“For Ralph Lauren, tartan is not just a fabric. It is a way of life.” So wrote The New York Times in 1991, a year which saw Mr. Lauren unveil a mahogany highboy with tartan drawers—part of a nine-piece furniture collection inspired by his personal 19th-century Scottish trinkets.
The statement was equally apt in 1971, when Mr. Lauren introduced his first suit for women, in a stunning Fraser Hunting pattern, and in 1993, when he unveiled a line of luggage and leather goods in a delectable Black Watch tartan. Not to mention 2006, when his tartan-themed Highlands Collection walked the runway, or 2015, when tartan throw pillows dotted the banquettes of The Polo Bar on opening night.
Forever at the intersection of irreverent rebellion and buttoned-up nobility, tartan remains unwaveringly stylish. After all, it’s no coincidence that both Johnny Rotten and Prince Charles consider it a closet staple. Both aesthetically and for their durability and warmth, few style statements beat out a classic Gordon plaid cashmere scarf or a three-quarter-length wool coat cut from a chic Black Watch weave (check out our balmacaan-meets–barn coat take below).
It’s no surprise then that Mr. Lauren’s fascination with the original calling card of the sartorial rebel hasn’t wavered. After all, its captivated Scotland since clans in the Highlands began dyeing wool fabrics to mark their identities 500 years ago. Banned by the government after the clan system was blamed for the Jacobite rising of 1745, it wasn’t until the 19th century that tartan began to reappear (thanks in large part to King George IV, who became the first monarch to visit Edinburgh in two centuries and requested the Scots wear tartan for the occasion). Today, there are some 3,000 distinct patterns, called setts, on the Scottish Register of Tartans.
And though the term itself has a disputed origin—the most popular theory is that it hails from the Scots-Irish words tuar and tan, meaning color and district respectively—one thing about tartan remains undisputed. Both rakish and versatile, it’s a cornerstone of timeless style. After all, what other pattern makes as much sense on an overcoat or a daring pair of velvet slippers as it does accenting a teacup?