Going Mad Over Plaid


If you think tartan plaid is only for kilts and schoolgirls, meeting Jeffrey Banks may change your perspective.

He is a self-proclaimed "obsessive tartan collector." He has the pocket squares, handkerchiefs, tartan ties, tartan plaid sneakers, tartan plaid teddy bears, and even tartan plaid plates.

Banks is an award-winning clothing designer who is not ashamed to admit it: He is simply mad for plaid.

"It's an obsession since I was a little kid," he told CBS News correspondent Erin Moriarty. "And I don't know why. I've just always, always loved it."

Now he's put his passion into print in a new book that he co-authored with his long time friend, writer Doria De La Chappelle. It's a huge book, and weighs about six pounds.

But before you can fully appreciate tartan, you need to know what it is.

"A tartan plaid, first of all, is Scottish, as opposed to American or English. It's Scottish," De La Chappelle said.

Photos: Dressed To Kilt
Which means the instantly recognizable Burberry pattern on the company's coats and scarves may look like a tartan plaid, but is in fact officially just "a check" because Burberry is actually English.

In addition, a tartan pattern has to be made up of perfect squares. Technically, a tartan plaid can be turned 180 degrees and is exactly the same.

"You can take it and literally turn it upside down and it will look exactly the same, right side up or upside down," De La Chappelle said.

A Plaid, on the other hand, can have stripes that clearly run in a specific direction. In other words: all tartan is plaid, but not all plaid is tartan.

But whether authentic tartan or simply plaid, the stripes and squares seem to have a lasting and universal appeal.

"It's one of the few patterns men wear, you know" Banks said. "You may find the most conservative man, if he wears a pattern, more than likely it's tartan."

"Plaid is very organized," De La Chappelle said. "It has grids. It's possible that these grids make you feel organized."

Banks and De La Chappelle began their research into tartan six years ago after New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, who tracks fashion on the streets of Manhattan, noticed an odd phenomenon in the days following 9/11: women were wearing a lot of plaid.

"The world was rocked and they were looking for something that they could hold onto, that they knew would not deviate, because so much had changed overnight," Banks said.

But tartan wasn't always a symbol of security. At the same time colonists in America were demanding their independence from England, there was trouble in Scotland as well. Scottish Highlanders caught wearing tartan to signify their clans faced arrest, or worse.

"It became the symbol of rebels who were against the Crown," De La Chappelle said. "And the British were so angry that they banned the wearing of tartan for 37 years. If you were a Highlander, men in particular, you could not put on tartan without being accused of treason and banished to the colonies for six months."

As is often the case, banning tartan only made it more desirable.

"When they were able to wear it again, it came back with a vengeance," De La Chappelle said.

Later, it was actually English royals - the Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis Simpson - who made tartan stylish for the international jet set.

"He also started wearing Tartan on the Riviera as a bathing suit and supposedly some clever clothing executive saw him on the Riviera and cabled home and said, 'The prince is wearing Tartan trunks. You've gotta get it on our line,'" De La Chappelle said.

A generation later, plaid was embraced by a very different sort.

"Maybe the most interesting thing that's ever happened in fashion and plaid is the punk movement, Because people like Vivienne Westwood took this revered plaid which stood for tradition and decided to rip it and tear it and safety pin it and turn it into a subversive statement for these punk rebels," De La Chappelle said. "It does seem to have a yin and a yang. It represents security and a kind of straightness and regularity. And at the same time, it can be viewed as very seductive and very sexy."

Which may explain how plaid became the only common ground for two very different Royal wives: both Camilla and Diana wore it. It could also explain how Ralph Lauren uses plaid at home to luxuriate while Madonna uses it on tour to titillate. Plaid pants can be both high fashion and low humor.

"That's what a classic is, you know," Banks said. "A little black dress, you know, if it's too short, it's vulgar. And tartan is the same way. Done in beautiful taffeta fabric, purples and greens, it's a gorgeous Ralph Lauren ball gown - you know you want to keep forever."

Banks and De La Chappelle's book is a collection of the various ways tartan has been used over the years in everything from movies like "The Queen," "Braveheart" and "Rob Roy," to the catwalk, to home furnishings. And even one of the most unexpected places: the moon.

"Alan Bean, one of our first moon shot astronauts, took a swatch of the McBean tartan with him to the moon," De La Chappelle said.

Banks and De La Chappelle wrote the book in part to make people feel as passionately about plaid as they do.

"We'd like it to be infectious," he said.

He promises that after reading their book, you will never look at stripes and squares quite the same way again. Now you will have what he calls "plaid eyes."