Houndstooth

Houndstooth – The World’s Most Popular Tessellation; But Why?
 

 

 

Doubtless readers of this page will be familiar with what is known as the ‘Houndstooth’ tessellation, seen worldwide, as used on multiplicity of garments and man-made objects. You name it and it’s there; coats, blazers and other outdoor wear, and also dresses and skirts, and indeed, on numerous other artefacts too; Chevrolet upholstered its Camaro, and novelties, such as pet dog bowls, to name but a few other instances. Indeed, it’s so popular that no other tessellation can come anywhere near it in terms of frequency of usage, and so hence the sub title; any other tessellation used on garments and man-made objects pales in comparison. Typical of fashion, it seems to have had peaks and troughs, with intermittent returns, popular in the 30s and 60s, 70s, and indeed, of the present day, which has aroused my interest in this, having seen this frequently in my everyday life. In the modern day, it’s most popular in tweed and wool fabrics, which is why it’s often used for heavier-weight garments like blazers, close-cut skirts and overcoats. Also, it was originally the preserve of menswear, and not women.

An open question is to how and why this pattern has come to the fore – what explains its undoubted position as the world’s most popular tessellation, of which this essay attempts to answer, amongst other concerns.

Somewhat surprisingly, given its popularity as a tiling motif, and so of interest to mathematicians, as far as I am aware of, no mathematician has yet to write about this. Indeed, even in such an exhaustive account of the subject as Tilings and Patterns, by Branko Grünbaum and G. C. Shepherd, of 700 pages, it doesn’t even get a single mention! Admittedly, the book is indeed aimed at tilings per se (rather than as decorative aspects with the houndstooth), and indeed generally at a advanced level, and so perhaps one can overlook this, although the book does indeed begin with actual applications where it conceivably could have been given a mention. Indeed, off hand I don’t recall is any maths book; has anyone seen this tiling discussed in any maths book? Or indeed, any art book; I don’t recall seeing this discussed in any either.

This essay thus examines background details, its beginning, and subsequent developments. However, note that there is very little original research on my part here (at least so far); all documentation that follows is taken from books, articles, and websites, with facts, especially from the latter largely taken on trust, and personal correspondence.

 

Origins

The origins are obscure, and decidedly hazy, to say the least, with conflicting accounts, as regards the cloth and attribution; the pattern may have been worn many years before it acquired its attribution, the authorities do not always make this distinction clear. One source states that Houndstooth originated in Scotland in the 1800s, it was originally worn as an outer garment of woven wool cloth by shepherds (hence the term shepherd’s check). Confusion also arises to attribution. Although the first date of creation has not been recorded, the Merriam-Webster dictionary records the term houndstooth was in use in 1936. When it was first created, the pattern was referred to as Shepherd's Check or Dogstooth. Another gives the Scottish lowlands, with various clans, of the 1920s.

 

Variations of Motif

Also, to add more fuel to the fire of uncertainty, the pattern has variations in the tessellation. Sometimes it is shown as a strict tessellation, whereas in other instances it has an ‘adjustment’, described as cursive, rather than as individual tiles. Also, the term is applied to other tessellations not strictly pertinent to the ‘standard model’!

 

Description

Also, the description as to attribution varies; it is generally given as a hound’s tooth, as taken from the mouth of a canine, but a different interpretation is that it is named after the jagged effect that might arise from the bite of a not-so-friendly canine! But to me, it’s nothing like a hound’s tooth! Is it a tooth with the root in conjunction? Can anyone correlate this to a canine tooth, as when placed side by side for comparison purposes?

 

Nomenclature

The term ‘houndstooth’ (and variants: ‘houndstooth check’ or ‘hound's tooth’) is not invariably used; it masquerades under a variety of names, such as ‘four-in-four check’, ‘guncheck’ or sometimes ‘dogstooth’ (and variants: ‘dogtooth’ or ‘dog's tooth’), Glen plaid. The smaller version of this print is referred to as ‘puppy's tooth’. The ‘four in four check’ term arose as a result of its creation, with a twill weave created by alternating groups of four black and four white threads together. The old fabric makers created the stair-step appearance by forwarding one thread per column. The first two terms are new to me, and seem little used. Certainly, ‘houndstooth’ has become the de facto generic description.

 

Colouring

The traditional houndstooth colours are black and white, but sometimes brown and white are used and, occasionally, other colours are substituted.

 

History

A rough, potted history, ordered as by decades, in chronological order, subject to revision:

 

 

20th century

 

1920s

Scottish clans began to use.

 

1930s

Undoubtedly, the tiling first came to prominence during the 1930s, and unusually in histrorical matters, an exact date can be given, 15 January 1934, when it appeared in an article in the fashion magazine Vogue, titled ‘H.R.H started it’, pages 36-37. From this, it would thus appear that the appearance of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales sporting this thus sparked the interest, indeed if not mania, with in essence ‘copy cat’ occurrences happening to keep up with the fashion of the day. The article can be seen in Priscilla Chung’s piece:

Here, the Duke of Windsor, when he was the Prince of Wales, started appearing in complete suits made of Scottish tweed. Royal tailors closely cooperated with the woollen fabric houses, constantly turning out new and exclusive patterns of suiting in the hope of meeting with his majesty’s approval. No sooner did the Duke of Windsor appear in a houndstooth than manufacturers made copies for the public. The constant production of new patterns gave a tremendous domestic and international boost to British manufacturers. At a time when keeping up with appearances meant keeping in good company, the suit patterns influenced the dress of both men and women who followed what the Duke of Windsor wore. Latterly, the houndstooth pattern was adopted by the upper class as a symbol of wealth.

Certainly, this is the first instance of attribution I have in print. But is it indeed the first? Does anyone know of an earlier appearance in any book or article? I would be intersted in hearing details if so. Also, I would like to see more pictures of the day elsewhere.

 

1940s

The Australian upmarket clothing chain store David Jones, founded in 1838 (and is claimed to be the oldest continuously operating department store in the world still trading under its original name), first used a houndstooth pattern in the 1940s as part of its corporate logo (influenced by famous fashion designers of the time, such as Christian Dior), and has done so for subsequent years, to the present day. The introduction was by a later day heir, Charles Lloyd Jones, who is was credited with the adoption of the stores distinctive black-and-white houndstooth livery - inspired by his mother Hannah, who used a bottle of Miss Dior perfume. The branding — a black-on-white houndstooth pattern — is one of the most recognized corporate identities in Australia, and is widely used; every Australian is familiar with it (but not to non-natives; I must admit I’d never heard of the store before researching this!). A government sponsored panel judged it in 2006 as one of Australia's top ten favourite trade marks. The origin of this motif is due to the store founder's intention not to use the name on its packaging; the store would be so well known that everyone should recognize it simply by this motif.
 
Another 1940s instance is by Breton, but I have little detail as to the background to this. Does anyone have furthe details?
 
 Figure 2: Breton
 

1950s

In 1959, Christian Dior used houndstooth, which was one of their favorite design motifs to design a pointed court shoe featuring the pattern. More than any other fashion designer, the late Christian Dior made houndstooth his own. Grand ladies in exquisitely tailored houndstooth check may have had husbands who bought them their rarefied Dior clothing, but it is only too clear who was wearing the trousers. Dior liked houndstooth so much that the bottle of his first-ever – and still very popular – fragrance, Miss Dior, was embossed with it. It's one of the original chypres, incidentally; largely perceived as quite difficult scents and certainly not recommended for shrinking violets.
 
 Figure 3: Miss Dior Perfume
 

1960s

It apparently first became popular in the US in 1965, of which this in itself has an interesting history, it appearing in a sporting context, rather than the more likely fashion sense. The first instance appears to be when a famous coach, Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant, began wearing a hat bearing houndstooth given to him by Sonny Werblin, the former owner of the New York Jets, for which this became his hallmark, and subsequently a lot of Alabama men wanted to look like, or take after, Bryant. This apparently proving popular, Bryant and Werblin went into business together. The two started a company so that Bryant could manufacture his own line of houndstooth hats, according to ‘Coach: The Life of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant’ by Keith Dunnavant. The story is told at:

http://www.lostlettermen.com/11-2-2011-bear-bryant-houndstooth-hat/

In 1966 the pattern revived during Ann Klein's menswear line and the New York designer Geoffrey Beene combined the pattern with lace, rejuvenating the motif by printing it on dresses inset with undulating bands of lace. Beene described the line entitled Country Squire as intended for the woman who ‘walks, drives, stays at home, or flies off to Rome’. The classic houndstooth-checks were no longer settled in plain black and white. Beene introduced the motifs in colours of subtle lavender paired with charcoal blonde and bottle green or caramel and black, softly gathered on skirts balanced with a short jacket.

 

 

2000

In more recent times, it wasn’t until the new millennium that the pattern made a real comeback in the fashion world, and how I might add! Indeed, it has never been so popular. Again, the fashion houses have used this extensively. In autumn 2003, the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto came up with an entire collection in houndstooth check – from signature over-sized coats with equally over-sized fringed edges, to chiffon ball-gowns. Louis Vuitton, Moschino and Armani all used houndstooth in their 2005 ready-to-wear collections, and the pattern trickled down into less couture lines throughout the next year.

 

 

Popularity

However, the above does not really explain the reasons as to why it is so popular, as alluded to in the title of this piece. As alluded to above, it initially began with the Prince of Wales, but would this initial surge interest be sufficient to generate such usage in a seemingly one of many possible like, or indeed unlike geometric tilings ever since? With the passing of time, people would be unfamiliar as to its source (as indeed I was pending this research). Perhaps it just become so established that it’s chosen as a pattern by default?  As such, this aspect remains mysterious to me, the tessellation, of a geometric nature, is, to me at least, nothing ‘special’ per se. It’s also not particularly reminiscent of anything lifelike in outline to me (despite its supposed houndstooth appearance), of which any other like geometric type tessellation could be said to be a candidate for such popular usage. An open question to readers of this page – what do you find so attractive about this? Email me!

 

 

Requests

Could anyone assist with the following?

  • Its history as to its introduction remains unclear on two different counts, with it being stated as from ‘Scottish clans’, which is somewhat vague, and also just when it was introduced; can we give, or establish, a more exact date? This really needs more substantiation.
  • Was H.R.H. the Prince of Wales responsible, or was there someone else, perhaps a company promoting it in some way?
  • Accepting a Scottish provenance, how did it spread worldwide? Is the Vogue account responsible? Also generally lacking are any corroborative pictures of these early instances; any pictures appear to be modern day and even as recent as the 60s, never mind any earlier. Has anyone got ‘early’ pictures?
  • Is there any enthusiast of this tessellation with more background details, such as other instances not discussed here or indeed with anything to add to this account? I would be more than pleased to here from you. I have only recently investigated the background to this, and so that above is subject to revision pending more authoritative accounts than I have been able to ascertain do far. However, there are very little, if at all any scholarly references. The one by Priscilla Chung is by far the best. I would like to ask Chung for more details, but have not been able to find contact details. Does anyone know of her?

 

 

Acknowledgements

Bruce Bilney, for an Australian perspective on David Jones’ usage

Sylvia Granturco, for historical details of the first instance of David Jones’ usage


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