Thursday, 6 April 2017

Plaid at the Palace

Well, it’s Tartan Day in America again and I’m celebrating British tartan by looking at three men from the lgbt community who have proudly sported tartan as they received honours from the Queen. All three have worn plaid in public on many other occasions and can be called Champions of Tartan.

From left to right these champions are Alexander McQueen CBE, Alan Cumming OBE and John Barrowman MBE, all pictured below in the Buckingham Palace courtyard after receiving their honours.
First we have Alexander McQueen (1970-2010) who was made a CBE – Companion of the Order of the British Empire (one step below a knighthood) in 2003 for services to the fashion industry. With a name like McQueen you’d expect a fashion designer to make use of the family tartan and Alexander did so prominently.

The McQueen tartan tartan is a striking red design. It can easily be confused with the more famous Royal Stewart tartan worn in the above photo by John Barrowman. In fact, like a lot of things we often perceive to have been around for centuries the tartan is quite modern. A lot of the co-called “ancient” clan tartans, like the read McQueen tartan, actually originated in a book published in 1842 called “Vestiarius Scoticum”. While claiming to reproduce clan tartans found in a manuscript dated 1577 it was later proved to be pure fiction. However, the tartan designs, including the Royal Stewart, were actually adopted by the families the book claimed were theirs! Since the publication of “Vestiarius Scoticum” clan tartans have become a vibrant and living part of Scottish heritage, not to mention fashion. Which brings me back to Alexander McQueen.

McQueen used tartan in many of his collections, not only his own but others. I’ll concentrate on his use of the McQueen tartan today. Alexander was proud of his Scottish heritage and used it as inspiration in his designs. In his autumn 1995 collection called “Highland Rape”, named in reference to the forced eviction of Highland families in the Clearances of the 19th century, Alexander created 19th-century-style bodice shapes and silhouettes in which the McQueen tartan was often the only colour fabric, with its vivid red signifying the bloodshed of the displaced Scots peasantry.

Alexander returned to history again in his autumn 2006 collection called “Widows of Culloden”. The famous Battle of Culloden in 1746 was one of the last doomed attempts of the Jacobites to regain the throne of Great Britain. Alexander’s designs in this collection were more military in essence. Again the clan tartan was dominant in many designs.

In the latter part of his illustrious career Alexander McQueen was seen at fashion shows, parties and galas wearing his own designed highland dress as seen at his Buckingham Palace investiture.

Alan Cumming was awarded the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 2009 for “services to film, theatre and the arts and to activism for equal rights for the gay and lesbian community”. At the investiture he wore a full outfit in the Cumming Hunting Weathered tartan.

This might be the right moment to explain some of the terms, such as “hunting” and “weathered” which you might see in tartan names. A hunting tartan is just what it sounds like. It’s a tartan you might go hunting in. The difference between a hunting tartan and a regular tartan is that the colours are tinted towards more brown and green colours, or colours you find in the forest. The tartan stripes and basic pattern remains the same and recognisable as the clan tartan. A weathered tartan is also the same pattern but the colours are more muted as if the tartan has been out in all weathers and has faded. A hunting weathered tartan combines the two.

As with most weathered tartans the Cumming Hunting Weathered design is much more visually appropriate as a complete kilted suit than the standard Cumming tartan, as the suit Alan is wearing shows. Imagine the assault on the eyes is Alexander McQueen had worn a full kilted suit in his own tartan.

Alan Cumming’s frequent wearing of tartan led to his being invited to become Grand marshal of the Tartan Day Parade in New York city in 2009. North America makes more of Tartan Day than the British (except the Scots of course). The annual parade through New York has been taking place since 1999 and, like all themed parades, is jam-packed with tartan of all shades. Other Grand Marshal over the years have included Sean Connery and three Presiding Officers (Speakers) of the Scottish Parliament.

Finally we come to John Barrowman, MBE (Member of Order of the British Empire). He was awarded the honour in 2014 in recognition for his contributions to light entertainment and charity. He, too, has taken to wearing tartan in a big way. The tartan he is wearing in the photo taken after his investiture is the Royal Stewart. Technically, and historically, only members of the royal family are allowed to wear this tartan, though recent decades have seen a more relaxed attitude to who wears which tartan.

It has been difficult to discover which tartan belongs to the Barrowman family, so I’ll just write about the ones John actually wears. In an interview he has said he owns four kilts in different tartans. One striking blue-based tartan suit belongs to his mother’s clan, the Andersons. John Barrowman has been photographed wearing this suit several times (below right) and illustrates my opinion that a full tartan suit is such a striking tartan has a huge visual impact.

One final tartan suit worn by John Barrowman is one which was seen by millions of people in 2014 at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (below left). This was a tartan designed specially for the opening ceremony. Next year on Tartan Day we’ll look at other special tartans worn by lgbt athletes at the Commonwealth Games to celebrate the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games of 2018.
The reason why I chose these particular men today is because of their common membership of the Order of the British Empire. This chivalric order celebrates its centenary in June when I’ll be writing about some of the many lgbt recipients of this popular award.

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