There are few items that can really, truly never go out of style. Plenty claim it – the camel coats, the blue jeans, the LBDs and grey cashmere jumpers that sell themselves on being the UHT milk of the wardrobe – but they nearly always go off eventually, either because they have a giveaway feature that ties them to a certain era (how many Melanie Griffith-alikes must have thought, “I’ll wear this coat for ever!” as they swayed under the weight of shoulder pads big as ciabatta?) or simply because you’ve got bored of them. But if I were allowed just one vote for the Genuinely Timeless Hall of Fashion Fame, I think I might give it to the tartan scarf.
Tartan itself is a notorious shapeshifter. It can be be punk-anarchic or as traditional as a hotel carpet. It’s a print rich with heritage, whether ancient clansmen and Highland flings, or Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren scandalising the King’s Road in bondage trousers. And it’s egalitarian, too – loved by the posh, co-opted by the people. Look no further than mid-noughties Burberry for proof of that. In fact, every era has its tartan moment, from Anna Karina’s beatnik plaid skirts and tight sweaters, via the Bay City Rollers to Cher’s Clueless co-ords and the mini kilt I wore with a velvet waistcoat and floppy hat for all of winter 96.
For those of us who gave up trying to dress “French” the day we realised white shirts would always make us look like the customer-service lady in a Claims Direct advert, being a shameless Scotophile is a far easier option. Everyone loves the historical romance of tartan. Just ask my boyfriend, who can’t wear his kilt in public for five minutes without somebody roaring up to tell him they have family from Dunbartonshire, and did he know their Great Uncle Magnus, Laird of Pitlochry? (He doesn’t.)
I tell you, heritage and rebellion aside, there is nothing quite as cheering as a tartan scarf. Hot trends might come and go, but a warm neck is for ever
Tartan also works surprisingly well with other prints. With florals, polka dots, leopard, stripes – I promise you, there’s barely an outfit between October and February that doesn't look punchier with a check scarf slung on top. And, while the infinite potential colourways mean it’s always ripe for a revamp, tartan is almost more fun to wear when it’s under the trend radar. There’s something rebelliously cosy about choosing a fabric synonymous with granny blankets, bus upholstery and Rupert the Bear.
Each winter, even while other prints dominate, it’s a reliable, steadfast presence – especially the scarf. You never have to look far for a tartan scarf. They’re in M&S, next to the bobble hats. They’re in tourist gift shops, next to the fudge. They’re in every charity shop ever, next to two copies of The Da Vinci Code. Seek and ye shall find.
For years now, I’ve worn my mother’s late-80s version, nabbed in my teens from our childhood dressing-up box. In shades of purple, teal and electric blue, it dates from her “human Crayola” years – when the very height of chic was wearing heels, tights, skirt and plastic beads all in one colour (purple, teal, electric blue). Or so she assures me. These days, it looks almost comically jolly against my pink wool cocoon coat or my Del Boy sheepskin jacket, and I like to think of it as my own clan colours. I’ve worn it to the geysers in Iceland, down the harbour in Copenhagen, to castles in Prague and in Paris when it drizzles. That’s the other thing about tartan – it travels well, far beyond the Royal Mile.
Meanwhile, the only “boyfriend-borrowed” item I’ve ever had claim to in my life (see earlier point re shirts) is another tartan scarf, this time in red and yellow check. It was bought in Berlin, on the day that “Mmm, what a fresh breeze!” finally turned into the admission that we’d chronically under-packed for an early April holiday. We had packed for spring; it was definitely still winter.
For three days, we’d walked around, grumpy and shivering, cafe-hopping and skulking for too long by radiators in art galleries, while all around us cool Berliners walked by in their enormous puffer coats. We were not prepared to admit defeat as far as buying enormous puffer coats (it was *April*), but spending €10 on the emergency scarf in a thrift shop was a pivotal decision. It turned out we didn’t hate Berlin – or each other! We’d just been cold all along!
That scarf saved the day and it still does now. We take it in turns to wear it and, quite regularly, one or the other of us will leave the flat in the morning, realise it’s colder than we thought and phone to request the tartan scarf be flung out of the front window. I tell you, heritage and rebellion aside, there is nothing quite as cheering as a tartan scarf. Hot trends might come and go, but a warm neck is for ever
Five of the best tartan scarves