The famous Canadian Tuxedo refers to denim on denim, but there is another quintessential garment that has special relevance - especially on April 6.
The Canadian dinner jacket is an archaic term for a plaid mackinaw or mack, usually one that’s seen better days. Beloved and maligned throughout Canada in equal measure, this style staple has cultural and historical roots in Scotland. And what better day to discuss them than Tartan Day, an observance that started in Canada in the 1980s.
At a meeting of the Federation of Scottish Clans in Nova Scotia, Jean Watson, President of Clan Lamont (incidentally my family clan), petitioned provincial legislatures to recognize April 6 as Tartan Day to honour Scottish heritage in Canada. The date represents the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 which asserted the independence of the Kingdom of Scotland, denouncing English attempts to subjugate it.
The idea of Tartan Day spread throughout the Scottish diaspora in the 1990s and was recognized provincially but wasn’t officially named a national observance until 2010.
Wearing tartan today seems like a good way to celebrate but while the checked flannel in your closet has a connection to tartan, they are not exactly the same thing.
In Canada, plaid and tartan are often used interchangeably. Both refer to two or more coloured fabrics woven together but plaid is a more nimble term that indicates a crisscrossing design and tartan is a unique plaid that belongs to a Scottish family.
The first recorded use of the word plaid was in Scotland (obviously) sometime between 1501 and 1512 and meant blanket. The long piece of tartan worn over the shoulder or as a cloak as part of Scottish Highland dress is also called plaid.
Plaid can be a noun describing the pattern or fabric itself, and a modifier. The simplest way to distinguish the two is that within the broad heading of plaids, tartan fabrics should always have a recognized name and history.
Dating back to the third or fourth century, there are over 1000 registered tartans on the official Scottish Register of Tartans but depending on how you define “different” it has been estimated that there are between 3500-7000 in existence with more added every year.
Most are named for the corresponding family group but there are universal tartans that are open to everyone. For instance, the Royal Stewart tartans which are perhaps the most well-known and the purple Scotland forever tartan.
Plaids, as we know them today, arose in Canada thanks to Scottish settlers. The wool blankets that they brought over with them had traditional tartan patterns on them, the Clan MacGregor tartan (also known as Rob Roy tartan) is the design that most Canadians sport today in the form of Buffalo plaid thanks to a series of marketing campaigns throughout history featuring the Marlboro man and Paul Bunyan.