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Mad Men Wear Plaid

Originally Posted: December 08, 2009

Douglas MacKaye Harrington

A plaid (tartan) vest or waist coat will add color to any ensemble. Images courtesy of www.www.scotclans.com

Southampton - The holiday season is upon us and there are two colors that are associated with them, red and green. Red bows hung on green garland, green wreaths decorated with red holly berries, Christmas trees are green and cranberries are red. Even the Empire State Building is lit up in red and green. The colors are everywhere, from streets lamps to store front windows, yes red and green are indeed the colors of Christmas.

When it comes to apparel many men, whether consciously or not, are drawn this time of the year to that green sweater in the back of the drawer or that red tie with the green Christmas trees unwrapped so many Christmas mornings ago. As established as the colors of the season are, so too I think there is a pattern that is synonymous with the season. Yes gentlemen, it is time to go plaid!

Although diluted in the modern vernacular to refer to any pattern of mixed colors and lines designed in a geometric image, the word actually means blanket in its original Scottish origin. The plaid is that narrow, pleaded piece of cloth that we see wrapped across the shoulder of a piper and dangling behind his back. The pattern should actually be referred to as the tartan and has its origin in the specific historical colors and designs of each of Scotland's clans such as Stewart or Campbell tartans. The plaid will always be the same tartan as the kilt in tradition Scottish dress. Not all familiar tartans can be tied directly to a specific clan, such as the Black Watch tartan which is associated with a division in the British army.

How about tying on a plaid bow tie for this year's holiday party?

To further complicate the discussion there is a difference between check and plaid or tartan. For example the popular black, red and tan pattern associated with the iconic British design company Burberry is often called "Burberry Plaid," whereas the pattern is actually referred to by the company itself as the "Burberry Check" and was originally called the "Haymarket Check" when the company first used it as trench coat linings in 1924.

History and proper vernacular aside, we shall use the colloquial term plaid in reference to the color palette and pattern of apparel discussed in this article as much as possible to avoid confusion. To wit, I beg the forgiveness of my Scot ancestors that proudly wore the tartan of MacKay, a clan that is tied to the original Pics of Scotland and believed to be dated back to 335 AD.

Plaid is usually associated with warm wool and cashmere fabrics, therefore more frequently donned in the fall and winter in the form of wool scarves, sweaters and plaid sport coats. Of course, the Hamptons have been long associated with the brightly colored, summer cotton plaid pants worn to cocktail parties and events, usually accompanied by lime green or lemon yellow polo shirts and summer sweaters. We will pass on that commentary until a spring "AfterShave" article except to say that plaid pants will indeed work nicely during the holidays. To that I add the caveat that you tone down the color palette to deeper shades and make sure the pant fabric is wool or a wool blend.

Plaids scarves are always warming winter favorites.

Back to winter options, yes indeed a plaid scarf is a wonderfully colorful accessory to a winter overcoat or wool blazer. In my opinion wool scarves do not serve or should be treated with the same purpose as silk scarves. The latter can often be decorative in purpose as an accent, whereas the wool scarf is indeed utilitarian in nature. Whereas the silk scarf can remain as part of the ensemble once indoors, I feel that generally the wool scarf should follow the outer garment into the coat closet.

This is particularly true if you have donned a plaid tie as part of your apparel. I suppose there is the rare exception, but for the most part don't mix plaids. A Stewart tartan tie and Campbell tartan scarf will just prove to be too busy and if you are also wearing Black Watch tartan slacks or blazer, you will probably cause your host guests to become dizzy. That is not to say that one might not wear a Stewart tie and Stewart blazer together, or Black Watch slacks and a Black Watch bow tie with a navy or black wool blazer in combination.

A plaid button front vest can be a wonderful accessory to an otherwise monochromatic suit or ensemble. This is also true of a plaid sweater vest or cardigan. A heather cardigan in, let's say, a deep green is particularly nice in combination with a Black Watch tie or shirt and perhaps even both. The same could be said of the Campbell or MacKay tartan and I think a white cardigan with a Stewart or MacGregor tartan is quite striking. Remember do not mix your plaids, particularly in the case of a tie and shirt combination.

Plaid ties are perfect during the holidays.

If you really need to mix your plaids, do it with your socks. Surprise your guests with a pair of Argyles as you cross your legs in your overstuffed easy chair during the Rob Roy cocktail hour. Yes, it is good to be the Lord of the Manor and a daring one at that!

As the New Year is approaching, why not accessorize your tuxedo with a plaid, silk bow tie and cummerbund? Most tuxedo shops and fine men's stores offer these formal wear combinations, not at all uncommon these days and a really festive way to bring in 2010.

A great source for authentic Scottish tartan (plaid) clothing and accessories is www.scotclans.com and the images in this article are courtesy of their site. There are many other sites on the Web, Scottish or otherwise, for plaid apparel, so start searching. Retail stores like Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren offer their fair share of plaid as well.

So as the weather cools add some color and pattern to your winter ensembles with some plaid. If nothing else go pick yourself up at least a plaid tie and, of course, matching pocket square if possible. Whether a Scot with an ancient clan tartan or not, 'tis the season to be plaid, Laddie.

Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com Hamptons HamptonsOnline HamptonsOnline

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