Fashion History Lesson: The Evolution of Flannel & Plaid post image

Fashion History Lesson: The Evolution of Flannel & Plaid

Europeans called it flannelette. The French coined it Flanelle. And the Germans? They removed that extra “e” but kept the extra l for “Flannell.”

But us Americans? We just call it “flannel.”

From the 1970s through today, American flannel has been seen on everyone from awkward tourists to lumberjacks to hipsters to celebrities to hot tech guys and even high-brow designers with a penchant for the plaid stuff.

So what is flannel, and how is it different from plaid? Flannel and plaid are often used interchangeably, only because flannel shirts — referring to the soft woven cotton used to make the shirt that is “flannel” — are designed using the now quintessential red and black plaid print.

But flannel is not plaid, and plaid is not flannel — rather, they are like a set of twin brothers who may not be the same person, but dangit you can’t help but mix ‘em up because they just share so much in common.

Lets break it down.

Who wears flannel? Flannel is great for the cold, and a heavy flannel material button-up shirt can double as a jacket, too. Because flannel is an easy-to-wash fabric, everyone from red necks to lumberjacks to the guys from Tool Time invest in flannel to rotate through their working wardrobe.

But flannel isn’t just for the cold or hard working — every scenester from the grunge scene to the skater scene to the hipster scene to the tech scene wears flannel for the pure fun of it.

Who wears plaid? The print that popularized flannel shirts for the masses originates from the Tartan plaid prints of the Scottish Highlanders. Plaid was used to distinguish between family clans.

Today, plaid isn’t just for the flannel-wearing, but the fashion-loving. Plaid is a lot like the female affinity for animal print — girls can buy it in every fashion form from shoes to lingerie to accessories to general apparel like skirts, dresses, shirts and jackets. Guys, on the other hand, tend to stick to casual plaid flannel or more formal button-up shirts.

Why do people wear flannel and plaid? I can’t psycho fashion analyze why flannel, plaid and flannel-plaid combos are so popular. But what I can conclude is that the print’s infinite variations mean it can be produced for every style demographic. That’s why you can buy plaid shirts everywhere from the thrift store to Urban Outfitters to Ralph Lauren to Vivienne Westwood. In other words, plaid is the populist print for the masses.

And thanks to flannel’s fashion functionality and adoption by alternative kids throughout the past 30 years, flannel continues to reinvent itself without so much as an advertisement.

It’s preppy. It’s pretty. It’s practical. Androgynous, awesome, alternative. Whatever you wanna call it — you know you wanna wear it.

And now-  a brief history on the modern state of plaid and flannel, from the 70s to today.

THE 1970s

1. Celebrities (note vintage George Clooney) and new-age hippies (example: All guys on That 70s Show) pair plaid with dark denim.

2. Catherine Bach as Daisy Duke puts a sexy, western-inspired spin on plaid for hot 70s chicks to emulate.

THE 1980s

1. Punk kids adopted plaid to mimic their British ancestors who wore plaid in rebellion against the British Crown.

2. Department store prep fashion caught on to plaid button-downs as a more “print-friendly” more fashion-forward alternative to generic white collared shirts.

3. With designers like Ralph Lauren picking up on the popularity of plaid and flannel for the preppy masses, the influence trickles down to low-end, mass produced brands and inevitably, low-fashion tourists.


1. Kurt Cobain and the grunge scene he led make flannel alternative again.

2. The gregarious handymen of Tool Time teach us to wear a different flannel shirt when handling hammers, nails and heavy-operating equipment.

THE MID 1990s

1. Skaters learn that flannel is easy to wear on their boards — and steal from their parent’s closets.

The Millennial generation is forced to pose in plaid.

2. The classic flannel — in red, black & sometimes white — crosses generations and makes a comeback.

THE LATE 1990s

1. Classic flannel finds it way to its roots — to the hard working lumberjack …

… to the woodsman, truck driver or friendly Home Depot store associate.

THE EARLY to MID 2000s

1. Hipster rap artists decide that drunk kids from the Midwest are cool, and decide to wear flannel with double zero price tags.

2. High-brow designers like Vivienne Westwood find inspiration in plaid and reinvent the print wheel for Bergdorf Goodman and beyond.

3. Mary Kate discovers incognito shades and a way to shop thrift store plaid without a celebrity spotting.


1. Every hipster boy you ever thought was awkward in high school is instantly hot wearing plaid and/or flannel at age 24 and beyond.

2. Urban Outfitters ships plaid prints to China and mass produces them for you, me and college students with expense accounts.

3. Cool girls wear plaid to deliberately clash. And look cool.

4. The internet blows up, tech guys have no time to shop and too much money to even care about what they look like. Hot Silicon Valley boys buy plaid shirts in bulk from

5. Adorable baby boys wear plaid and undoubtedly can do no wrong.


Sammy Davis spends her days doing what any thrift nut loves most: blogging about her totally vintage life on her site, Sammy Davis Vintage, and shooting videos that inspire you to pursue your passions on her YouTube channel.

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Written by Sabrina Alexis

I’m Sabrina Alexis, the co-founder, and co-editor of A New Mode. I love writing relatable, insightful articles that help people understand relationship dynamics and how to get the love they want. I have a degree in psychology and have spent the last 10 years interviewing countless men and reading and studying as much as I can to better understand human psychology and how men operate. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Facebook or Instagram.

6 comments… add one

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I’d say it is still popular work ware for the same reason commercial carpet has a pattern, and domestic doesn’t. The bold pattern hides damage, stains and wear very well. Also it’s a nice bright color so you can be seen easily.

Reply June 23, 2017, 11:47 pm


Tartan actually originated from Celtic culture, and not Scotland…

Reply October 26, 2012, 7:14 pm


p.s. Tartans are never, ever referred to as “plaids.”

Reply March 15, 2011, 3:00 pm


Sorry, but you are flat WRONG. Flannel is a fashion fabric and so is plaid. Flannel is the large size print and plaid is the small size print with additional accent color lines. This is almost! almost!! male and female versions of the same fashion concept. Plaid is actually a knockoff of the original Tartan prints of Scotland which identify family groups (clans) and individuals (leaders) and so is reserved for their exclusive use. Peace out!

Reply March 15, 2011, 2:57 pm


“So what is flannel, and how is it different from plaid?” Uh, duh . . . what is stupidity, and how is it different from just really, really bad writing, and why the heck did I waste time reading this dumb crap, anyhow?

Reply March 14, 2011, 11:44 pm


What a nice history lesson, I like the softness of Flannel.

Reply February 2, 2011, 3:56 am

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