Technically speaking, it is style No. 5310-402 in the Woolrich middleweight fabric collection, but everybody knows it by its nickname. The story goes that around 1850, a designer at Woolrich’s mill in Chatham Run, Pa. reprised a black-and-red, twill plaid that the Scots had called Rob Roy. But since the designer happened to own a herd of buffalo on the side, he called it buffalo check.
Fashion trends come and go, but 165 years on, buffalo check is arguably more popular than ever. Are you getting a lot of holiday catalogs around now? Well, open them—chances are you’ll see something that comes in buffalo check. Leaving aside household items (Target’s buffalo check lampshade, for example, or Pottery Barn’s buffalo check duvet with matching pillow), the pattern is so popular in apparel that it’s easy to assemble an entire outfit completely out of buffalo check.
In fact, above, we did. (Our ensemble, clockwise from top left: Eddie Bauer socks ($13), American Eagle Outfitters baseball cap ($17.95), Orvis’ fleece shirt jacket ($139), Brooks Brothers merino wool scarf ($31.20), J.W. Hulme tote ($425), Jacqueline Rousseau necktie ($79), Arcade belt ($25.95), and J. Crew oxford ($75).)
So how did buffalo check go from being the workhorse fabric of railroad workers to the holiday choice of millennial mall goers? Like so much else we put on, it was a simple matter of imitation. First, rugged brands like Eddie Bauer, L.L. Bean, Pendleton and Orvis picked up the plaid for outdoor wear, then upmarket casual brands like J. Crew and Ralph Lauren followed suit. And while weather-worn brands might offer buffalo check year-round, nearly everyone trots it out for the holidays.
“We always offer something in this pattern,” said Christine Guerin, Orvis’ men’s sportswear product manager. “I don’t think it will ever go out of style.” Buffalo check, she adds, “has become a symbol of the holidays in America for every generation and at every price. It’s a pattern that can span menswear, women’s, gift and home, pets, kids, etc.”
She’s not kidding. Aeropostale goes so far as to sell buffalo check flannel pants, while Madewell has a buffalo check cape on offer this year. Candy Pratts Price, former creative director of Vogue.com and a board member of the social video platform GlassView, points out that plaids in general “evoke images of the West and possess a very homespun feeling. There is a lot of demand today for authentic, home-made styles.”
And just in case all this stuff feels a bit too frilly or fancy to be homespun, there’s always the old reliable Woolrich work shirt No. 6135—pretty much unchanged for a century, and still the perfect thing to throw on if you feel like splitting logs.