Tag Archives: Fashion

Kilts and Tartan – right and wrong…

Apparently tartan (or plaid as our American chums will insist on calling it) is going to be big fashion news this Winter. To be fair, tartan usually makes a resurgence this time of year – as the nights draw in and we start thinking about boots and thick jumpers instead of flip-flops and tshirts, a lovely warm wool tartan is an obvious choice. To clear up the whole tartan/plaid confusion once and for all, a kilt is the garment, a plaid is the optional long length worn over the shoulders and tartan is the name of the checked pattern itself. Okay?

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Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 20.45.41It’s pretty easy for ladies – a short, unfussy skirt with black tights and boots is always a winner (be inspired by Dr Who’s gorgeous companion, Clara Oswald, left). If you’re not a fan of the schoolgirl / schoolmarm look, or not so confident about your legs, you could always try some 1950s vintage glamour with these amazing outfits from Vivien of Holloway.

But just in case your man is planning to break out in tartan or a kilt (and as you may have realised, I think there should be much, much more of this kind of thing), I thought I’d give y’all a handy guide to some ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. I’ve even researched some suitable pictures (oh, the things I do for my readers…)

The key thing for men is simplicity and a degree of ruggedness. No frills, no bows, and for mercy’s sake, watch out for the size of that sporran.  These guys all get it very RIGHT

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From top left: 1. The divine Sam Heughan (Outlander), always a joy to behold. 2. Liam Neeson in Rob Roy. 3. Richie Gray, ‘scrummy’ Scottish Rugby player – he’s damn near 7ft tall, so how did they even find enough material to make that kilt?  4. Unknown, but loving the Aran sweater and chunky socks combo. 5. Ewan Macgregor on the red carpet (he doesn’t always get it right, and those sock suspenders are worrying, but the casual look works on him). 6. Graham McTavish (Outlander’s Dougal Mackenzie), showing that older guys can look fab with a bit of attitude. 7. His Royal Highness Sean Connery (has a worrying tendency to break out in frilly jabots, looks much better in this black crew neck). 8. Bernie Williams – okay, so he’s American and plays baseball, but he’s still totally rocking that green velvet jacket. 9. Rod Stewart (should really be wrong, but somehow he carries it off in a strange 1970’s kinda way…)

Wrongness, on the other hand, comes in many forms. Once you stray too far from the basic template, you are absolutely heading for trouble…


From top left: 1. Burberry model – too bright, too tight, hideous socks. 2. Christopher Lambert in Highlander – I love him to bits, but accessorising with a dead bear and unwashed hair is SO not a good look. 3. Gerard Butler – controversial, I know, as he’s a bit of a hottie, but this leather kilt with pink cashmere sweater is somehow trying too hard. 4. Camouflage Grandad – JUST SAY NO! 5. Wedding Model – I’m not impressed by the business-suited top half, even for a wedding, and there’s absolutely NO excuse for that dead horse sporran. 6. Moschino Catwalk model –  looks like a teenage yeti in pyjamas. With a bumbag. 7.  Golfwear Model – Tartan suit, tie AND scarf? Much too matchy-matchy. 8. Rod Stewart again – Donald where’s yer troosers (and your shirt?) 9. Arghh. Just plain WRONG on EVERY possible level.

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 07.55.07Kilt Length:  This is always tricky, especially for the taller chap – in the pic to the right, Kevin McKidd (on left, with plaid) gets it spot on. By contrast, his Gray’s Anatomy co-star Patrick Dempsey (right) gets it very, very wrong – he looks more ‘cheerleader’ than ‘highlander’. C’mon Dempsey – if Richie Gray can find a kilt to fit, there’s no excuse for you. This leads us on to…

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 12.04.20Kilt Etiquette:  Again, this can be problematic. We all know that chaps are supposed to go commando under their kilt, but this can lead to certain – ahem – hazards.

Gentlemen, if you are wearing a kilt, Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 11.12.16please learn how to sit with your knees pressed firmly together… How this fellow (left) didn’t get court-martialled, I will never know.  And if you do decide to take the safe route out and wear pants, please don’t do a Richard Branson and display your novelty knickers…

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 15.51.48Dudes, if you think tartan’s somehow not masculine enough, consider this – following the Battle of Culloden, wearing tartan was considered an act of insurgency in Scotland, punishable by six months in prison. South of the border, this made tartan fashionable for anyone in love with the lost cause of the Jacobites. A Scottish tourist, visiting England in 1748, noted young people clad in checks in defiance of their government – they were the very first tartan-wearing rebel “punks”. Now imagine telling Johnny Rotten (left) that you think tartan is a wee bit girlie…

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 14.42.40To be on the safe side, why not take your cues from some fictional heroes? Most men dismiss the kilt as impractical for everyday wear and it’s true that in the Outlander books, Jamie Fraser’s as often in breeches as he is in a kilt – but Outlander star Sam Heughan (right) became a convert to the practicalities of his character’s feileadh mhor, or traditional kilt: “It’s a long bit of cloth… about seven, eight foot long, and they are basically used as a tool. The Highlanders would use them to wear to keep themselves warm. You could use it as a sleeping bag. You could use it as camouflage to blend into the background.  They also had lots of pockets and you could wear them in different ways. … It took a long time to get used to it, but it’s a real joy to work with it, and you can find various uses. I mean, we even discovered you can use it as a shield you can wrap around your arm.” 

In Lizzie Lamb’s delightful Scotch on the Rocks, whisky-loving American hero Brodie wears his family tartan with a t-shirt and leather biker jacket (just like Sam Heughan) – much to the satisfaction of Scottish heroine Issy… And even James Bond, the quintessential English spy, is really half-Scottish (and therefore potentially kilted) in Ian Fleming’s original books.  Sadly the only film to feature Bond in a kilt is George Lazenby’s sole outing, On her Majesty’s Secret Service – though (coincidentally?) it’s also the only film in which Bond actually gets to marry the girl…

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 14.00.04And then, of course, there’s Rupert Bear. Yellow checks aren’t a look everyone could pull off (or frankly, would want to), but I have a sneaking suspicion that the Rupert Bear annuals I was given every Christmas as a child may have started my whole strange fondness for tartan…

The Savage Beauty of Alexander McQueen

“There is no way back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible” 

Alexander McQueen


The Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A in London finally closed yesterday – it has been declared the best-selling exhibition in the Museum’s history, with over 480,000 visitors, and the gallery opening overnight for the first time to cope with demand. I’m not surprised – I visited it last month at the insistence of my fashionista friend, the Divine Miss P, and was absolutely blown away. It wasn’t the static display of clothes in glass cases I’d expected, but an immersive, disturbing, exhilarating experience. From the very first image, of Alexander McQueen’s face morphing into one of his trademark skulls, I was swept up into a dark and disturbing world orchestrated by a soundscape of music which incorporated throbbing bass heartbeats, anguished/ecstatic female moans, tapping typewriter keys, birdsong, and the banjo theme from Deliverance (which influenced one of his fashion collections). Surrounded by plate glass and tarnished, clouded mirrors, the senses were ravished and assaulted; exactly the effect, one imagines, that McQueen would have wanted.

It’s part of the new museum experience – you don’t just look at artefacts and read their labels, you ‘interact’ with the exhibits. At the Natural History Museum, that means the fascinating old bottles of pickled animal specimens have been banished to a cellar in favour of computerised dinosaurs  – here, it means you experience the grandeur, the passion and the downright freaky weirdness of a fashion designer’s imagination.


This is the closest I get to fashion – a TopShop ‘re-imagining’ of an Alexander McQueen design, bought second-hand from eBay.

I’m not exactly a couture lady – as someone who loosely identifies as feminist, the bullshit attitudes of the beauty world stick in my craw, and besides, I’ve not got the figure, the finances or frankly the energy for fashion.  But I do find the creative instincts and processes behind these collections fascinating. McQueen was essentially a story teller using clothes instead of words, and the stories he tells are warped fairytales, slices of bloody history, flights of dark and twisted fancy – the skull beneath the skin.

It’s hardly surprising that McQueen was prey to stress, to depression. Imagine the pressure of creating something this vibrant, this novel, every season – making two themed collections each year, and never compromising on your dramatic edge. McQueen said he never had any problem finding inspiration, and the range of influences here seems to bear that out; from African wildlife to futuristic sea creatures, from bondage and fetish-wear to Japanese chrysanthemums, from Dutch Old Masters and religious iconography to Romantic poets and the darker days of British history.

HSome themes recur – Highland Rape (1995) and the Widows of Culloden (2006) both drew on McQueen’s Scottish roots, and the devastation wrought by the English clearance of the Highlands following the Jacobite rebellion. The first show became McQueen’s calling card, with ‘bumster’ trousers cut low enough to reveal bottom cleavage and his favourite erogenous zone at the base of the spine, and bare-breasted, battered-looking models sent down the runway in ripped lace and tattered tartan. It caused outrage and condemnation in Daily Mail reading circles, and delight in the fashion world. It made McQueen a household name and launched the High Street trend for low-slung jeans which generated the dreaded ‘muffin top’ in every woman bigger than a size 10.



‘The Widows of Culloden’ revisited the theme, but played less on the violence of the Highland clearances, and more on the enduring tragedy of a lost generation. These outfits are Victorian mourning laced with punk attitude –  grey tartan and oppressively tight-buttoned corsets, froths of black tulle with kick-ass boots, a melancholic wedding-dress featuring tiers of tea-stained ivory lace, stag antlers piercing the veil. That show concluded with an old Victorian stage-trick called Pepper’s Ghost – an optical illusion using carefully angled mirrors to project a ghostly transparent image onto the stage.  In McQueen’s vision, we are haunted by an ethereal Kate Moss, twisting and turning in a cloud of swirling frayed muslin like unravelling bandages, a spectral bride rising from the sepulchre. Even knowing how the illusion is worked, the vision brings a chilling, delicious shudder to your spine.



The dark heart of the exhibition is the towering, mahogany-panelled ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ – an imposingly high-ceilinged room lined with niches containing the most elaborate and alarming one-off pieces from his collections. Death and decay lurks all around you, the fragile and ephemeral juxtaposed with hard bone and metal. Chrome exoskeletons lurk like costumes from a ‘Predator’ movie, a headdress features hundreds of hand-painted red feather butterflies, carved prosthetic limbs, jewelled gimp masks, iron and leather shackles, taxidermy as a fashion accessory…  You are trapped in the private collection of a twisted Victorian explorer as he reveals his most coveted, disturbing trophies – too long in the twilight world of strange sights and half-recognised sounds leaves you restless and twitchy.

_81613379_tv026283899There is an element of the grotesque to much of McQueen’s work – even as you admire the artistry of the vision and the craftsmanship of each perfectly constructed article, you are repelled by the subtext. Every mannequin in the exhibition is masked or hooded, features obscured, rendered literally faceless. Although many of his clothes flatter and celebrate the female form, the extreme make-up, spiked jewellery and metal restraints that accessorise his collections suggest a degree of fear of femininity and a need to control. This is the starved dark underbelly of fashion, where waiflike teenage bodies sell a warped version of sexuality to people with more money than sense. From a girl spinning helplessly while robots spraypaint her pristine white dress, to a plump naked woman lying in a mirror-box full of moths, models splashing awkwardly through shallow pools of waScreen Shot 2015-08-03 at 21.36.37ter or encircled by flames, his shows generated feelings of unease, a sense of impending violence.

Even the ‘pretty’ clothes displayed here have disturbing undercurrents. One collection showed vintage-style summer dresses adorned with ruffled layers of fabric flowers in sweet sugared almond colours – yet the catwalk show included real flowers that fell to the floor as the models walked, to be trampled underfoot and destroyed.

treeThe 2008 collection ‘ The Girl Who Lived in the Tree’ was inspired by dreams McQueen had about an ancient Elm in his garden. The costumes conjured decadent images of the British Empire, opulent gowns swagged with falls of rich brocade and gold-embroidered velvet that seemed too heavy for the frail, doll-like models. Dainty high-waisted dresses and delicate slippers encrusted with crystals tree1evoked Jane Austen heroines, while tightly braided military jackets teamed with puffy net skirts hinted at a Regency hero in drag.

The show-stopper was a scarlet coat of almost architectural construction – I can’t describe how dextrously the yards of silk were sculpted into rolling billows and pleats. It’s a coronation robe designed for an evil queen, what the Empress of China would wear if she’d been channeling Maleficent.


‘Plato’s Atlantis’ was the final collection completed before McQueen’s death in 2010 – a surreal vision of (wo)mankind ‘de-evolving’ into some species of amphibian, complete with gills and fins. The beautiful body hugging dresses in gorgeous metallic digital prints are like futuristic fish skins, but the feet are hobbled by 10inch high ‘Armadillo’ shoes. When the show’s stylist was terrified the models would fall and break their ankles, McQueen allegedly said, ‘Let them fall’.



The models survived unscathed, but McQueen himself fell; depressed and grief-stricken, he committed suicide one day before the funeral of his beloved mother. Suddenly those skull scarves and bone masks looked less ironic, more chilling; newspapers rushed to document McQueen’s tormented personal history, friends and family to defend him.

Ultimately, his short, explosive, creative life and tragic death have become part of his mythology – working-class boy made good, Romantic hero, tortured artist – leaving behind this legacy of strange and savage beauty.


If you’d like a taster of the V&A exhibition, visit: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/exhibition-alexander-mcqueen-savage-beauty/

For the eerie Pepper’s Ghost illusion, watch the last few minutes of the ‘Widows of Culloden’ catwalk show here: http://www.alexandermcqueen.com/experience/en/pages/alexandermcqueen/archive/?years=2006#id_article=220