Gentleman’s Fashion: The Need for Tweed

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Cheesborough invented Vaseline in the nick of time. By 1860, when marathon cycle rides and day long beagling events were carried out in doormat-thick tweed plus fours, the thrill of the chaff may have been overvalued.

The ‘twill’ is the strengthening diagonal thread in the weave. A package of cloth delivered to a tailor in Savile Row in the eighteenth century was marked, handwritten, as ‘tweel’ and misread as ‘tweed’. It was mistaken as having some association with the river of the same name and the name stuck.

Tweed was the stuff of virile outdoor activity be it shooting, stalking, beagling, hot-air ballooning, golf, butterfly collecting, cloud gazing, snow-shoeing, en plein air watercolouring, brass rubbing, gnat studying, tobogganing or ‘bandy’ (ice hockey played with a balloon filled with water). It evoked movement.

The sharp-eyed could recognise a particular colour and pattern of a cloth and be able to place the particular estate in the Highlands it came from. A bold black and red striking hounds-tooth, for example, would be perfect camouflage in a grey granite terrain; the greener cloths register Perthshire heather and thistle, and lichen, which usefully also supplied the dye in colouring the cloth.

Proper Harris Tweed is ‘dyed in the wool’ in the early stages of the process, not onto a completed fabric. It provides that faint whiff of prep-school urinal, or underdone lamb’s kidneys which becomes all the more prevalent when lying in a rainstorm on the Highlands, rifle perched, as the unfurling aroma of the ‘home solution’ of crofters’ whisky encrusted pee wafts up.

One of the most popular tweed jacket designs from the mid 19th Century until the Edwardian era was the ‘Norfolk Jacket’. Beaded and belted, it was the smart outdoors gear of the age, named after the Duke of Norfolk, whose oddness of dress was well ascribed. He would appear in ‘ambiguous’ places dressed as a clergyman or a jockey. The Times of February 1794 recorded that the Duke was suffering from a bout of rabies and could no longer stand the sight of water. He could only look at champagne.

In the 1920s young keen Americans took to it in a big way, probably due to to the moneyed and smart East Coast set keen to emulate the style they discovered in the freezing ballrooms of decaying English stately homes and the fresh popularity of the game called ‘golf’. At Harvard and Yale, in this period, it was ‘the look’; as necessary at a picnic as an HMV101 gramophone.

It was adapted into the ‘sports coat’, something less structured and versatile that can be seen on some of the leading men of Hollywood’s golden era. Cary Grant in North By Northwest wears a fine worsted suit in ‘Glen Urqhart’ check made by Kilgour.

Henry Poole on Savile Row, (www.henrypoole.com) is one of the most inventive and interesting tailors around today, producing some magnificent and daring lightweight tweed suits. Some of his three-piece examples can register on a Geiger counter, and one has to admire the spirit of it after all, quite a test of the tensile strength of one’s nerve and wallet. Tweed it might well be but as much use on a grouse moor as a skateboard; it’s for cutting that dash about town.

I discovered the tailors Alexander James many years ago at a country fair and have much admired their style and flair ever since. They do understand all there is to know in a good tweed suit and, if you’re up and around the Manchester area, you’ll have an enjoyably rewarding experience looking in because they are friendly and fun. (www.alexander-james.co.uk).

For something a little more exotic, Beretta in St. James’s Street have a way with a traditional tweed (if there is now such a thing) that’s almost Italian; one of my old wardrobe favourites is a completely unlined Beretta tweed sports coat which becomes part of every October, albeit with a touch more Milanese about it than Inverness.

But, in the end, this is hunting garb, and bloodsports around the West End ain’t what they used to be. Lord Dunsany, in 1933, may have disagreed. The 18th Baron, Eton and Sandhurst, positioned himself between Fortnum & Mason and Hatchards, along Piccadilly, with a gun and a paper bag of smoked salmon sandwiches. As the well known carriage that advertised Lobb and Co. the bootmakers, famously drawn by a pair of zebra’s, trundled past towards Piccadilly Circus, he shot  both of them dead.  In his years as a big game hunter he’d never bagged a zebra before. He was wearing a Harris tweed three piece suit and plus fours.

For further reading I suggest the excellent Scottish Estate Tweeds by E.P.Harrison (Johnstons of Elgin 1995).


In my next column I shall be championing a sartorial device long thought to be out of “fashion” and obsolete, but soon, and deservedly so, about to make a very big comeback indeed.

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