When it comes to the classic patterns of menswear, those based on the geometry of the square – checks, grids, and plaids – have a long history that remains popular today.
Because men typically want to project a serious, businesslike demeanor when wearing tailored clothes, the most popular patterns are not overly ornate, but are based on the simple geometry of the line: one being stripes, and the other checks. These two basic patterns can create greater interest than simply wearing solids while still looking subdued and formal, though there is always the opportunity (or risk!) of making them quite bold.
What are Checks? And Types of Checks
Checks are defined by horizontal and vertical lines that cross one another at right angles, forming squares or rectangles on the cloth. Therefore, they are always more complex than stripes, which also means they tend to be bolder and more informal. The particular ways these lines intersect and the combinations of colors used to create different named patterns, which we will discuss below, though, for convenience, we will use the word “check” as an umbrella term that includes all patterns that are based on these intersecting lines.
1. Graph Check
The simplest pattern based on squares is an evenly spaced grid made up of thin lines in a single color, called a “box check” or “graph check” because of its resemblance to graph paper. Graph check usually appears on shirts, and probably the most common version is a white shirt with a navy-blue grid, making for a pattern that is definitely conservative and office appropriate; however, red, green, yellow and other colored grids can also be found. Usually, the boxes of a graph check are small, around a quarter inch, and the rule is that bigger squares make the shirt more casual.
Small boxes easily accommodate a tie, because the simple pattern doesn’t assert itself that much. If the grid is larger, the look seems more casual. You can still wear a tie, perhaps a knit tie or something with texture, but an open collar looks good, too, with a larger grid, especially in warm weather. Whatever the size of the grids, properly lining up the rows of squares on the parts of a shirt that are made from different pieces of cloth, like where the shoulder and sleeve meet, would be a hallmark of quality to look for.
When a graph check contains larger squares, the pattern may be referred to as windowpane, referencing windows that have divided panes, which are rarer today than they once were. The term isn’t used as much for shirting as for tailored clothes: odd jackets, suits, and waistcoats. Windowpanes have supposedly come back into style in recent years, but true menswear aficionados know it’s a classic pattern that has been around for a long time. Although similar to the graph check, the grid formed by the crossing lines of the windowpane pattern often creates rectangles rather than perfect squares. These rectangles are always longer in the vertical dimension, tall rather than wide, which can create a subtle sense of added height in the wearer.
The lines forming a windowpane can be softly or strongly defined, broken up or even doubled. You can have a white grid on a blue base, blue squares on brown, beige on grey or any variety of complementary color pairings. The color of the panes and how defined the lines determine how bold or conservative the result is. Solid lines in bright colors are more assertive than muted lines. The density of the boxes also has an impact. If the panes are large on a jacket, it is can be more conservative than one with numerous panes since the multiplication of boxes makes the pattern louder.
Next up in terms of complexity is tattersall, which is the same as a graph check but it involves lines of two or more different complementary colors. Some possibilities are blue and black, green and blue, red and blue, or orange and blue to name just a few. The lines that make up a tattersall can be of different thicknesses or solidity, being clearly defined or faded back, but the size of the squares they form is always uniform.
Tattersall is actually named for Richard Tattersall, groom to the last Duke of Kingston, who founded a London horse market in 1766 that is still the leading auctioneer of horses in Europe today. Specifically, fabric in the pattern known as Tattersall was used for horse blankets in the late 18th century before seeing more widespread use.
Tattersall is mostly used for shirts and waistcoats, and has a traditional association with British country style, which is not surprising given its origin. Tattersall can be worn for rural pursuits, like shooting or fishing, perhaps with a horse or bird print tie, flat cap, and a tweed sports coat. As a vest, the typical tattersall has red and blue crossing lines on a buff or yellow ground, and wearing one is an appropriate homage to a classic style.
Yet, despite these associations, tattersall shirts have translated easily to office settings both in North America and the UK. This may be because the lines of two colors add to its versatility in combining ties. Less common is the Tattersall sports coat, though I own a couple for spring and summer wear, one with brown and beige lines and the other with two different shades of blue. To me, these have more of an Italian flavor.
Gingham (sometimes called “Vichy” in Europe) is the simplest of the checks involving thicker lines, in this case, generally a single color crossing on a white background. Blue tends to be the most popular, though many colors of gingham are possible. The distance between lines is always regular, so the result looks like the typical checkerboard and is most often featured on shirts. An interesting aspect of gingham is that when the colored lines cross one another, they result in darker versions of the color, adding richness.
For many, gingham may evoke thoughts of picnic blankets or the red and white tablecloths in an Italian restaurant, and thus men who wear gingham are sometimes mocked by those who are ignorant of style. Nonetheless, the association of gingham with casual dining speaks to its nature as a casual fabric. It is also identified with rural simplicity, at least in the American imagination, a connection emphasized by the fact that Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz film wore blue gingham as did Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island.
5. Shepherd’s Check
As its name implies, shepherd’s check is another rural pattern, this one originally used by Scottish shepherds on the border with England, so we have one check that originated with horse blankets (Tattersall) and another with sheep blankets. Shepherd’s check looks almost like a gingham but is distinguished by the visibility of a twill pattern. That is, you can see diagonal lines intersecting the squares, which makes the pattern more complex.
As with gingham, shepherd’s check usually appears as a single color on a white ground. Though it can be used on any article of clothing, in contemporary tailoring I have seen it most frequently on ties followed by jackets.
6. Gun Club Check
A connection to the country pursuit of shooting is embodied in the gun club check, though this time in America. This check is again of Scottish derivation, a “district check” typical to a particular area in the west Highlands. However, it was adopted by the American Gun Club for their overcoats and sport coats in 1874.
Originally, a gun club check meant four colors of crossing lines–black, rust, gold, and green–designed as both an homage to the colors present in the landscape of the Highlands (similar to the nature of tweed) and as a kind of hunter’s camouflage; however, these days, it’s equally common to find gun club checks in only two colors, usually brown and blue. Like gingham and shepherd’s check, the lines in a gun club check are even and fairly thick, and like shepherd’s check, the diagonal twill pattern is visible. What makes gun club check unique is the presence of two or more colors, though such patterns may also be labeled shepherd’s checks, so identification can be tricky.
7. Tartan (Plaid)
The most complex checked pattern in menswear is tartan, formed by intersecting lines of varying thickness and any number of colors. Though it is not always the case, usually the squares and rectangles on a tartan are different sizes because the space between the lines does not have to be even. This flexibility, and the fact that new tones are created when different colored lines cross, allow for a great variety in the appearance of tartan cloth.
Of course, tartans are associated with–you guessed it–Scotland, where individual patterns represent specific clans. Given the brightness and busyness of tartans, they are casual in terms of everyday wear. Because the pattern is quite variable, many versions of plaid can be worn for sport coats, especially ones with evenly spaced squares, but, unless you are daring, traditional tartan is worn best as a shirt (without a tie), accessory items (ties, scarves), if not a kilt.
The most famous plaid of non-Scottish origin is madras, an intense, bright, warm weather fabric that isn’t for the man who wants to fade into the background. Named after the city in India where it is woven (modern-day Chennai), Madras is a handwoven slubbed cotton. It resembles Scottish tartan in terms of patterns but incorporates colors more commonly found in Indian textiles, like yellow, pink, and orange, which are suitable for summer. Check out the Gentleman’s Gazette madras guide for an account of its fascinating history and how it became especially popular in the United States.
9. Glen Check and Prince of Wales
Finally, we have glen check (sometimes also called glen plaid), which I mention last because it isn’t what I would consider a pure check if we are talking only about grids since it admits more than just lines; it also contains varied houndstooth patterns making up the lines and filling the blocks created by them. However, given its name and the fact that the crossing pattern of rectangles is visible, it definitely deserves a mention here as one of the most popular patterns in menswear.
The closely associated Prince of Wales check actually fits more with our definition of checks as it is essentially a glen check with the addition of an overcheck or overplaid in a different color. This is a grid of a contrasting color, a windowpane pattern, superimposed on top of the glen check to give it even more depth. Overplaid is a popular manifestation of checks in tailored menswear, and it’s a great example of how rich and complex checks can be.