A history of plaid: from railway to catwalk

My father's plaid shirts. Photo by Erika Renfrew.

For 35 years, my father wore a plaid flannel shirt to work. As a shipwright and glorified Mr. Fix-It, his uniform changed marginally from day-to-day. 

Tucked into faded jeans from Mark’s Work Wearhouse, my father rotated between three plaid work shirts: one red, one blue and one green. At precisely 7:35 am, always five minutes behind schedule, he would thump down the stairs, grab his black, plastic lunchbox my mother just packed, and charge out the door — he never forgot to add an I love you. 

His life ran like clockwork: home by five (or shortly after if he stopped at Wal-Mart), dinner at six, with the rest of the evening spent puttering around the house. He saved his sick days and took a pay cut so that each year he could enjoy a two-month summer vacation with the family. My father finally retired with gray hair and calloused hands. His everyday uniform became a simple T-shirt and shorts. Only on days spent changing the oil in the minivan, or mowing the lawn, would he put on a plaid shirt. With a relentless handy-man spirit, my father found honour in fixing the unfixable.

Nothing in my father’s wardrobe was purchased past the ‘90s. I attributed his behaviour to a total lack of fashion sense. 

But was it ignorance, or just unselfishness? He preferred to spend money on the family because as the quintessential middle-class, we had to be careful with our spending.  

A history of plaid: from railway to catwalk 

Whether stylish or not, plaid flannel shirts have a history of culture, rebellion and war. The first flannel is accredited to Hamilton Carhartt, a businessman who produced functional clothing for railway engineers. His special weave flannel was reliable, well crafted and suitable for wear-and-tear work. Above all, Carhartt valued reputation: “I believe that when a man wears an article that I manufactured, his self-respect is increased because he knows that it is made by an honest manufacturer, who is honest with his employees.” The plaid flannel shirt is honesty; my dad provided means for a family of six, following centuries of diligent labourers living to work, and working to live.

The origins of plaid prove much more controversial. First manufactured as tartan, Scottish rebels of the 17th century sported checked kilts as a sign of resistance against the empire. Once the 37-year ban on tartan was lifted, American factories began mass-producing what was renamed plaid prior to the Civil War. Now a present-day fashion craze, plaid has waned in its ability to cause social revolt and has instead taken on a common identity. 

Worn by Paul Bunyan, a bona fide lumberjack, and sexed up by Daisy in the Dukes of Hazzard, plaid has evolved substantially. Starting as a blue-collar trademark, plaid edged its way into high fashion through the ‘90s grunge-rock movement. Spreading from Seattle, Washington across the United States, iconic designers such as Vivienne Westwood interpreted this criss-cross print for the punk scene. 

Just like denim, plaid flannel shirts have become a universally acceptable article of clothing — worn by everyone from wageworkers to celebrities. Gossip magazines now snap photos of the famous wearing plaid shirts, distressed denim and combat boots. Flannel-loving musicians write songs about their troubled pasts — promises to fans that their beginnings were honest and despite success, they remain humble. Plaid brings about an air of nonchalance and laidback cool: features that help make people relatable and much more likeable.

It truly is a plaid world. Checked flannel has become the uniform for many unique subcultures. Flannel is my security — worn over-sized, with rolled-up sleeves and leggings around the house. The soft fabric and boyfriend fit bring memories of home: a tribute to my father for his daily sacrifices and warm heart. Rooted in freedom, function and honest work, the plaid flannel shirt is a symbol for the common thread running throughout all of us.

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