The enduring history of iconic patterns — with a spotlight on Black Watch tartan, a plaid with a checkered past

Tartan: A beloved family of patterns that never go out of style. As fashions come and go, tartan remains a favorite across time and generations, from bankers to punk rockers. “Even those who are conservative will wear a touch of tartan,” says award-winning fashion designer and tartan aficionado Jeffrey Banks, author of Tartan: Romancing the Plaid.

Banks has been known to wear head-to-toe Black Watch tartan on occasion—impeccably well, in fact—and told us a bit about his attraction to it: “Although I am tremendously fond of many tartans, I find that I gravitate, more often than not, back to Black Watch. It is the simplest of tartans, comprised of only three colors, but it can look both elegant and sophisticated, or crisp and casual, depending on how it is worn. I have dozens of articles of clothing in Black Watch, from coats to shoes, with several from Brooks Brothers.”

All tartans are plaids, but not all plaids are tartans. “Tartans are perfectly symmetrical,” explains Banks. Unlike other plaids, which might run dominantly horizontally or vertically, a tartan can be turned on its side and still retain its pattern.

More than 7,000 tartans are registered with the Scottish Tartans Authority in its International Tartan Index. Our exclusive Signature Tartan is one of them, combining elements of the traditional Scottish Campbell tartan (thanks to the lineage of Lavinia Brooks, née Lyon, who brought her Scottish heritage to her marriage to Brooks Brothers founder Henry Sands Brooks) with our BB#1 stripe pattern. In its array of color variations, it has appeared on everything from shirts to shoes to umbrellas and more. (Shop our Signature Tartan.)

The earliest piece of tartan dates back to the 8th century BCE, according to historians, and is believed to have been made by ancient Celts. Discovered in a salt quarry, in which it had been preserved over centuries, the fabric disintegrated within minutes of its exposure to air.

One of our favorite (and best-selling) tartans year after year is the dark and versatile blue, black and green Black Watch tartan, dating to 1725. Also known as 42nd Regiment Gov. Tartan No. 2, its attractive look has a checkered past. According to the Scottish Tartans Authority, the arbiter of tartans, this tartan, or one very similar to it, was worn by English “watch” patrols who policed the Highlands in the 1700s in response to the ill-fated Jacobite Rising of 1715 (a passionate rebellion on the part of the Scottish, who lost to the English).

With its fascinating history and sharp appearance, this tartan is now considered iconic—embraced by Scottish soldiers over time, and then the public in an ever-growing variety of fashions. “This elegant tartan has been an enduring symbol of loyalty, courage and sacrifice,” says the Scottish Tartans Authority. To us, it’s an enduring symbol of tradition and style, as well.

Black Watch—A Timeless Tartan
Explore some of our editors’ picks in this popular pattern