The Tartan Ladies: A Comparative Analysis of Tartan and Gender through Queen Victoria and the Scottish Suffragettes
By Karina Greenwood
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Scottish tartan became associated with a primal masculinity which evoked and promoted a romantic image of the fierce and noble Highlander. This gendering of the textile, both in use and in the popular consciousness, largely excluded female expression and experience. Queen Victoria’s use of the textile as both an accessory and an interior design pattern promoted a conventional kind of femininity and domesticity, while offering an alternative application of the tartan. The Scottish Suffragette’s tartan sashes worn in their 1908 parade evoke the military uniform and perceived ferocity of the Highland soldiers, appropriating the popular association surrounding the tartan which grew from the success of the Highland Regiments in Britain’s imperial campaigns in the nineteenth century.
Both of these instances, however, did not undermine the coding of tartan as rigidly opposed expressions of masculinity and femininity; but understanding the rebellious act of wearing kilts by two unnamed female suffragettes in 1908 as a form of cross-dressing finally subverts the binary perception of gender. This essay offers an investigation of the tartan’s ability to communicate gendered values. Through an examination of Queen Victoria’s and the Scottish Suffragettes’ use of the fabric, the tartan proves to become an extremely powerful and effective material to interrogate the performativity and artificiality of gender.