Textile Tuesday: Tartan and Rosemary’s Baby

I love Halloween.

I’m not sure why considering I don’t really do much to commemorate the day itself, but I spend the whole month roasting pumpkins, drinking cider, pining after apple donuts, and watching sort-of scary movies- I’m talking Hocus Pocus or Halloweentown, at a push.

My Tuesday spirit animal.

For those unfamiliar, Halloweentown is the classic made-for-Disney movie about a town devoted to Halloween. A little too on the nose? It was almost called Ghosty Villain is a Jerk. (…Probably)

Where little girls learn “sassy arms”

I’ve spent a large portion of October combing through all my different streaming accounts (Amazon Prime, Hulu, my sister’s Netflix because I’m a moocher) trying to find the finest almost-but-not-quite-scary movies they have to offer.

It’s mostly garbage: Scream 2, Scream 3, Scream 4, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers, Halloween: The Remake, Halloween H20, Halloween: Stabby Stabby Dead Sad.

I made that last one up.

There are, however, a handful of not-almost-but-really-very-scary movies on these various platforms, so reaching a point of exhaustion with Michael Meyers (spoiler!) never dying (“Really? He’s not dead again? Is he going to continue to lurk? I bet he’s going to lurk.”), I decided to try and watch Rosemary’s Baby.

Even evil people need jaunty head scarves

It’s no Halloweentown: Kalabar’s Revenge, but it is considered a classic scary movie.

Kalabar’s Revenge: The same special effects guy worked on Lord of the Rings.

It also happens to be a movie that calls upon my old tartan research.

During grad school, I spent a large portion of my time researching tartan. For those unfamiliar, in America, we simply call it plaid. It is the fabric of Scottish kilts, of 70s Punk rebels, of Queen Victoria, and of Cher and her friends from Clueless. 

I once cited Clueless in a paper. It was my proudest moment.

I’m obsessed with it. I love it because there’s no other fabric that means so many things to so many different people. It is a fabric that carries belonging and history and power, and according to Jonathan Faiers in his book Tartan and my apartment’s leading tartan scholar- me that power can call on the supernatural.

Required bedtime reading

Or at least it did for Rosemary.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, Rosemary Woodhouse is a young woman, manipulated by her husband and neighbors and the coven to which the neighbors belong, to have the spawn of the Devil.

You’re correct. It is not a feel-good movie.

Faiers calls out the uses of tartan in the film as both a sartorial and decorative defense against the evil forces at work, and it is through Rosemary’s actions that the tartan’s protective power is broken.

I remember reading that years ago, and thinking, “well, that, or tartan was a popular fabric in the Sixties. That’s an option, too.” I was, however, writing a thesis about the anthropological enchantment of tartan, and his argument proved my point, so whatever, man!

Without diving too deeply into clothing theory because I want you all to stick around, clothing is our literal first line of defense against the world. It keeps us warm and dry. It keeps us from living out the nightmare of showing up to school naked.

It can help us feel comfortable in different social situations. It can help us feel more confident. It helps us express ourselves, while also carrying history’s events with you in every stitch. In the case of tartan, it calls the long history of being rebellious, being banned, being culturally tied to the forces of evil, and then the forces of good. And it is because of this, tartan has an ability to protect that is hard to explain.

Believe me. I wrote a thesis about exactly that. It was hard.

But history is sprinkled with the stories of tartan’s protection.

My favorite example is commemorated in the painting An Incident at Arras, 9 April 1917. The painting tells the story of two Scottish soldiers in WWI, said to have been killed in the night’s bombing. They were found later in a clearing, their continued breathing attributed to their regimental tartan.

So…back to Rosemary.

Actually watching the movie, the tartan didn’t convey protection, so much as it conveyed, “STAY AWAY FROM THE TARTAN, ROSEMARY!”

With every appearance of tartan in the film, something bad happened soon after.

In an early scene, Rosemary is dressed in a floor length tartan skirt. She has yet to suspect something is wrong, but the viewer has been given clues that something nefarious is in the works.

Does Rosemary’s skirt protect her as it did for those soldiers? Later in the scene, she unknowingly invites two members of the coven into her home, so if the tartan is hard at work, Rosemary is not helping.

In another scene, Rosemary is settling in to her new apartment, and begins lining the shelves of her closet with tartan paper. The closet was blocked off by the previous tenants for then unknown reasons, but we find out the reasoning later as Rosemary discovers her closet is actually an alternate entrance to the neighboring apartment, the residence of the Castavets, the satanists who manipulate Rosemary from the start of the movie.

She must tear through the tartan-lined shelves, moving from her territory, established by the tartan, to the unknown, which was a meeting of the coven working against her.

Again, Faiers argues that the tartan signifies a protective barrier. She may not be wearing it on her person as she was in the previous example, but it is Rosemary establishing her space.

Was the protection real? Of all the examples we’ll discuss, it is the most tangible considering she must actually knock it down to proceed into the unknown and unsafe space.

There’s a third significant instance of tartan in the movie. Rosemary leaves the apartment to get space, specifically from Mrs. Castavet, who Rosemary starts to suspect is up to something. She is wrapped in a tartan scarf.

While out, the protective space she has constructed falters when first, she receives news about the sudden and mysterious decline of her friend- considered strange as he is one of the first to believe Rosemary when she conveys concern about her situation- and then second, runs into Mrs. Castavet on the street. Overcome with sudden pain, she encourages Rosemary to return home, the place Rosemary was trying to avoid.

So let’s tally:

Tartan appearance #1: Members of a coven enter Rosemary’s apartment.

Tartan appearance #2: Tartan marks the boundary between Rosemary’s apartment and the location of a meeting of Satanists. She gets through.

Tartan appearance #3: Wrapped in tartan, Rosemary learns of a friend’s sudden and mysterious illness, and is followed by a woman who, putting mildly, is just not very good.

While, I am president of the Power-Plaid Fan Club, I repeat, “STAY AWAY FROM THE TARTAN, ROSEMARY!”

Tartan has a long and complicated and often contradictory history. Did the costume designer leverage that mystery into Rosemary’s Baby to convey a greater sense of the otherworldly? I can definitely say: maybe.

There will probably be more tartan stories in the future, and frankly, there will be a marked decline in mentions of satanists. If that disappoints you, I suggest a blog that doesn’t reference Mary Poppins in the title.

As far as scary movies though, I should probably stick with Halloweentown. Or that one episode of Boy Meets World where  Corey becomes a werewolf. Now, that’s a classic.

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