Tartan (1 April 2023 – 14 January 2024) at V&A Dundee takes a radical new look at an instantly recognisable textile and pattern. Set to be a major event in 2023’s cultural calendar, Tartan marks the 5th anniversary of Scotland’s design museum. Celebrating tartan and its global impact, the exhibition explores how tartan has connected and divided communities worldwide, how it has embraced tradition, expressed revolt, and inspired great works of art as well as playful and provocative designs. Tartan at V&A Dundee brings together a dazzling selection of more than 300 objects from over 80 lenders worldwide, illustrating tartan’s universal and enduring appeal through iconic and everyday examples of fashion, architecture, graphic and product design, photography, furniture, glass and ceramics, film, performance and art.
The exhibition features loans from across Scotland and around the world, including Chanel, Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, Tate, V&A, National Museums of Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, National Theatre of Scotland, The Royal Collection, Fashion Museum Bath, the Highland Folk Museum and more, many of which are being shown together in Scotland for the first time.
Tartan’s importance and enduring appeal as a textile has been utilised by designers throughout history, with some of fashion’s most innovative and rebellious minds exercising their refined cutting skills on tartan as a fabric. This will be reflected with pieces by Chanel, Dior, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Comme des Garçons, alongside the work of contemporary designers inspired by tartan including Grace Wales Bonner, Nicholas Daley, Louise Gray, Charles Jeffrey, Owen Snaith and Olubiyi Thomas. The exhibition takes a radical new look at tartan, juxtaposing historical objects with the contemporary and is laid out in five sections where visitors can immerse themselves in the world of Tartan.
Tartan and the Grid looks at the basic structure of tartan, introduced through textiles from around the world and positioning Tartan as a set of rules to be disrupted by designers. Innovating Tartan looks at how tartan has always been at the intersection of technical innovation. Tartan has been translated into a pattern manifested in an incredible variety of materials, from natural to the synthetic, and even glass. It covers every imaginable surface, securing its position at the forefront of art and design. In Tartan and Identity, tartan’s global fascination including its importance to diasporic communities is examined. Also, the appeal tartan has always held for those who express themselves through their clothing, from the traditional to the radical. Tartan and Power shows how it disrupts and conforms. A force of pride and might, used to push boundaries or maintain control in war and peacetime. Transcendental Tartan transports visitors to new worlds and possibilities in fashion, media, performance and popular culture. The exhibition will look at tartan’s many narratives and how it is used by designers as a medium for myth and storytelling. In addition, V&A Dundee has asked the public to contribute to the exhibition. This will be The People’s Tartan, an eclectic selection of objects and memories that will spark recognition and nostalgia.
Scotland’s most iconic design
To commemorate this landmark exhibition, V&A Dundee has commissioned Kinloch Anderson to design a new tartan to be used as the museum’s exclusive tartan and developed a range of merchandise in collaboration with designers in Scotland. The spectrum of how tartan has been worn is covered in the exhibition, from an eighteenth-century tartan dress coat for the Ancient Caledonian Society, to a significant photograph from around 1908 of Scottish Suffragettes proudly wearing tartan sashes. From Sir Jackie Stewart’s racing helmet with its distinctive Royal Stewart tartan band, through to contemporary streetwear from Japan. Tartan includes objects that illustrate the global translation, appropriation, reach and appeal of tartan across cultures and borders. The indigenous textiles of Indian Madras and East African Shuka cloth are explored in relation to tartan in the exhibition. Global, diasporic and even out of this world connections are represented too, with an ensemble made from Canadian Maple Leaf tartan and a fragment of MacBean tartan taken aboard Apollo 12 in November 1969 by American astronaut Alan Bean.
Paintings, including Donald Judd’s minimalist grids, Christian Hook’s oil painting of actor Alan Cumming and Gerard Burns’ portrait of the late former Scotland International rugby star Doddie Weir OBE, sit alongside the seventeenth-century image of Lord Mungo Murray by John Michael Wright. There are items of devotion, from a fragment of tartan worn by Prince Charles Edward Stuart, now afforded relic status, to Bay City Rollers trousers, handmade by a lifelong fan. From the sublime through to the everyday – even the humble but iconic tartan shortbread tin has been considered.
Leonie Bell, V&A Dundee Director, says: “To mark our 5th birthday we are celebrating and challenging the history and contradictions within Scotland’s most iconic design. Everyone knows tartan, in Scotland and across the world, and it is linked to a hugely diverse range of identities. It is at once the pattern of Highland myth and legend, forever entwined with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite uprising, as well as being the pattern of 1970s punks and contemporary Japanese fashion influencers. Tartan lives in the worlds of high fashion and tourism souvenirs, military uniform and palaces, football stadiums and concerts. It is adored and derided, has inspired great works of art and design, and somehow can represent unity and dissent, tradition and rebellion, the past, the present and the future. Tartan – the instantly recognisable symbol of Scotland, a global textile of oppression, rebellion, and fashion, is major and must-see show for 2023.”
Consultant curator Professor Jonathan Faiers, said: “The diversity that this exhibition encompasses is an indication of the significant position that tartan occupies as a visual representation of historical, political and economic shifts within society. Marked by wars and revolutions, modified by migrations and prohibitions, tartan is uniquely positioned to act as a reminder of the past whilst clothing the present. As tartan so richly demonstrates, textiles, from the smallest details of their pattern and construction to their global dissemination, provide rules to be disrupted with which we can understand historical transformations within society and developments in our own time. The intersections and spaces between warp and weft provide a textile template for the collisions, coincidences and ruptures that punctuate society.”
Kirsty Hassard, Curator at V&A Dundee, added: “Tartan has been constantly reinvented and that is incredibly important to the narrative of the exhibition. It’s a pattern and textile that stretches back thousands of years, and some of the stories the exhibition tells are 300 years old or more, but Tartan isn’t a retrospective, it is absolutely a contemporary show. Within excess of 300 objects from more than 80 lenders around the globe, Tartan tells the story of how this pattern has travelled and explores the connection we all have to it.”
V&A Dundee is Scotland’s design museum. Designed by Kengo Kuma, the museum is at the centre of Dundee’s reimagined waterfront and is part of the V&A family of museums that celebrate creativity in all its forms from across centuries, for everyone.
Entry to the exhibition is free for members and 18s and under. Tickets are now on sale at www.vam.ac.uk/dundee/exhibtions/tartan
Main photo: Doctor Marten McMarten tartan boots. Im,ages courtesy of V&A Dundee.