Vintage Clothing | The Meanings And Origins Of Different Patterns

What are the meanings and origins of different patterns?


Have you ever noticed that some patterns are everywhere while others go in and out of style? Some patterns, like stripes or plaid, have been around for centuries while others might be considered a passing trend. Even though we usually see them as an expression of style or taste from an individual or group, there's a rich history to the ways these designs have been used throughout the ages, and they are often considered as vintage clothing. Let’s take a look at some of the classic examples that everyone will recognise.

Polka dots

Polka dots are a simple, fun and playful pattern that have been around since the 18th century. The origins of polka dots can be traced back to their Czech origin as they were originally used on clothing by men and women following a popular peasant dance called the ‘polka’. During this time, there were all sorts of ‘polka’ themed items that were sold in shops such as suspenders and even pudding, but the pattern is the one that stuck through to the current day. 

In the 1920s, when fashion was all about being modern and inventive, these designs were widely used in clothing because they looked so different from what people had seen before. You might remember Minnie Mouse and her polkadot skirt from the first Disney films, for example. This was highly influential during such time and celebrities were often seen wearing polkadot patterns. 

Today, polka dots are often seen advertised as vintage styles on mens shirts or children’s clothes as they look great with most styles of clothing and can brighten up any outfit!

Animal print

Animal print is a classic design. It's fun, playful and often looks great in fashion. But what is the meaning of animal print?

Animal prints have been popular for centuries. They were first used as camouflage on animals (so they could blend into their environment), but also became popular in fashion as people took inspiration from wildlife and started wearing them too.

Today, many different patterns are seen as animal prints including:

  • Leopard print
  • Zebra print 
  • Cow-print 
  • Snake print
  • Tiger print

As time goes on, each of these patterns go in and out of fashion. It gained popularity in the 1970’s after it was seen in pop videos and used in house decor to create an exotic, unique style. First used to express an individual style, the different types of animal print have been widely accepted as a fashion norm and are always available to buy in shops in the current day as a retro clothing style.


Houndstooth is a pattern of black and white diamonds, most often seen in suits, sport coats and shirts. It was originally created as a camouflage for hunting dogs to wear on their bodies to blend in with their surroundings.

The houndstooth pattern was first used in clothing by the upper class of Scotland during the 19th century, but it wasn't until the mid-20th century when it became popular among other social classes.

Traditionally made of a thick woven cloth, this pattern was perfect to wear on a cold day in Scotland, and became symbolic of hunting culture, which of course was picked up by the fashion industry and trickled into the everyday wardrobes of men and women across the country. 


Plaid is a pattern of repeated stripes. It's named after the Scottish word for "striped," and plaid can be found in men's clothing and accessories, women's clothing, and childrenswear.

It first became popular in Scotland in the 1700’s and was always a symbol of aristocracy which is why it became so popular with punks in the 1980’s, as a sign of rebellion against the establishment. 

Not only is it popular with punks, but these patterns have found their way into designer collections and department stores alike, often available today as a check pattern on shirts and trousers. 

This is a pattern popular among mod culture as a smart patterned shirt paired with some two tone trousers creates the perfect look for going about town. 


Stripes are a classic design that can be worn in many different ways. They can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal and vary in widths. Stripes can also be solid or have a pattern to them. There are many color combinations to choose from when wearing stripes; they come in an almost endless variety of shades and hues that make it easy to find one that suits your style!

Often associated with sailors, striped patterns originated from French sailors in the 1850’s. They first wore clothes patterned in this way as it was easier to spot them if they fell into the sea. Slowly, this became the norm for those going out to sea and of course this trend was eventually adopted by the masses as nautical clothing. 


Tartan is a pattern of stripes with a set, or a repeating pattern of colors. Tartans may be made up of two, three or even four different colored stripes but may traditionally feature red or green.

Tartan is believed to have been first woven in Scotland in the 1700’s, although some historians believe it was actually an invention by Scottish weavers who wanted to compete with English manufacturers who had access to better wool than those in Scotland did.

Tartan was originally made exclusively from wool, but as time has gone on this pattern has been used in many different materials. This pattern is always featured inside harrington jackets, in mod culture, for example. 

Knowing The History Of Your Clothes

Take a look at the designs you're wearing. Are you wearing a pattern that has an interesting history? Have you ever wondered about the meaning and origins of your favorite designs? Perhaps it's time to learn more about the patterns that are used in fashion.

You can learn about the history of a design by looking at where it came from and how people used it in the past. For example, if someone wears an outfit with polka dots on it, they may be able to tell you where they got their shirt and why they chose polka dots (because they like them).

You can also learn about different patterns that are used in fashion through research or by asking friends who wear similar clothes as yours why they chose those particular items!


While a fabric pattern may not seem like a significant part of your wardrobe, you can significantly impact people's perceptions of you by knowing how to use it. Even if you don't believe there is any meaning behind patterns, the fact that others do gives them power. Patterns give us insight into the history and culture that produced them, so make sure to keep an eye out for their symbolism!

Back to top