It's been a while, but I'm picking up where I left off in my series of posts on tartan in women's fashion! If you're new to the party and interested in pre-1840s, you can check out my earlier two posts on the Regency and Walter Scott revival at the links.
The Waverly novels by Sir Walter Scott romanticized life in the Scottish Highlands and created an image of brave clan members and determined heroines all bedecked in tartan. While tartans, or woven plaids, had been a part of Highland culture, Scott's novels and the tartan fashions that followed brought a relatively small, rural, old (medieval even) pattern to the heights of London fashion. As Scotland struggled politically and economically to maintain a national identity within the quickly industrializing mid-19th century British Empire, the romantic image of clan members in kilts and maidens in fields of heather enchanted English ladies. One particularly influential lady to be enchanted by the romantic promise of the Scottish countryside was Queen Victoria herself.
|portrait of Victoria in tartan sash|
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were so charmed by the Scottish highlands that they built a castle there, called Balmoral, in 1853 (the estate was purchased in 1848). While decorating, Albert designed several different tartan setts, and Balmoral was tartan from floor to curtain.
|Balmoral Castle, circa 1860s--you can see more images here|
|illustration of Balmoral interior, 1857|
|watercolor of Queen Victoria's dressing room, 1857|
|Balmoral (Green), 1853|
|Balmoral (Lavender), 1853|
|Victoria Stuart, date unclear--somewhere between 1842-1881|
|dress in royal stuart trimmed in black lace and red velvet ribbon, 1863|
|dress belonging to Princess Victoria, 1835|
|dress in royal stuart silk taffeta with green fringe, c.late 1860s|
|plaid taffeta silk, 1860|
|dress trimmed in dress stuart, 1883-88|
|lady in fancy dress (probably Scottish), 1840-60|
|girl in plaid mourning dress, holding picture of father dressed as a cavalry man, 1860s|
|fashion plate depicting plaid sash, 1863|
|Carte de Visite, 1860s, from San Fransisco via pinterest|
|1861-65, via pinterest|
1858. Townsend's monthly selection of Parisian costumes. Looks like royal stuart to me!
While tartan must be woven, and can therefore be a variety of fabrics, it is most commonly wool or silk. Silk being so fabulous for dresses, it is most likely that was what Victoria favored. However, we do know the woolen variety of tartan had another use at Balmoral: keeping ladies warm! A fabulous anecdote from one of Queen Victoria's ladies' maids reveals that the Duchess of Manchester, at least, owned a pair of scarlet tartan drawers. How fabulously scandalous!
Plaid was not new in the mid-19th century, but Queen Victoria's status as a trendsetter, combined with her infatuation with the romanticized Scottish Highlands, were a dynamic pair, and it's no surprise that tartan (and plaid in general) was so popular during her reign. I bet those ladies on picnics at Balmoral were quite a sight!