Houndstooth

Houndstooth

Now that winter is darkening the door and the coats are coming out, you'll see legions of men wearing a variation on the thick-trouser-and-overcoat theme, day in and day out. One of the easiest ways to avoid looking like the rest of this pack is by incorporating a little houndstooth into your cold-weather look. A classic way of signaling power, houndstooth remains one of the most versatile patterns out there and Scotland's greatest contribution to men's fashion since the kilt. With big-name menswear designers like Phillip Lim, Italo Zucchelli of Calvin Klein, and Karl Lagerfeld mining the Highlands for inspiration this season,­­ the pattern has been popping up everywhere from Barney's to Jos. A. Bank.

One look at houndstooth's off-kilter, usually black-and-white check gives you a good sense of where its name comes from: The two-tone pattern looks like the tear that would result from a dog's bite. While its name has violent connotations, it's widely accepted that houndstooth was created around the fourth century as a symbol of peace. When warring clans in the Scottish Lowlands fought, the men wore houndstooth, rather than family tartans, to identify themselves as noncombatants.

Nowadays, the pattern is used a bit more aggressively by smart dressers as a way to give their ties and overcoats more graphic pop. Style powerhouses Tom Ford and Ermenegildo Zegna lean heavily on the black-and-white design in their new collections, sometimes making full houndstooth-on-houndstooth looks. That's a bit much for most men, but the increasing number of houndstooth accessories available provide great, flexible additions to conservative outfits in need of texture.

The best way to incorporate houndstooth is to start small. Right now, there are a tons of options out there to choose from, including a Paul Smith wool-cashmere scarf, Rag & Bone's knit tie, Drake's jacquard bow tie, and J.Crew's micro-houndstooth socks. Since it's so versatile (it doesn't match anything exactly but looks great with solid, dark colors), you can dress houndstooth up by pairing it with a classic camel overcoat and gray wool trousers, or dress it down with black jeans and a hunter green sweater. It goes with everything, really. Just don't try to make it work with a tartan jacket – you'll confuse the hell out of passing Scotsmen. [Paul Smith scarf, $295; paulsmith.co.uk]