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Tartan at V&A Dundee

By Jen McLaren, 14.09.2023
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Glen Affric tartan, Scotland's oldest-known true tartan discovered by The Scottish Tartans Authority to go on display for the first time at VA Dundee, Image Courtesy of the Dundee VA

Scotland’s design museum, V&A Dundee, celebrates its fifth birthday in September 2023 and is marking the occasion with ‘Tartan’ – the first exhibition curated by the team at the museum along with consultant curator and author of a renowned book on the subject, Jonathan Faiers.


This vibrant explosion of life and colour takes a meticulous look at Scotland’s unmistakable textile. And it’s the first exhibition on tartan in Scotland in more than 30 years – the last being at Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery in 1989.


Tartan can be bold, brash and overwhelming, so to have so much of it in one place (over 300 objects) makes a powerful statement. Losing yourself in the delightfully discordant displays, however, is truly immersive.


Just like the mirrored corridor where colours resonate in kaleidoscopic swathes, the exhibition reflects on the fabric’s past, present and future. And, organised around five themes, it’s a conversation as well as an education.


From kings and queens to kitsch, and riots to relics, there apparently isn’t much tartan hasn’t done in its hundreds of years of existence, and the pieces on show range from fashion and architecture to art and film. 


Its order and precision are examined, the ‘rules of the grid’ explained, and echoed in works such as Donald Judd’s 1992-93 untitled woodcut prints, which revere uniform simplicity.

But disorder howls just as loudly, from the punk-inspired garments of Vivienne Westwood and Louise Gray to a disquieting piece from Alexander McQueen’s ‘Highland Rape’ (1995) collection, referencing the Highland Clearances.


An unassuming piece of brown-tinged material in the exhibition’s first room is the ‘Glen Affric tartan’ (c.1500-1600) on public display for the first time. Discovered in a Highland peat bog, it’s the oldest-known specimen of true tartan.


New works for the exhibition include the haunting ‘Intersectional Family’ (2023) in which designer Olubiyi Thomas has dressed figures in a new tartan reflecting his cross-cultural identity. They hover above the floor, wearing copper masks that represent the commodification of enslaved people.


The curatorial team also launched The People’s Tartan appeal in order to feature pieces belonging to members of the public, including a 1976 Hillman Imp Caledonian with a tartan-inspired interior.


And, in tartan’s unique way of evolving to meet the needs of the modern day, a kilted dressing table has taken no time in fashioning itself as a prime selfie spot, capturing the poser’s reflection in its oval vanity mirror.

Tartan is exhibited at V&A Dundee until 14th January. Tickets £7-£16 (Free on Saturday 16th September)