Men’s fashion is deeply connected to history. Men are creatures of habit and, as such, menswear has evolved very slowly and gradually over the past hundred years or so. The best-dressed men have always understood the foundations of classic menswear and the “rules” that were developed to help them create functional, appropriate, and long-lasting wardrobes.
Our goal with Articles of Style is to break-down this vast history and show you how it can be practically applied to the menswear landscape today in order to build a smart, versatile, life-long wardrobe. As we’ve mentioned before, we don’t want you to buy a lot of clothes, we want you to buy the right clothes and understand how you can get the most out of them.
With that said, here’s the second installment in a series highlighting traditional menswear patterns that have lasted the test of time and are still considered the building blocks of style today.
Today we’re taking a closer look at a fabric that represents ancient geometric strength and helped build the Roman Empire; herringbone.
Herringbone is a distinctive V-shaped weaving pattern usually found in twill fabrics. Its defining characteristic is the break at reversal (where the loom shuttle changes direction during the weaving process), which makes it resemble a broken zig-zag, as opposed to a fluid chevron pattern. The pattern is called herring-bone because it resembles the skeleton of a herring fish, although its roots actually come from ancient architecture.
Herringbone was developed around 500 B.C. during the Roman Empire as they developed an expansive world-class road system called Viae Publicae. The basic principle for the construction of this super road – which allowed for accelerated communication and rapid transport of people and materials throughout the empire – was called Opus spicatum, or “spiked work”. It was discovered that this simple pattern of interlocking bricks creates an intensely durable and stable geometric matrix, perfect for roadways and infrastructure.
Architect Bill Welcher of the Olin Studio gives us a compelling history of herringbone:
“As After the fall of the Roman Empire, many of the fundamental construction techniques of classical antiquity were lost and forgotten. Herringbone resurfaced again during the Renaissance in Europe. At this point the herringbone bond was taken from the horizontality of landscape and began to find itself in the motifs of architecture.
The pattern became the fundamental backbone of Brunelleschi’s great Duomo in Florence. By incorporating the interlocking pattern into the structure of the dome, much like keystones in an arch, Brunelleschi disposed of the need for a central support system. The interlocking system gave the dome its unique shape and allowed it to defy the rule of quinto acuto, or “acute fifth,” a mathematical concept that had previously been used to defined the curvature of architectural domes… We can learn from the history of herringbone as it teaches us that the most effective solutions to complex design obstacles often arise from the lessons learned from those before us.”
In fashion design these patterns are also often used symbolically to connect a modern garment to it’s historical predecessors, since patterns are like flags; they have the potential to evoke a sense of identity and place. The fact that herringbone’s roots are in Rome make it a no-brainer that plenty of suits, sportcoats, and blazers have been done up in the pattern. It’s got Celtic history too; horsehair herringbone cloth has been found in Ireland from around 600 B.C., which explains why it’s also a traditional choice for tweed.
Today herringbone cloth can be found in just about any garment type, in an endless variety of sizes, scales, textures, weights, colors, blends, etc. It’s one if the easiest ways for a man to introduce pattern into his wardrobe, too, because it’s so subtle and monotone that you don’t really have to worry about it clashing with other patterns.
To give you a sense of this historical “power pattern” in action, here are some examples from the AoS archives (which you can always browse using our Style Guide).