On Friday, January 11th, Alan Flusser Custom made our second appearance of the dais of the National Arts Club’s FashionSpeakFriday event series — this time for a conversation on the history, aesthetics, and future of tweed. The following article has been drawn from the notes for that event, and is illustrated by the slide show which accompanied it.
By Andrew Yamato
What is tweed? The origins of the term are inconclusive. One theory holds that the cloth was named after the River Tweed in Scotland, the valley of which was an area of tweed production. Another contends that the name is derived from a London clerk’s 1826 mistranscription of “tweel” — the Scottish pronunciation of twill, which is the main weave of tweed. In any case, the cloth itself is a rough, woolen fabric with a relatively loose, open texture — usually in a plain, twill, or herringbone weave. Woolen cloths differ from worsteds as the latter’s yarns are combed before weaving, resulting in the finer, smoother, more lustrous and higher-count cloths generally used today for dressier suits. Tweed and other woolens, on the other hand, are carded before weaving — a process that makes a virtue of wool’s natural crimp, resulting in a more homespun, textured, and sporty fabric.
Traditionally handwoven and worn by farmers and fishermen in the rugged landscapes of Scotland and Ireland, rustic tweed ironically came to be embraced as an aristocratic cloth, connoting wealth and refinement on both sides of the Atlantic. The story of how this came to be is largely the story of three British Princes: Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s Prince Consort, their son Albert (better known as Bertie, later Edward VII), and Bertie’s grandson David (later Edward VIII, and eventually the Duke of Windsor).
A lover of the outdoors since his childhood in the German kingdom of Saxe-Coburg, Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert fell in love with Scotland’s rugged terrain on his first visit there with Victoria in 1842. Six years later, he privately purchased the Scottish estate of Balmoral, sparking a rush among the gentry to own their own highland retreats. Around 1850, Albert commissioned a special tweed featuring a greyish plaid of navy, white, and red, intended to camouflage hunters on his new estate by blending with Balmoral’s rocky landscape. To this day, this pattern remains restricted to the Royal Household. Lesser nobles’ “estate tweeds” followed this example, sometimes literally grown from their natural environment though the use of locally-raised wool, dyed with native heathers and lichens.
Such romantically conceived cloth found an eager market not only among the landed gentry, but among sentimental Victorians of the emerging middle class who might not own Scottish estates, but who could increasingly afford to dress as if they did. Albert’s son Bertie, the playboy Prince of Wales, did much to popularize country sports like tennis, golf, hunting, fishing, shooting, hiking, and bicycling — all of which were well-suited to tweed’s water- and wind-repellent qualities (effectively making it the first athletic “performance fabric”). To have and wear country tweeds on the weekend (itself a novel concept for the middle classes) came to be seen as a mark of status for townsfolk who in most cases worked all week in dark worsted wool. Maintaining this distinction was the origin of so-called “no brown in town” rule (now thankfully obsolete).
In the 1920s, Bertie’s grandson, Edward, the Prince of Wales, was a fashion icon like none before or since. Despite his reputation today as a paragon of classic tailored male style, he considered himself very much a fashion progressive, liberated from the uncomfortable formality his father had insisted on. He prefered louche tuxedos to stiff white tie and tails, soft shirts and collars rather than starched, and easy-tailored “drape” suits to more stiffly structured garments. Rejecting the Edwardian norm of heavy dark worsted suits whenever possible, the Prince favored soft, shaggy, boldly patterned Shetland tweed jackets paired with flannel trousers.
Fashionable Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates embraced the Prince’s relaxed style, with its air of privileged nonchalance, and visiting American university students imported it back to the US, where it became known as the “collegiate” look. Soon young men across the country were steeped in tweed’s artisanal lore, most famously that of Harris Tweed — the handmade Outer Hebrides pedigree of which has been guaranteed since 1909 by the famous Harris Tweed Orb logo stamped on every bolt.
The tweedy collegiate style of the 20s and 30s would evolve (with a few stateside alterations) into the “Ivy” style — the core sartorial aesthetic of the WASP culture which dominated mainstream American society until the great cultural shifts of the 1960s and 70s. The adoption of tweed by this elite was in keeping with several tenets of WASP virtue: unabashed Anglophilia; tasteful understatement; a country aesthetic all the more rarefied in an increasingly urban society; and a somewhat fetishized sense of thrift (the stuff does last forever).
In the 1970s, popular nostalgia for 1920s and 30s styles (much of it fueled by the rise of traditionalist and tweed fan Ralph Lauren), along with tweed’s inherently earth-toned, natural appeal, kept tweed popular. Now more commonly paired with faded denim than grey flannel, tweed jackets became associated with individualist artists, iconoclastic intellectuals, and even vigilantes (Dirty Harry was never without his Harris Tweed). The 80s “prep” revival saw a playful reappropriation of tweed by the Establishment, but by that point the cloth truly belonged to everyone.
Especially as menswear has rediscovered its artisanal roots in recent years, tweed has been celebrated for its incomparable authenticity and storied heritage, and there will always be a place for the original heavyweight cloths in all their somewhat primitive glory. Nodding to the modern marketplace, however, many designers and tailors have insisted on softer, lighter, and more colorful variations of the cloth. Mills — and Italian mills in particular — have responded with a new generation of tweeds that have the character and depth of their hardy ancestors, but the handle and weight of flannel.
Today, tweed is no longer restricted to scratchy earth-toned stuff the term conjures in many people’s imaginations. It is made in any number of weights, weaves, and colorways, and has long been accepted wear in the urban and suburban contexts in which most of us live. No longer a declaration of cultural identity, it will always have a place in any fashion cycle, with an inherently organic, rustic, romantic character that provides a perfect sartorial foil to the modern, the sleek, and the chic.
HOW TO WEAR TWEED
To wear tweed is to embrace texture, not only in the tweed itself, but in the other elements worn with it. The roughness of tweed pairs naturally with the velvety wales of corduroy, the nap of moleskin, the ridges of whipcord, and especially the wooly fuzz of flannel; grey flannel trousers in particular have always been the classic companion of a tweed sportcoat. Similarly, one tends to wear a heavier, more textured shirt with a tweed outfit — cotton flannel, oxford cloth, and wool/cotton Viyella — rather than the finer, smoother cottons one would usually wear with a suit. Texture should even extend to ties worn with tweed: “crunchy” knit silks, knit and woven wools and cashmeres, chalky ancient madder silks, and ribbed wool challis are all classic ties to wear with tweed. Finally, tweed’s texture and bulk calls for a beefier, more rustic shoe, often with thicker soles and generous broguing (punched holes) on the uppers.
As texture is always an informalizing element in menswear, so tweed is an inherently informal cloth. Tweed’s origins as athletic outdoor wear are a far cry from the more recent cliches of tweed as fusty, patrician, and professorial. A well-cut tweed jacket — especially one made up in more richly colored and boldly patterned cloth — is a dashing garment that suggests pleasure rather than business; it is also extremely wearable with denim (a heavily textured cloth in its own right), and this is perhaps the most common way tweed is worn today.
Perhaps the final word on tweed is that it is inherently (and gloriously) organic. Unlike worsted wool suitings, which for all their beauty are essentially manufactured goods, refined to appear as consistent and unchanging as possible, tweed is a living cloth, visibly made with animal fibers, moving with and molding to its wearer, “breaking in” and getting better with time in a way no other cloth quite does. To wear tweed is to celebrate character and imperfection — nothing less than humanity itself!