Monday, December 28th, 2009 | SMASH Technology with

Red Plaid

The Plaid Mystery

I don’t think there’s a quick explanation for it, but what is up with so much red plaid everywhere? Honestly, it can’t just be about the holiday season and the obvious red color scheme because this has been around for much of the year. And while this is a completely unscientific observation, I think I have a few hunches as to why this bold print seems to linger, and probably will so, even after we all take down our Christmas trees and store our ornaments from this holiday season.

Take the most ubiquitous display of red plaid, the Gap ads for the holidays.

This “Glee”-like commercial, which premiered way back in early November has the snappy choreography and smart lyrics about “Go Christmas” and “Go Kwanzaa”, but there’s really little new about what the Gap has been selling for a couple of decades now. The color of choice is red, but the only way the Gap can sell it is through long-sleeve lumberjack-style shirts for men and sweaters and skirts for the girls.

The plaid has to be there to suggest not a new look, but a look of comfort and warmth, and it has to be just bold enough (but not too much), to not be too bright or garish. Everyone seems to look happy, so maybe it feels good, too. Some evidence of this red extravaganza can be seen at the main Gap store, as well as the Gap Kids store:

Plaid 1

Plaid 2

Plaid 3

Good Ol’ American Flair

If nothing else, Americans like practical, comfortable clothing. It isn’t always the most stylish or well-tailored, and if it’s baggy we want, baggy we’ll get. It’s just that I don’t see a lot of elegance or vibrant, interesting colors that I have seen in Europe or many parts of Asia. I was just in France and Germany, and I didn’t see anything resembling this kind of red plaid.

Instead I saw more tailored cuts, subtler colors. Lots of black, for sure, but not the abundance of tans (khaki) or grays that one sees, for example, in American menswear, especially for their outerwear. Jeans, for example, are not usually baggy or hanging at the waist in many parts of the world, and it would be hard to imagine mixing denim with red plaid for the typical Frenchman, younger or older. Then again, the French don’t walk around their cities to run errands in sweatpants or Juicy Couture pj’s. For them, it’s all about the presentation and how well you can put yourself together without looking like a slob (shallow, but true).Red Plaid Mini Skirt

But what about the red plaid and why has it sustained itself in this country? Why has it been not only a festive or stylish pattern not only on full articles of clothing, such as shirts, jackets and hoodies (itself an American “invention”), but also on accessories, like scarves, hats, gloves, belts, etc.? What makes it more surprising, perhaps, is that red plaid isn’t all that subtle. Since the 1920s, Burberry has made its iconic haymarket (black, red and tan) check a pattern they have put on virtually all of their clothing. It is distinctive precisely because it is mostly understated. But it too has taken on a life of its own: people actually want that pattern for its distinctiveness.

The red plaid, I think, is truly American and it’s occurring at a time when virtually anyone, young and old, can get away with this look. It’s hard to imagine this because even 10-15 years ago, this plaid look was seen as almost threatening –it suggested something militaristic, or gang-related. Now I see a lot of “camou” clothing, which is a distant cousin to this profusion of plaid. Plaid –red, and other colors—have grown because of their versatility. It’s outdoorsy enough too to get the tweens to ask for it at Abercrombie & Fitch while the older folks could reasonably locate it at sites like Lands End and LL Bean.

Red Plaid BootsThe look is all over American pop culture. When tween superstar Taylor Lautner sported red plaid sneakers earlier this year while filming “New Moon” in Vancouver, it seemed to herald some new kind of excitement worn by someone who would later in the year quickly become a tween star, with millions of cameras following his every move.

What did Lautner wear earlier this month in his hilarious opening monologue when he hosted “SNL”? A red plaid shirt. Zac Efron is probably following suit somewhere –in fact, on the cover of “Nylon”; still, there are also other red-plaid-clad tweens –Taylor Momsen, and countless others.

We can probably expect to see Michelle Obama ditch her allegiance to the earth tones or yellows of her J Crew knits and bust out with some red plain skirts or tops. Oh snap! Here she is –just last month at the White House, officially accepting the White House Christmas tree, festooned (her, not the tree) in resplendent red and oversized bows and belt. Red plaid seems to be everywhere, even at the White House.

Digging Deeper

Again, in a completely unscientific tour, I tried to see how pervasive this red plaid look had become during a visit to some shopping malls yesterday, on one of the busiest shopping days in the Bay Area. Here are just a few of the snapshots I took and some comments about what I saw:

I almost snapped up these red plaid Converse shoes at Bloomingdales –at about $90, something Taylor Lautner probably should have worn instead, and smartly displayed among some of the best men’s shoes displays I have seen in a long time.

Across the aisle, I spotted these red plaid belts by Woolrich. Note the green tartan belt next to it but somehow a little less attractive, though more “Scottish” than its red counterpart.

Yes, the faux-scary goth-like skulls have apparently invaded the tony aisles of Bloomingdales. Long a bastion of the suburban malls and every Hot Topic, these skulls had no problem being displayed at Bloomies at $85 a pop. The gray-red plaid one at left was stylishly crinkly, ready for the wearer to front that messy but suddenly fashionable mushy neck-wrap look.

Across from the SPCA window displays at the main SF Macy’s store and their glorious (but ultimately unsettling) puppy and kitty-adoption displays, this window of the men’s store shows what lurks inside: a festival of red plaid scarves as well, and cheaper than at Bloomies. I will not see the end of the red plaid! It’s coming back around the corner at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics –that is, if Ralph Lauren has anything to do with it. Piles of expensive scarves, sweaters and other outerwear with the Olympic theme are all on the second floor.

In the men’s shoes departments, Doc Marten has the red plaid inside its boots, but this is really nothing new. The one on the left is just under $100.

Even Barney’s New York, right across the street, is getting into the act. Visit the Co-Op department, the only part of the store that is not screechingly unaffordable.

At Marc Ecko, I saw the lining of this jacket, which was one of several plaid (not always red) combinations, at very reasonable prices. (Ugh: I spotted my Star Wars hoodie that I got two months ago, already marked down 50%!)

At the mall, I tried to take this red-plaid-clad woman’s picture. As you can see –red plaid hoodie with the black fur lining, red belt and red faux-Louboutins and the X’s on her jeans—she was a walking example of what I was looking for.

I counted all of two people inside the new William Rast shop, which just opened here locally. That included the prim clerk, whom I tried to interview about all this red plaid craze. “What’s up with all this red plaid?”, I tried asking. “Oh, I know!”, was all she could offer. Perhaps her boss, who owns the store and its very expensive jeans line, doesn’t want her to say much. That jacket on the right with the alpaca lining? It was nice, but you would need to cough up $400 to get it.

Finally, no red plaid show would be complete without the suburban tackiness of Hot Topic, and especially this demure little number that teenage girls save their babysitting cash for.

The Verdict

Red plaid = All American all the way!

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