With Burns Night on the horizon, we discover the cultural and sartorial roots of this stylish tartan, popular with presidents, princes and superspy James Bond
If it wasn’t odd enough that the cinematic and not-so-secret agent James Bond would announce who he was wherever he went, his suiting only underscored his origins. That wasn’t so much its cut, as its cloth: again and again, in From Russia with Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in Dr. No, Diamonds Are Forever, Goldfinger and Skyfall, Bond is tailored in some variation of the Glen check, a design of Scottish roots that, of course, chimes with Bond’s own. As the joke has it, Bond was the only role Sean Connery played in which his accent matched his character.
Still, his choice was a good one: the Glen check – with its series of small checks within a larger irregular or “broken” framework of checks – somehow manages to be both distinctive enough that it requires only a plain shirt and tie to make an impression, and yet generally understated enough to avoid making its wearer look like Jack Nicklaus or a tablecloth – as, thankfully, Thomas Pink’s subtly squared tailoring suggests.
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Black & White 4 Button POW Check Wool Waistcoat
But it was rather more gamekeepers and princes than spies that brought the Glen check into being and then made it a staple pattern of menswear. Created, it’s said, by Elizabeth MacDougall, a weaver in the village of Lewiston – and hugely inventive for early 19th-century weaving too – the check was spotted by Countess Caroline Stuart, Countess of Seafield and later chieftainess of the Clan Grant, as something suitable in which to attire her groundsmen. And so, in 1840 the Scottish Register of Tartans would come to record it as the Glen Urquhart Estate Check, after the location of her Balmacaan stately home. This would later be abbreviated to the simpler Glen check, or, if you’re American or of the preppy persuasion – or, like fan John F. Kennedy, both – to Glen plaid.
As if all this wasn’t enough of an aristocratic connection, it was another example of the English taking liberties north of the border that saw the Glen check find what many think of as its more sophisticated name: as the Prince of Wales check. That wouldn’t be the current Prince of Wales, nor the former one – though both wear it, the King in exemplary style, too – and not even the famed clotheshorse, Duke of Windsor and Kingfor-a-year, Edward VIII. Rather, we refer here to their forebear, the future King Edward VII.
As Prince of Wales, he visited the Glen Urquhart Estate on a hunting trip, fell in love with its “house pattern” – he was, as his father would moan, always more interested in trousers than shooting – and adopted it as his own, scaling it down in what was arguably a crucial step in catapulting it into fashion. Indeed, ironically the Prince of Wales check would come to be viewed as a signature of quintessentially English tailoring. The William Wallace of Braveheart might have proclaimed that the Sassenachs ‘may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom’, but they could, it would later transpire, take the Scots’ tartans, too.
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