diverse shoe collection, ranging from the 18th century to the present day. An intriguing aspect is that the Westwood shoes come from a private collector, amassed over 30 years, while Westwood selected shoes from the museum’s collection. The exhibition focuses on the craftsmanship involved in making a shoe, as well as allowing the viewer to revel in the style and beauty of footwear.

The exhibition display.

The layout of the main room is particularly eye-catching, with a catwalk display of Westwood’s designs interspersed with the museum’s collection. This means that the viewer can see the wide range of influences in Westwood’s work, as she combines historical knowledge of the shoe with a love of exaggeration. This is exemplified by the Super Elevated Gillie Heel, from the Anglomania collection, 1993, which appears to take a inspiration from ribbon-lace style shoes from the 18th and 19th centuries. Westwood renders her innovation with vibrant colours and the heel extended to lofty (and dangerous) heights. The model, Naomi Campbell, famously wore a version of these platform shoes as she took a tumble on the runway due to the 30.5 cm heels.

Super Elevated Gillie Heel.

Some favourites from the Castle Museum’s collection, which illustrate the range of style and dates on show, are a pair of ivory white satin shoes with a Louis heel from around 1730, and a pair of men’s Derby boots with a stacked leather heel, from the early 20th century. These shoes are both beautiful and elegant, illustrating the high level of craftsmanship, equally as striking as they are unique. They also demonstrate the evolution of footwear fashion for both genders throughout history.

A pair of ivory white satin shoes with an upturned toe and a Louis heel, circa 1730.

A bespoke pair of men’s derby boots with a stacked heel. Made by A.E Marlow for the Saxonia in Northampton. Early 20th century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The influence of fashion on the development of footwear is further explored through the final room in the exhibition, with historical information about how shoes were made, and a display showing how shoes changed through different decades. By educating the viewer on the history of the shoe, the exhibition shows how Vivienne Westwood bases her designs on tradition and then subverts them through material or features to create something new. I also felt that this exhibition communicates how the function of the shoe was originally pure practicality, and how it has developed through time into an extension of our identity.

For me, shoes are the language of personality. Every shoe represents a different mood, translated through the height, material and colour. Different to clothes, which have to change as we fluctuate shape, shoes are a longer-term investment, and fit no matter what. This exhibition interprets the shoe as more than merely an accessory; instead the viewer is presented with the shoe as the main focus. As an avid lover of shoes, and faced with the continual struggles of storage and display, it is gratifying to see an exhibition where the shoe is given pride of place.

My shoes on display in my York room.

A Personal Collection of Vivienne Westwood Shoes is at the York Castle Museum until 28 April 2019.

Ellen Bhamra

Images 1-4 courtesy of York Castle Museum.

Documenting Fashion Visits NYC, Dec 2016: Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center

The current exhibition on show at the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the MET has been given the title Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion. Rather than exploring a theme, as Judith Clark has so brilliantly done with Vulgar at the Barbican Centre, the MET’s assistant curator Jessica Regan presents viewers with a mix of fashion with no unifying theme or trend or feature other that the 50 pieces were acquired over the last decade, and that each may be termed a ‘masterwork’.

HOUSE OF WORTH (French, 1858-1956) Jean-Philippe Worth (French, 1856-1926) BALL GOWN, 1898, haute couture | Light blue silk satin brocaded à la disposition with yellow and ivory silk; embroidered with silver sequins, clear rhinestones, and clear and silver seed beads; trimmed with ivory cotton lace, black silk velvet, and light blue silk mousseline | Brooklyn, Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Paul Pennoyer, 1965 (2009.306. 1324a, b)

A decade since the MET’s last acquisitions show, blog.mode: addressing fashion, in 2007, Masterworks marks a shift in the collecting strategy of the museum when it comes to fashion. The phrase ‘Unpacking Fashion’ speaks to this. The set of the exhibition is formed from crates, suggestive of the archives in which the garments are stored to best preserve them, from which they are then unpacked for display. But the term also refers to the academic practice of unpacking an idea, a point, a proposition in order to understand its significance. Why is a sculptural, slashed tulle gown by Viktor and Rolf worthy of being exhibited in a museum? What makes it seminal, important, a masterwork?

The dress in question is not part of everyday dress trends seen on women walking down the street; it was not mass produced, indeed it was worn by only a handful of people. It may not warrant a significant space in an encyclopaedia of Western fashion, but the challenging design and painstaking skill of its construction make it worthy of celebration. No one else, quite simply, has made anything like it.

VIKTOR & ROLF (Dutch, founded 1993) Viktor Hosting (Dutch, born 1969) Rolf Snoren (Dutch, born 1969) BALL GOWN, spring/summer 2010 | Blue polyester tulle, and black silk-synthetic moiré embroidered with white plastic sequins | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute Gifts, 2011 (2011.8)

The main Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery is organised chronologically, with each garment accompanied by an in-depth explanation, or rationalisation, of its presence in the exhibition. Designers represented range from Paul Poiret to Yves Saint Laurent and Vivienne Westwood. The design advances of new names – Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga – and less widely known – Noritaka Tatehana, maker of the extraordinary heel-less shoes favoured by Daphne Guinness – are acknowledged.

Left: MADELEINE VIONNET (French, 1876-1975) EVENING DRESS, 1929, haute couture | Dress: pink silk tulle, embroidered with pink rayon floss; slip: pink silk gauze and crepe de chine | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute Gifts, 2009 (2009.248a, b)  Right: JOHN GALLIANO (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) EVENING DRESS, spring/summer 1999 | Peach nylon lace | Gift of John Galliano, 2000 (2000.168)

HOUSE OF BALENCIAGA (French, founded 1937) Cristóbal Balenciaga (Spanish, 1895-1972) DRESS, 1967, haute couture | Green silk gazar | Gift of Judith Straeten, 2015 (2015.711)

The Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery at the end of the exhibition features ensembles donated by designers on the occasion of the retirement of long-serving curator Harold Koda in January this year. These represent specific masterworks long and especially admired by Koda and include a design, re-made for the occasion, from Karl Lagerfeld’s first collection for Chanel. This stands alongside an intricately embroidered frock coat by Raf Simons for Dior, across from a screen featuring tributes from the great and good of today’s industry.

Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Hamburg, 1938) DRESS, 2015; original design: spring/summer 1983, haute couture | Black silk crepe embroidered with pearls, clear rhinestones, and red, green, gold and orange beads | Gift of CHANEL, in honour of Harold Koda, 2016 (2016.632)

HOUSE OF CHANEL (French, founded 1913) Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Hamburg, 1938) SUIT, spring/summer 2011 Jacket and skirt: navy and cream cotton-acrylic nylon-polyester tweed with ivory nylon net; blouse: ivory rayon twill | Gift of CHANEL, 2013 (2013.157.1a-e, h)

Left: HOUSE OF DIOR (French, founded 1947) Raf Simons (Belgian, born 1968) ENSEMBLE, autumn/winter 2014-15, haute couture | Coat and waistcoat: black silk faille embroidered with polychrome silk and metal thread, silver plastic sequins, and clear and iridescent glass beads; blouse: black brushed-wool twill; trousers: black wool flannel | Gift of Christian Dior Couture in honour of Harold Koda, 2016 (2016.256a-d)  Right: HOUSE OF DIOR (French, founded 1947) Christian Dior (French,1905-1957) “MYSTÈRE” COAT, autumn/winter 1947-48 | Black wool melton and dark green silk taffeta | Gift of Irene Stone, in memory of her daughter Mrs. Ethel S. Greene, 1959 (C.I.59.26.2)

The lingering question posited by Masterworks is that age old debate: is fashion art? It is clear what the MET believes. The first work you see as you come down the stairs into the exhibition is an expertly crafted Viktor and Rolf dress which resembles a painting smashed over the head of a mannequin – an attempt, surely, to reinforce the point that each garment should be viewed with the same attitude as that afforded by a Van Gogh upstairs. Andrew Bolton, curator-in-charge, has commented on the Costume Institute’s renewed mission ‘to present fashion as a living art that interprets history, becomes part of the historical process, and inspires subsequent art.’ It is a vow restated by this thoughtful exhibition, with extraordinary skill and innovation displayed and emphasised by curious pairings and dramatic exchanges – no more so than in the vivid red of a John Galliano for Martin Margiela coat in conversation with its 18th century inspiration.

Left: MAISON MARGIELA (French, founded 1988) John Galliano (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) ENSEMBLE, spring/summer 2015, artisanal | Coat: red brushed wool needle-felted with red silk chiffon trimmed with red rayon velvet; bra top: black nylon net embroidered with gold metallic thread and gold plastic sequins; briefs: black polyester rib-knit embroidered with gold metallic thread, gold plastic sequins, and gold glass bugle beads; shorts: black cotton denim | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Insititute Gifts, 2015 (2015.541a-f)  Right: French COAT, 1787-92 Red wool broadcloth Purchase | Irene Lewisohn Trust Gift, 1992 (1992.65)

ISSEY MIYAKE (Japanese, born 1938) BUSTIER, autumn/winter 1980-81 | Red moulded polyester resin and cellulose nitrate  | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute Gifts, 2015 (2015.61)

Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until 5 February, 2017.