V&A Dundee’s new exhibition Tartan weaves together past and present, royals and rebels, politics and punk.
And if the thoroughly Scottish subject wasn’t already close enough to home, it turns out Tartan was inspired by a son of the City of Discovery.
The celebration of Scotland’s famous textile – the first of its kind in 34 years – is set to open to the public on Saturday April 1.
It features over 300 objects, and with everything from a limited edition Hillman Imp car to in-the-flesh Alexander McQueen designs and – thanks to a new discovery just last week – the oldest known piece of tartan on show, fashionistas and history buffs alike will find something to fawn over.
Conceived during the 2020 Covid lockdowns, it is the first V&A Dundee exhibition to be curated largely online, reveals curator Kirsty Hassard.
“We started to curate the show online, so it was a really interesting way to work out what objects we wanted and the themes we wanted to explore,” says Kirsty.
“When you see everything coming together, it’s like a dream come true.
“But,” she adds, “Nicholas Daley is the real origin story.”
‘My mum’s a proper Dundonian woman’
Scottish-Jamaican menswear designer Nicholas came to know Kirsty and the V&A team when he did a small temporary exhibition at the museum back in 2019, and it was then that he infected them with his enthusiasm for the book Tartan by Jonathan Faiers.
Now four years on, one of Nicholas’s designs, a contemporary tartan suit, is displayed among the other fashion elements of the new exhibition – for which Professor Faiers was a consultant curator.
“Tartan is such an interesting textile,” he enthuses.
“Think of any other fabric which was part of one of the most pivotal movements in the form of the punk scene, right through to Theresa May wearing a jacket made of it to show the strength of the union, all the way to depict which slaves would go to which plantation in the Caribbean.”
And for the 33-year-old designer, tartan isn’t just a versatile textile; it’s a direct link to his Dundee roots.
“My mother was born in Lochee, she’s a proper Dundonian woman,” he explains ahead of the exhibition’s opening.
“My parents met in Dundee and then they ran a reggae night here called the Reggae Club in the ’70s. So between my Jamaican heritage and my Scottish roots, tartan sits so close to my own family and ancestral lineage.”
As we speak, Nicholas is decked out in a vibrant Buchanan tartan suit (“my wedding suit, actually”) and a bonnet of a distinctive tartan which, he reveals, he designed himself.
It has the red, green and gold of his suit, with some darker shades blended in – and this, he explains, reflects the blending of his lineage.
“In the Rastafarian culture the red is the earth, green is nature and the gold represents the sun,” he reveals.
“And that reflects back to my West Indian heritage. So this tartan looks at both my Scottish ancestry and my West Indian/Jamaican ancestry.”
The Tartan exhibition, which runs until 2024, will ring in the V&A Dundee’s fifth anniversary in September, making it extra special for the museum team.
Inviting Dundonians to come and see it from this weekend, V&A director Leonie Bell said: “We have been dreaming, living, breathing, sweating tartan for almost three years, so it’s lovely, the moment when you can let it go and share it.
“Everybody’s reaction’s just been incredible so far. We’re delighted.”
In pictures: V&A Dundee’s Tartan exhibition
The Tartan exhibition will run until January 2024. Visits can be booked via the V&A Dundee website.