MacGregors, Madras, and Maasai: Rockin’ the Tartan around the Globe

October 20, 2017 § 2 Comments

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I recently visited my sister’s Presbyterian Church, and they, as part of their year-long recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, will be celebrating the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan this month. Not knowing what that was, I did some Googling and learned a thing or two . . . or three or four.

First, according to none other than the Scottish Tartans Authority, the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan was begun (at least in the US) by the Reverend Peter Marshall. Born in Coatbridge, Scotland, in 1902, Marshall came to the States at the age of 24 and eventually became pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and chaplain of the US Senate. While at New York Avenue, he held a kirkin’ service as a way to raise money for World War II.

You might be wondering what it means to kirk a tartan (I know I was). Well, kirk is Scottish for church, and tartan was originally a word for a woolen fabric, and then it became the name for the plaids worn by Scottish Highlanders, with each clan having its own distinct colors and pattern. So to kirk the tartan means to wear your kilts and other Scottish-plaid garments to church.

Since its creation, tartan (plaid) has certainly gotten around and made its mark on the world. In fact, as Elizabeth Wayland Barber writes in The Mummies of Ürümchi, the oldest existing piece of tartan fabric was found in the tomb of a Celtic man (known as Cherchen Man) from around 1,000 BC, unearthed in, of all places, northwest China. And since then, it’s put down roots all over.

In the early 1600s, the British East India Company established a trading post, including Fort St. George, in the fishing village Madraspatnam (later Madras, and now Chennai). They chose the location, in part, because of the cotton cloth made there, and developed it into a textile hub. About 100 years later, madras came to the American colonies when the former governor of Fort St. George, Elihu Yale, made a donation, including madras cotton, to the Collegiate School of Connecticut. In recognition of his gift, the school changed its name to Yale College (today’s Yale University). Move ahead another 100 years or so, and the tartan pattern—handed down from the Scots—was woven into Madras cloth and became a hit, so much so that madras is now virtually synonymous with brightly colored plaids.

(There are a lot of sources for the history of madras, but I chose the Gentleman’s Gazette, because not only can they tell us how madras came to the Ivy League, they can also tell us how to wear madras shirts, shorts, jackets, ties, and belts to sport that Ivy League style.)

2415702086_024797459e_zThe British and French brought madras fabric to the Caribbean in the 1600s, and according to Carol Tulloch, in Defining Dress: Dress as Object, Meaning, and Identity, the madras “handkerchief” fabric became “a currency of slavery”—made in India, sold to traders in London, and then “used to barter for slaves in West Africa and to clothe slaves in the West Indies.” It’s unclear to me exactly when the madras cloth flowing into the Caribbean took on its characteristic plaid, but tartan is now part of the national dress of several islands, such as the quadrille of Jamaica and the karabela of Haiti.

7559678650_0542f004fe_zSome say that the use of madras in the slave trade is what brought it to East Africa, where it has become a major element in the traditional dress of the Maasai, in the form of the shuka. Others claim the origin of the “African blanket” is from Scottish troops stationed there, or it was introduced by Scottish missionaries. An article in The Star of Kenya includes the tale of tartan coming to East Africa by way of the British, stating that during a visit by Queen Victoria, tartan fabric was used for table coverings and the Maasai were told to clothe themselves with the tablecloths so as not to offend the queen with their nudity. This seems rather apocryphal to me, especially since before wearing the modern cloth shuka, the Maasai wore a version made from animal hides, which would seem to have covered their nakedness just fine.

1118423019_1f7d916359_zIn South Africa, not only do traditional dancers from the Pedi people group wear red plaid, but it’s actually in the form of a kilt. In another somewhat fanciful, but popular, story, as recounted in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, it is said that when British troops came to the area in 1878, they were led by kilt-wearing soldiers. The Pedi, thinking they were fighting against women, refused to shoot, until it was too late and the battle was lost. (So maybe the Pedi donned the kilts as a future battle tactic?) But others say the kilts were adopted after the Pedi fought by the side of the Scots during World War II.

Of course, I didn’t need to do any research to know that donning plaids is an essential part of the traditional dress of many tribes. Take, for instance, preppies, lumberjacks, and hipsters. But I certainly hadn’t put the pieces together for tartan’s reach around the globe and beyond.

Beyond? you ask. Lunar module pilot Alan Bean took care of that in 1969 when he carried a swatch of Clan MacBean Tartan to the moon and back during Apollo 12. A few years ago Bean gave a piece of that cloth to the Scottish Tartans Authority for safekeeping.

Now that’s getting around, in style.

(Todd Wilkinson, “The Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan,” Scottish Tartans Authority ; Elizabeth Wayland Barber, The Mummies of ÜrümchiNorton, 1999; Sven Raphael Schneider, “Madras Guide–How the Shirt, Pants & Jackets Became Popular,” Gentleman’s Gazette, July 12, 2013; Carol Tulloch, “That Little Magic Touch: The Headtie,” Defining Dress: Dress as Object, Meaning, and Identity, Amy de la Haye and Elizabeth Wilson, eds, Manchester University, 1999; Andrea Bohnstedt, “The Maasai ‘Shuka’ Has Evolved into a Brand,” The Star, May 17, 2014; Paul Alexander, “The Tale of the Kilt,” Mail & Guardian, June 13, 1997; Todd Wilkinson, “Armstrong’s Lantern: Spaceflight Scottish Connections,” Scottish Tartans Museum)

[photos: “Sporrans on Parade,” by Stuart Grout, used under a Creative Commons license; “Dominican Plaid,” by Ken Bosma, used under a Creative Commons License; “Maasai Mara Adventure,” by Gilad Lotan, used under a Creative Commons License; “Pedi Man,” by firesika, used under a Creative Commons License]

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Senior Citizens Teach English, Food Photogs Feed the Hungry, and Coca-Cola Makes a Rainbow

May 28, 2014 § 4 Comments

When teenagers teach senior citizens about the internet, cultures are crossed.

When the two groups use the internet to communicate between countries, the culture crossing is even greater . . . and the results are very cool.

The global advertising agency FCB and the Brazilian English school CNA have teamed up for the Speaking Exchange, a campaign that matches English learners in Brazil to retirement-home residents in the US, using video chat.

The idea is based on the premise “Students want to practice English, and elderly people someone to talk to.” CNA calls it “an exchange in which everyone wins.” Using the Speaking Exchange program, students find seniors looking to talk and begin their interaction with guided topics. They progress to free chatting and their conversation is uploaded to a private YouTube channel where it is evaluated by a teacher.

Currently, the Speaking Exchange is in a trial period, but retirement communities can sign up at the program site to be notified when “official activities” begin.

Brazil’s Speaking Exchange is just one example of the creative campaigns produced by FCB, which operates in 90 counties. Here’s another.

Food Photos: Share and Share Alike

Next time you snap a pic of your Caesar salad, you photo may just get “liked” by Chamissidini from Niger. This Chamissidini isn’t a real girl, instead her profile is one of many, created by UNICEF New Zealand and FCB, to represent needy children in the developing world. When food photos are uploaded to Instagram, they’re liked by the UNICEF profiles. And when the photographers look to see who their new fans are, they’re invited to visit foodphotossavelives.org.nz. There they can purchase meals for the hungry and download Instagram-style images of emergency aid items to share . . . and continue the conversation.

And here’s one more.

The Colors of a Country

To celebrate 20 years of democracy in South Africa last month, FCB Johannesburg helped Coca-Cola create an actual rainbow in the capital’s downtown—a skyline-sized symbol of what Desmond Tutu dubbed “the Rainbow Nation.” “In South Africa I’m a person because of other people.” says one resident. “We call it ubundu.”

Nando’s: Tastes like Chicken, Looks like an Art Gallery

June 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

2791367612_e1be822cbf_nThe Obama family are currently in South Africa, as part of a three-country visit to the African continent. The president will not meet with Nelson Mandela, who is in the hospital, but he has spoken with Mandela’s family by phone. While there, they will also tour Robben Island, where Mandela was a prisoner for 18 years.

I’ve never been to South Africa, but would love to visit. I have, though, found a place (somewhat) closer to home that might some day give me a taste of the country.

In Chris Stark’s interview with Mila Kunis, Stark invites Kunis to a Nando’s for some chicken (to which she responds, “You’re teaching me so much.”)

So what is Nando’s? Why, it’s “Home of the legendary, Portuguese flame-grilled Peri-Peri chicken,” of course.

And what does that have to do with South Africa? Go to the “Story of Nando’s” and you’ll see an animated history of how the restaurant came to be. In a nutshell. . . . Years ago, exploring Portuguese sailors ended up in Mozambique where they discovered the African Bird’s Eye chili pepper. Some 400 years later, some of these Portuguese left Mozambique for Johannesburg, taking with them their peri-peri chicken recipes. (Peri-peri is how they pronounced the Swahili name for the chili.) In 1987, Fernando Duarte and Robert Brozin bought a chicken restaurant—featuring peri-peri sauce—in the Rosettenville suburb of Jo’burg. They changed the name from Chickenland to Nando’s, and the chain was born. Nando’s restaurants are now found around the globe, and while they’re present in the US, they’re (so far) confined to Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC.

While each Nando’s is unique, one constant is that they all display artwork from South Africa. Their “art project” started in 2002, and since then, Nando’s has become the self-proclaimed “largest buyer of South African contemporary art in the world.”

What we like most about our art project is that it’s given undiscovered, emerging and established artists from diverse social and economic backgrounds the opportunity to have their work on display in our restaurants around the world. It feels really good to know that we’ve helped give many artists the freedom to focus on their art full time, and that we’ve given our customers something beautiful to look at, without having to set foot in a gallery. (from “Our Restaurants)

Nando’s even has an online display of over 170 pieces of their South African art, produced by “everyone from bushmen on community farms to renowned Johannesburg painters.”

Here’s a recent commercial for Nando’s in South Africa. Eyes down. Now up. Now look closely and you’ll see some of the South African art on the wall.

[photo: “Nando’s Peri Peri Sign,” by Mr T in DC, used under a Creative Commons license]

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