By  on October 26, 2007

Tartan has come a long way in fashion from a simple kilt.

"Tartan can be used in so many different ways, and its endless possibility in design leaves it open to many interpretations," said designer Jeffrey Banks. "When Alexander McQueen uses the McQueen family tartan and cuts in on the bias, or when Vivienne Westwood makes it into a matching two-piece suit, tartan takes on a whole different feel than the kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing Scotsman."

Banks, a Coty Award-winning designer of men's and women's apparel, enumerates the virtues of one of the world's best-known fabrics in a new book, "Tartan: Romancing the Plaid" (Rizzoli, $65), which was written with Doria de La Chapelle.

Banks started his career at Ralph Lauren and went on to design for Merona Sport, Johnnie Walker and his own label. Tartans have always been one of the designer's passions, who discussed the idea of doing a book for the last decade with lifelong friend de La Chapelle, a writer and publicist who worked for Mademoiselle, served as advertising director of Henri Bendel and headed her own fashion public relations firm.

The 288-page book hit stores this week. Rose Marie Bravo, former chief executive officer of Burberry, maker of one of fashion's most famous plaids, wrote the book's forward. Saks Fifth Avenue will celebrate the tome at a party in the store Monday night hosted by Stephen I. Sadove, Burberry and Diane von Furstenberg.

The book includes three sections: tradition, covering tartan's earliest days through the Victorian Era; fashion, exploring how tartans have been incorporated into fashion since the Duke of Windsor took the fabric beyond the kilt, and living, focusing on tartans in interior design. The sections are book-ended with celebrities wearing tartan, from the traditional styles worn by British royalty to the subversive styles worn by rock royalty.

"I wanted the book to be for someone who is walking through a bookstore — not just necessarily someone who is of the fashion world," Banks said.

The book starts with the history of the fabric. "The tartan most of us are familiar with — with bright reds and yellows — is sort of a modern invention," Banks said. "Ancient tartans used twigs and berries and fruits, so their colors were gray greens, browns and blacks. The vivid, colored tartans were much more of the Victorian Age."Tartan's Scottish roots have shaped the associations with the fabric that wearers hold today, the authors argue. "It's had a checkered career: It was once the fabric of savages, then it became a political statement, then it began to stand for nationhood and became a brand of belonging in Scotland," de La Chapelle said. "That notion has somehow transferred to the rest of the world, and tartan has come to evoke the feeling of belonging to a club and family. Tartans create a sense of instant heritage. There's an inverse snobbery when you've been wearing too much fashion, and it is suddenly much more chic to wear something more conservative."

But in the last few decades, the fabric adopted a double identity. "In the Seventies, the wearing of tartan, as it was in the 1600s, was subversive," Banks said. "Punk rock groups took the establishment's stuff and ripped it and tore it and pinned it to reject the system."

The book quotes designers including Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, Vivienne Westwood, Isaac Mizrahi, Sir Paul Smith, Christopher Bailey and Jean Paul Gaultier. Like animal prints, plaids never leave the fashion forefront long, according to the authors. Banks pointed to 1991 as a strong year for plaid, and de La Chapelle noted that between the movie "The Queen" and Jean Paul Gaultier's fall collection, tartans are again on a resurgence.

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