Imprint (NYC): The evolution of motifs in fashion
Professor Shannon Bell Price
ARCS-‐GE 2910 Exhibition Praxis
November 20, 2011
The origins of the houndstooth-‐check as a simple pattern travelled some
distance to become a symbol of well-‐tailored aristocracy, luxury in general, a bygone
lifestyle, and ultimately a signifier that only vaguely references itself. In the process,
it’s moved from a small-‐scale weave to large-‐scale printed patterns. From stark
black and white to all manner of colors, from fabric to packaging and sculpture, from
comfortable means of keeping warm and carry a lamb, to the cue for a stark and cold
runway satire about luxury.
People of different nations, time periods, and walks of life call the
houndstooth-‐check by different names: hound’s tooth, hounds-‐tooth, houndstooth-‐
check, dog’s tooth, dogstooth, puppy tooth, four-‐in-‐four, gun check, and glen plaid.
Presumably, all the variations on spelling are regional and predate the mass
marketing of the houndstooth-‐check. A smaller scale version of the houndstooth-‐
check has frequently been referred to as puppy tooth or dog’s tooth. The terms
puppy tooth, dog’s tooth, or dogtooth have all been attributed to the ornamentation
found in architectural moldings during the 12 th century. Both in architecture and in
woven fabrics, the terms puppy tooth, dog’s tooth, or hound’s tooth refers to a
pattern resembling a canine’s tooth. These architectural patterns however, bear
little visual resemblance to the textile pattern known as houndstooth.
Houndstooth is “commonly made with wool with a broken twill weave that
has been woven into an irregular check of a four-‐pointed star” and “a variation of
the twill weave construction in which a broken check effect is produced by a
variation in the pattern of interlacing yarns, utilizing at least two different coloured
yarns…” 1 a duotone textile pattern, often in black and white, characterized by an
abstract four-‐pointed shape. 2 The classic houndstooth-‐check is an example of a
tessellation; the tiling of plane figures that fills a space with no overlaps or gaps. 3 All
woven fabrics consist of warp yarns running along the length of the material and
weft yarns run across the width of the material. The different methods of interlacing
the warp and weft yarns create a particular type of weave, such as a houndstooth-‐
check. 4 The traditional houndstooth-‐check is made with alternating bands of four
dark and four light threads in both warp and weft woven in a simple 2:2 twill, two
over and two under the warp, advancing one thread each pass (See fig. 1). Today,
the distinctive houndstooth-‐check tessellation commonly found in small-‐scale
formal weave can be silkscreened or woven on a much larger scale. This scale
emphasizes the graphical nature of the pattern.
Textiles dating as far back as the third century AD convey a strong
resemblance to the appearance and textile weave of a houndstooth-‐check. One of
the earliest textiles found with a dog’s tooth pattern on fine spin-‐patterned wool
twill was discovered in Scandinavian graves of the later Roman period, third century
AD (See fig. 2). 5 A complete wool twill cloak with a dog’s tooth pattern was found in
a bog at Gerumsberget in central Sweden. The cloak has been Carbon-‐14 dated to
400-‐200 BC. 6 Along with a number of slightly later finds, this suggests the skills and
technology used for creating such a pattern would have been common in all
Scandinavia. It’s not clear how much of this early pattern carried thru to the modern
era, where houndstooth emerged as a variation of Scottish twill or tweed.
The origins of the word tweed derive from the old Scots word, tweel meaning
twill. Woven wool twill cloth dates back to the Scottish lowlands, to garments worn
by shepherds to protect them from bad weather. 7 Legend has us believe that a clerk
at a cloth merchant misread what was described as tweel and was recorded as
tweed. 8 An eminent Scottish philologist named W.F.H. Nicolaisen explains a more
plausible explanation that tweel is a parallel form of twill and twilling as twilling is a
parallel by tweeling or tweedling. Thus tweel could stand for tweeling and tweed
short for tweedling. 9 The rough, rugged, and often nubby woolen fabric originated
from Scotland is typically mixed of flecked colors made either plain or twill weave
having a check or herringbone pattern. 10
During the seventeenth century the Scottish industry produced tweeds of
coarse cloth made of local wool by native labor serving the majority of the
population. In the early part of the century, “plaiding and cloth were said to be
among the most important of Scottish exports.” 11 By the late 1680s the course
woolen trade declined due to economic and political reasons. Scottish society
rejected home produced goods and started wearing clothes constructed from cloths
imported from England and France. During the latter part of the eighteenth century
and early part of the nineteenth century the wool manufacturing in Scotland re-‐
emerged and flourished. A black and white checked plaid garment became popular
with Border shepherds in the Scottish highlands. The small check plaids became
closely associated with the Scottish shepherd when described in literature and
illustrated in paintings. The shepherds’ check, as noted by author Clifford Gulvin,
was a “traditional pattern of the shawls or plaids worn by the Border shepherds and
introduced to the Highlands along with the sheep late in the eighteenth century.” 12
This rectangular piece of woolen material about four yards long by a yard and a half
wide was used from local and un-‐dyed wool protecting the shepherd from bad
weather or to carry new-‐born lambs. 13 Variations of the Border check became
popular early 19 th century with Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet of Abbotsford, a
Scottish historical novelist, playwright, and poet, who adopted the check for his
trousers and jackets. During the Victorian and Edwardian periods, the houndstooth-‐
check was used only sparingly. For example, small patterned houndstooth-‐check
trousers, without cuffs, would have been worn in the morning to a wedding or a
Royal Ascot, but not on formal occasions such as the City luncheons or very formal
morning wear. 14 Later, in the 20 th century the Duke of Windsor, when he was the
Prince of Wales, started appearing in complete suits made of Scottish tweed (Fig. 4).
The Duke’s tailors worked close in cooperation with the woollen fabric
houses constantly turning out new and exclusive patterns of suiting hoping to meet
with his majesty’s approval. As soon as the Duke on Windsor appeared in any
innovative suiting patterns, a detailed description was then cabled and copied for
manufacturers to produce for the public. Photographs and sketches were requested
by those anxious to secure something similar, and the production of these new
patterns resulted in a tremendous domestic and international boost for British
manufacturers. At a time, when keeping up with appearances meant keeping in good
company, the suit patterns not only influenced men’s dress, but also the dress of
women who were devotedly following what the Duke on Windsor was wearing.
Whenever the pattern changed in his tweed or his worsted, women would follow
the new pattern. 15
One particular check popularized by the Duke of Windsor was the Glen
Urquhart check, Glenurquhart check, or in short, Glen check (See fig. 3). Although the
check commonly referred to the Duke on Windsor check, the origins lead not to the
Duke of Windsor, but his grandfather, Edward VII, seen in the later part of the
nineteenth century appropriating the check-‐on-‐check pattern while possibly
hunting at Balmoral castle, located in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. 16 The term Glen is a
geographical term for valley as described by author John Wittow, “a Scottish term
for a deep valley in the Highlands.” 17 The check pattern inherited its name from a
valley in Inverness-‐shire, Scotland and adopted in the 1840s by Lady Caroline
Countess of Seafield. Lady Caroline is sometimes credited with being the designer of
the handloom weave. Although a more plausible explanation was that she merely
popularized a local pattern by using the existing Glen Urquhart check to outfit her
gamekeepers. Scholars have suggested that Elizabeth Macdougall, from a little
village at the foot of the glen named Lewston probably designed the motif. 18 The
Glen Urquhart check, made up of tiny houndstooth, marries the woven-‐in horizontal
and vertical lines, with light contrasting color, creating an over-‐plaid (See fig. 4). 19
The name Urquhart is also the name of a Scottish clan. The popularity of the clan
tartan idea was applied to “District Checks” in tweed for use by ghillies,
gamekeepers, and estate employees of sporting estates.
By the early twentieth century, after the Duke on Windsor re-‐introduced the
houndstooth-‐check or the Glen Urquhart check ensemble, his association with
prestigious sports and recreations such as hunting, riding, and golf, the motif
became progressively fashionable in informal men’s and women’s apparel.
Throughout the 1920s to the 1950s, houndstooth-‐checks were predominately
woven into small scale tweeds for somber applications in men’s and women’s
After the Second World War, houndstooth emerged as a bold graphic pattern,
as a symbol of prestige far removed from its origins as a woven pattern. Coinciding
with the introduction of the New Look by Dior, the company launched their first
fragrance, Miss Dior, in 1947. A houndstooth-‐check pattern enveloped the
background of the fragrance box (See fig. 5). In addition to the distinction gained
from the custom checks by the Duke on Windsor, the launch of Miss Dior cemented
the houndstooth-‐check association with prestige. By the end of the 1950s, the
applications of houndstooth evolved fully from a weave into a symbol of luxury.
Bold prints of the motif began appearing beyond the usual sports, recreation, and
tailored jackets from earlier times.
In 1966, New York designer Geoffrey Beene once again rejuvenated the
houndstooth-‐check by printing the motif on dresses inset with undulating bands of
lace. 20 Beene described the line titled, Country Squire, for the woman who, “walks,
drives, stays at home, or flies off to Rome.” 21 The classic houndstooth-‐checks were
no longer settled in plain black and white. Beene introduced the motifs in colors of
subtle lavender paired with charcoal blonde and bottle green or caramel and black,
softly gathered on skirts balanced with a short jacket (See fig. 6-‐8). Houndstooth still
carried the same prestige as used by the royal family and in luxury items such as the
fragrance by Dior, but now in its contemporary usage, designers continue to take the
symbolic meaning and reinterpreted it for everyday usage.
The late Alexander McQueen opened his Fall 2009 collection with 1940s
silhouette dress suits, nipped at the waist and composed with a flared skirt in
houndstooth wool (See fig. 9). McQueen created a stage for symbolizing the sudden
crash of luxury exuberance in 2009. The clothes he sent out parodied the couture
designs of the last century, spoofing Dior’s New Look and Givenchy’s little black
dress. This referencing of houndstooth as a fabric pattern, a symbol of English
propriety, an icon of luxury, and finally of itself calls to mind a key thought by
Caroline Evans, “We are not fixed in the present but constantly thinking forwards
and projecting backwards, demonstrating a kind of consciousness and self-‐scrutiny
that has been identified as intrinsic to modernity…” 22
Postmodernism shared and played with the scale and shape of the
houndstooth symbol. No longer restricted to only a woven textile in wool, the
houndstooth-‐check is now applied as a print on a range of fabrics and in various
colors. The appeal has gone beyond fashion and textiles and into the world of three
dimensional product designs. 23 While the pattern is still used in small scale for more
somber applications such as men’s tailoring, the blown up, large-‐scale, black and
white houndstooth-‐check recently become a fashion statement. Fashion designers
such as Yohji Yamamoto created an entire collection of houndstooth-‐check
Edwardian suits for his Fall 2003 collection, paying homage to Christian Dior (See
fig.10). 24 Marc by Marc Jacobs Fall 2008, ready-‐to-‐wear collection reminisced about
the 1980s, with large houndstooth-‐check prints on colorfully bright skirts, a banana-‐
yellow sweatshirt dress, bright pink bags, and strappy ankle boots (See fig. 11). The
pink houndstooth-‐check dress with a stand-‐up collar achieved a new playfulness
with the size and scale of the houndstooth-‐check. The Marc Jacobs collection
reinterpreted the iconic nature of the pattern, in conjunction with popping bright
colors and a rubbing or water effect that softened the hard edges of the traditional
The houndstooth-‐check is one of the most recognizable fabric patterns and
can trace its origins back nearly 2000 years to early twill fabrics woven in Northern
Europe. The term houndstooth, however, dates back to the 1930s as part of a larger
effort to market styles of plaids and tartans popularized by the Duke of Windsor.
Today, the pattern runs a spectrum of taste and is ubiquitous. From clothing,
accessories, and home décor to greeting cards and nail polish, the houndstooth-‐
check can literally be found everywhere.
Fig. 1. Weaving a small-‐scale houndstooth check in a 2:2 twill. 13 June 2007.
Fig. 2. Spin-‐patterned wool twill from Donbaek, north Jutland, Denmark (third century AD).
Source: The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, Volume 1, edited by David Jenkins
Fig. 3. “H.R.H. Started It,” Vogue, January 15, 1934.
Fig. 4. Glenurquhart Estate Check, Elizabeth Macdougall, 1840.
Fig. 5. Miss Dior, by Dior 1947.
Fig. 6. Geoffrey Beene, Fall 1966 Harper’s Bazaar.
Fig. 7. Geoffrey Beene, Fall 1966 Harper’s Bazaar.
Fig. 8. Geoffrey Beene, Fall 1966 Harper's Bazaar.
Fig. 9. Alexander McQueen, Fall 2009 ready-‐to-‐wear.
Fig. 10. Yohji Yamamoto, Fall 2003. http://bit.ly/uQvGRS.
Fig. 11. Marc by Marc Jacobs, Pink houndstooth-‐check dress,
Fall 2008, Ready-‐to-‐wear. http://bit.ly/p66XQo.
1. Maitra, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Clothing and Textiles, 214.
2. “Geoffrey Beene: Design History-Timeline of Innovation,” 214.
3. “Definition of ‘tessellate’ from Oxford Dictionaries Online.”
4. “Turnbull & Asser.”
5. D. T. Jenkins, The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, 96–97.
6. Ibid., 65.
7. Dunbar, The Costume of Scotland, 152.
8. Storey, History of Men’s Fashion, 45.
9. Dunbar, The Costume of Scotland, 150.
10. “Dictionary search results : Oxford Dictionaries Online.”
11. Dunbar, The Costume of Scotland, 150.
12. Ibid., 151.
13. Ibid., 152.
14. Storey, History of Men’s Fashion, 78.
15. “H.R.H. Started it.,” 36.
16. O’Grady, “Minor British Institutions: Prince of Wales check - This Britain -
UK - The Independent.”
17. Whittow, “The Penguin Dictionary of Physical Geography.”
18. “Scottish Textiles Heritage Online.”
19. Maitra, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Clothing and Textiles, 190.
20. “Geoffrey Beene: Design History-Timeline of Innovation.”
21. Pauley, “Fashion Decrees Togetherness,” 15.
22. Evans, Fashion at the Edge, 296.
23. Hampshire and Stephenson, Squares, Checks and Grids, 19.
24. Menkes, “Feeling the Flow of Yamamoto.”
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