Houndstooth check is very fashionable just now and if ever there was a signifier of fashion aimed squarely at those with womanly – as opposed to girlish – tastes, then this must surely be it.

At Alexander McQueen the glory days of haute couture (that's the 1940s-1960s) were given the most almighty twist, resulting in ever more complex and unorthodox takes on bourgeois French fashion.

This was subversion as opposed to simply homage – although the latter was there in spirit too, expressed in the loving attention to pattern-cutting and detail that, for the most part, is rarely the stuff of ready-to-wear fashion (a poor relation by comparison). The designer even morphed the classic houndstooth into an MC Escher bird print. Marvellous.

Peter Jensen offered up an equally scaled-up view, most memorably in cape form and more sporty in flavour. Preen, too, looked at the famous tweed, this time in simpler, short, sweet Sixties-style shifts and strong-shouldered jackets that were indebted to the 1980s. Finally, houndstooth New Look-line dresses appeared at Moschino also. Cue hounds-tooth skirts, bags, ankle boots and more, at a high street store near you.

Sometimes houndstooth is called dogtooth and, when it's smaller, which it's certainly not for now, puppytooth. Scottish in origin, it is named after the jagged effect that might arise from the bite of a not-so-friendly canine. The French have different ideas. The Gallic translation of houndstooth is pied-de-poule – 'chicken foot'. That sounds nice in the original tongue but is rather less aggressive.

For the most part, the effect of a woman in houndstooth – it was originally the preserve of menswear – and particularly head-to-toe houndstooth, is a fierce one, signifying power over and above prettiness, which is relevant given the thrusting looks of the moment.

In the 1960s, Geoffrey Beane trimmed houndstooth dresses with lace and New York's social butterflies couldn't get enough of them. In the 1980s, houndstooth cropped up here, there and everywhere, for wear in the (matt black) boardroom ideally. In autumn 2003, the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto came up with an entire collection in houndstooth check – from signature over-sized coats with equally over-sized fringed edges, to chiffon ball-gowns.

More than any other fashion designer, the late Christian Dior made houndstooth his own. Grand ladies in exquisitely tailored houndstooth check may have had husbands who bought them their rarefied Dior clothing, but it is only too clear who was wearing the trousers. Dior liked houndstooth so much that the bottle of his first-ever – and still very popular – fragrance, Miss Dior, was embossed with it. It's one of the original chypres, incidentally; largely perceived as quite difficult scents and certainly not recommended for shrinking violets.