Tartan, known in the sixteen century as the breach an feileadh (belted tartan, or “great kilt”), was a long piece of woven cloth worn by Gaelic speaking Scottish Highland men in the north of the country. Made of strong, durable twill in muted colors and around six yards long and two yards wide, the fabric was wrapped around the lower body, belted and then passed over one shoulder. Unlike the brighter hues of the nineteen century, early tartans (known as plaids in North America) were basic weaves with few muted colors. In the late seventeen century tartan was more formally codified as the feileadh beat (small kilt): pleats were sewn permanently into the back of the skirt and loops were added for ease of belting. Highland clans distinguished themselves with the use of different tartans. This practice was banned with the Dress Act of 1746 and by the time the law was repealed by King George III, in 1782, tartan had ceased to be a quotidian part of Highland clothing.
The kilt subsequently became a sartorial expression of the Romantic era. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert decorated the interiors of their Aberdeenshire estate Balmoral with tartan, wore it for everyday attire and popularized the Highland Games; the tartan has since flourished as a touristic motif on shortbread tins, whiskey casks, and postcards.
Kilts were used by the British military until the mid-twentieth century. In the postwar period the garment took on a particular nostalgic symbolism for nationals in diaspora, and as a common element of girls private-schools uniforms. Punk subculture however sought to deliberately subvert such claim. British designer Vivienne Westwood became particularly associated with the use of tartan, while, Alexander McQueen created his infamous 1995 Highland Rape collection exploring the atrocities of the Clearances. Today, however, tartan are seen mostly on guests at a Scottish wedding, school uniforms, or bagpipers busking on the street and for most people, Scottish in particular, there remains a strong association with ceremonial events and national identity.