Black Watch Tartan: a Casual Check, a Proper Black Tie Alternative, a Do-It-All Sportcoat?
We have previously mentioned that a Black Watch Tartan Jacket can be worn casually as a sportcoat or as a stylish alternative to black tie attire - but perhaps such claim is worth an explanation.
A long one.
Well, after all this is the Everyday Classic blog, a place where we prefer to approach subjects comprehensively, sometimes even encyclopedically. As enthusiasts, we believe that sometimes to explain seemingly simple and obvious matters, one has to delve into their historical backgrounds, which often span several centuries.
That’s exactly the case with the Black Watch pattern!
It is a plaid, or tartan rather - once the check is woven into the woollen fabric, it bears this name. I assume that most of us are already aware that tartans are largely assigned to Scottish clans, families with a long history - so no longer explanation should be needed there - and that the pattern signifies group membership*
*Ok, I don't want to overwhelm you with facts that are not directly relevant to the topic, but let me add something here - bear in mind that the unification of clan tartans is an invention of the Victorian era, established roughly only in the mid-19th century. Previously, the more careless approach dominated; often within a family everyone wore a different tartan, woven as one liked.
The Black Watch tartan has a similar origin, although in this case, the pattern represents a military formation rather than a family lineage.
It was created as the colors identifying the Black Watch clan guard, which was established in 1725 to protect the Highlands. The guard initially consisted of six companies from four clans - Campbell, Munro, Fraser and Grant - but in 1739 it was incorporated into the official British army, remaining its part to this day. Interestingly, soldiers from this formation (now known officially as the 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland) have fought in WW1 and WW2 and even were the last troops to leave Hong Kong with the British administration in 1997.
For almost three centuries, the Black Watch’s traditional colors - dark blue, black and green - remained unchanged. The tartan kilt is still worn by the soldiers - while obviously not on the battlefield anymore, it is still the part of the official full dress uniform.
Knowing that story one might be tempted to say that’s just another thing menswear borrowed from the military - but I would insist that the popularity of this plaid should be attributed to other factors, mostly the differences in design when compared to other similar checks.
Unlike most tartans, the Black Watch is surprisingly calm and versatile.
Firstly, it incorporates only three colors. Secondly, there are no intense contrasting elements of yellow or red to the check. Lastly, thanks to its unique blend of shades, it pairs easily with both black and navy blue. Thanks to all of these, it is distinctive yet not overly complex.
Also, it is worth noting that in fashion so-called universal tartans (including military ones) are generally preferred over strictly clan-specific colors. While wearing another clan's tartan is not considered a faux pas by most Scots, it is still safer to wear a different pattern.
Let’s say that the versatility is sort of explained there - but we still haven't talked directly about why the Black Watch may be worn in both formal and casual circumstances.
Well, we need to understand that in Great Britain traditional costumes maintain a unique status that affects dress codes, including black tie and white tie events.
The Scots have earned the right to wear their version of the costume virtually everywhere, for any occasion. Of course, the tops and accessories vary between the casual and formal versions of the Highland Dress, but the colorful kilt is always its center point - and an element that definitely sticks out when compared to the standard formal attire.
In this context, plaid found its way into the world of black tie, popping up occasionally among black tuxedos - until later, someone (hard to tell who exactly) replaced the kilt with plaid pants as a kind of a fashion move. This is where the story gets pretty hazy; we don't have dates, evidence or names. The idea of combining a dinner jacket with tartan bottoms generally gained popularity in the second half of the 20th century with the loosening of the dress codes. Such outfits were not something traditional anymore, rather being a creative alternative.
At some point, the experiment went further and plaid transitioned from trousers to jackets. Someone must have thought that the combination of black and tartan looks natural and elegant no matter the order you pair them… well, it's impossible to disagree.
Obviously, various tartans can be worn, as there is no official gradation of formality among them. However, the unobtrusive blue, black and green Black Watch is particularly popular for evening wear and has now become a universally accepted tartan of choice. While other, more colorful plaids may seem a bit pretentious on non-Scots, this one is discreet and looks good on almost anybody.
While it may not be the first choice for a black tie event, it is certainly an tasteful option - roughly comparable to a non-black velvet dinner jacket in terms of formality. When paired with a white shirt and a black bow tie, it looks serious and elegant.
It's not necessarily an outfit that can be worn for an embassy ball; we would say it is better suited for a New Year's Eve party, important dinner or even a wedding - especially a winter one!
And what about the casual occasions?
Just do what the Scots would do: replace every other part of the outfit while retaining the tartan jacket.
After all, it is still just a checked sportcoat, right?