Like an undercover spy, the black-and-white checkerboard pattern goes by many work names.
Among police the world over, it’s known as Sillitoe tartan. Named for one Sir Percy Sillitoe, a Glasgow police chief who rose to director of Britain’s elite MI5 secret service, Sillitoe tartan trims the uniforms of coppers throughout the former British Commonwealth. (Adoption in the United States is spottier than, say, in Australia or Brunei; only in Chicago and environs do cops wear Sillitoe tartan proper. Pittsburgh police wear a version in black-and-gold checkerboard.)
Chicago police wearing Sillitoe hat bands and horse bridles, photo by Mark Fowler
Sir Percy first introduced his tartan in 1931 to improve police visibility. Sillitoe tartan enjoyed greater traction than the more poncy alternate idea, that cops flounce about in white capes. Spreading outward from Glasgow, Sillitoe tartan had blanketed the entire British police force by 1974. Percy’s other wins as police chief included introducing wireless communications among patrol cars and putting down the intractable Glasgow “razor gangs.”
Sillitoe’s autobiography Cloak Without Dagger details his reluctant rise as director of MI5 from 1946 to 1953. Much like the fictional George Smiley of John le Carré fame, Sillitoe battled a series of high-level Soviet moles within MI5 as the Cold War chilled everything around him. Lurking among their numbers was one Klaus Fuchs, a nuclear physicist who managed to evade him and hand over the secret of hydrogen bombs to the Soviet Union — an astounding gaffe no amount of Sillitoe tartan would help Sir Percy live down. Sillitoe retired from MI5 to the relaxing sinecure of plugging holes in the illegal diamond trade for De Beers.
Traditionally black-and-white, the alternating squares of a chessboard count as one of the world’s most magnetic patterns, an expanse furiously contemplated over billions of hours of game play.
A woodcut from William Caxton’s book about chess, printed in England in 1474
Described in an Indian proverb as “a sea in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe,” chess originated in India in the fifth century c.e. and spread throughout the globe, morphing into its current incarnation in 16th century Italy. (The simpler, more ancient game of “draughts” is also played on an eight-by-eight board of alternating squares. It took on the name “checkers” in the 14th century in reference to the playing board’s pattern and, ultimately, to distinguish this much cruder game from chess.)
Checkerboard as part of a game from the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
The chessboard features in one of the oldest fables among mathematicians. Dubbed the wheat or rice problem, the story illustrates the principle of geometric progression. A shah in ancient Persia was so impressed by the game of chess, he summoned its inventor to his palace and granted him any wish he could name. A poor peasant with a deadly firm grasp of numbers, the inventor asked only for the amount of wheat necessary to fill a chessboard like so: starting on the first square, place one grain of wheat, then double the amount on the previous square until the board is filled. Bowled over by this humble-sounding request, the shah busied a servant straightaway with the task. The burden was modest along the checkerboard’s first row; but the obligation grew at an alarming clip from there. By the end, the entire chessboard should be theoretically full of 18 quintillion-plus grains of wheat, equivalent to 150 times the current global annual production of the grain. As Carl Sagan observed about the fable: “Exponentials can’t go on forever, because they will gobble up everything.”
Good and Evil
In a more cosmic-accounting vein, a black-and-white checked fabric in Bali called wastra poleng represents the opposing forces of good and evil, light and dark, that keep the world balanced.
The Balinese drape wastra poleng liberally over any object or person with a protective function: guardian shrines, umbrellas, roadside kiosks of magical healers. The pattern is such a potent symbol that a local environmental non-governmental organisation (NGO) was able to protect threatened Balinese forests by wrapping thousands of trees around the island in wastra poleng.
Balinese dancer with wastra poleng-wrapped statues, photo via Balinese Ritual
Money — that necessary evil — found perhaps its ultimate checkered expression in the Indonesian island of Buton, where villagers used a specific black-and-white-checkered cloth as their currency until the mid-twentieth century. Kampuna, meaning “head cloth of the king,” was woven on official looms to validate its use as currency (not to be confused with so many unvalidated picnic throws).
The Need for Speed
A minor astonishment of publishing: an entire book exists about the origins of the black-and-white-checkered racing flag. Guess what it’s called? Origin of the Checker Flag: A Search for Racing’s Holy Grail. In it, author Fred Egloff traces this symbol of speed back to the 1906 Glidden Tour, in which “checking stations” between Buffalo, New York, and Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, were marked with suitably punning checkered flags. The first race in which a checkered flag marked the finish line occurred that same year, in the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup.
That’s the closest brush one can make with the facts. But the race to explain the checkered flag’s origins kicks up a lot of apocryphal theories, too. Nascar.com offers two common ones. First, back in the racing-horse-and-buggy days, races often ended with everyone companionably tucking into a meal. Waving a black-and-white-checkered tablecloth, therefore, made it clear when it was time to break for chow. Second, theories explaining any distinctive pattern nearly always include a Visibility Argument. The checkered racing flag punched through the dusty haze, clearly demarcating the finish line.
A checkered flag at the finish line, photo via Nascar.com
An Indianapolis Star/News reporter advanced a few more explanations in a 1999 article: perhaps race officials, wearing checkered vests, stationed themselves at key points along the route to mark the course. Or possibly a “flamboyant or thoughtful” official donned a fully black-and-white checkered suit and stood at the finish line: an unmissable marker for tuckered-out contestants. Finally, there’s a tale of a “boneshaker” bicycle race, held in Paris in 1964, where a race official may have waved a checkered scarf, loaned to him by a snappily dressed spectator. From tablecloths to vests to suits to scarves, those checks have run their own speedy course through lore.
Kaffiyeh refers to the rectangular cotton-wool headscarf worn by Arab men, in a check variously described as “chain-link,” “dogtooth,” or “knotted net.” You fold a kaffiyeh diagonally, drape it over the head, and hold it in place with a head rope (agal).
The kaffiyeh (plural kuffiyaat) first rose to prominence in 1936, when Palestinians rebelled against Jewish immigration under the British Mandate. With a kaffiyeh draped around the neck in a loose triangle (a style called shemagh), a rebel could quickly hide his face from an onslaught of gritty wind — or from identification by Israeli combatants.
By 1938, Palestinian rebels commanded everyone, civilian or fighter, to wear kuffiyaat regularly, so that guerrillas could vanish into crowds undetected. Wearing an Ottoman fez — the preferred headgear of upper-class Palestinians — now signalled opposition to the rebels and was strongly frowned upon.
Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat at the White House in 1993
Kuffiyaat swung back into the public eye in the 1960s. Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and leader of the Fatah political party, wore his black-and-white kaffiyeh habitually, draping it over his right shoulder to approximate Palestine’s shape. (Red-and-white kuffiyaat signal the wearer’s association with Socialist factions or Hamas; black-and-white kuffiyaat indicate allegiance to Fatah.)
The kaffiyeh’s popularity really surged when worn by Leila Khaled, fighter for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In a now-iconic photo, she’s cradling a Kalashnikov, delicate head turned away, her dark pixie-cut hair draped in a black-and-white kaffiyeh. (When asked about a ring she wore in the photo, Khaled told the Guardian: “I made it from the pin of a hand grenade — from the first grenade I ever used in training. I just wrapped it around a bullet.” Call it Etsy Commando-Style.)
Leila Khaled mural on the West Bank wall, photo by Bluewind
Khaled hijacked her first plane at age twenty-five in 1969, then got six cosmetic surgeries on her face, sans anesthesia, just so she could elude recognition and hijack again. The following year, she boarded a plane with a Honduran passport and a grenade in each pocket (“only to threaten,” Khaled told the Guardian. “I did not want to blow up the plane.”). The flight was diverted to London, and she deplaned, alive, into the deeply unamused embrace of Ealing police. Authorities later traded Khaled for Western hostages held by the PFLP.
Focused, ruthlessly principled, and smokin’ hot, Khaled wrapped in kaffiyeh became a pinup girl for Palestinian liberation and unruly youth everywhere. One imagines Khaled’s reaction to the questionable homage of Leela, Doctor Who’s sexy sidekick in the 1975 movie: heavylidded, humorless stare through a dense wall of cigarette smoke. (Khaled wrapped herself in smoke as often, and as tenderly, as in her kaffiyeh. She dryly characterised a boring period in her youth like so: “I was politically conscious and a chain smoker — I needed no other diversions.”)
“Anti-war scarves” sold by Urban Outfitters
Kuffiyaat popped up in Japan in the late 1980s, slithering around the necks of trendy teens. In 2007, in the teeth of the second Iraq War, Urban Outfitters started selling suspiciously kaffiyeh-like “anti-war woven scarves,” then yanked them from the shelves due to public outcry — a clash of why-you-wanna-look-like-a-terrorist? and who-you-calling-a-terrorist? Dunkin’ Doughnuts similarly fell afoul of public opinion with a commercial featuring Rachael Ray, kaffiyeh-clad, strolling like a smug New York University student with her Coffee Coolata. Taking appropriation to the next level, SemiticSwag.com now sells a sky-blue-and-white kaffiyeh sprinkled with Stars of David, along with a rainbow kaffiyeh, camouflage kaffiyeh, American- and Brit-themed kuffiyaat — a kaffiyeh for every millennial-seeking cause.
From the kaffiyeh fashion wars, two lessons ring out clear. First: Appropriate a serious pattern lightly, and you can manage to piss off the entire political spectrum — right, left, and center. (Paradoxically, that pissing-off might not teach you any lessons, as your “mistake” can also grab headlines and move a lot of merch.) Second: Lest one laugh off pattern as a frivolous subject, kaffiyeh proves just how charged, how meaning-packed, a pattern can be.
This chapter is excerpted from the new book Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, & Other Graphic Patterns and is published here with permission.