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Fashion: High-Tech Tradition

Flannels, Cashmeres, Wools, Tweeds Modern Lightweight Fabrics Spur a Luxurious Return to Traditional Styles
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

"I always had a fondness for tweeds, like my father and grandfather, but I wore mine a trifle more loosely and casually than they."


--The Duke of Windsor, Windsor Revisited

Tweeds, and flannels, and the other cloths of drape and substance. In fact, Windsor liked to wear fall-weight suits all year round. They looked better, tailored better, had more mileage. He had inherited a tweed suit from his father which, with a bit of alteration, the Duke kept going for more than 60 years. That's style.

Those tweeds were a bit heavy and scratchy, though.

"We went to the Riviera in July," says Laura, Duchess of Marlborough (quoted in Suzy Menkes' book, The Windsor Style). "It was fiendishly hot and I was wearing the thinnest of dresses and when we arrived at the villa, the Duke was in full Scottish rig. The first thing I said to him was 'Oh Sir, aren't you terribly hot?' But he didn't seem to notice." With Windsor, style was obviously transcendent.

Style is, as it happens, a word one sees cropping up a great deal in the fashion press--as though it were a trend, akin perhaps to the way the words "classic" or "tradition" are used there--as though it were a commodity, more a matter of decor than piety.

The other word that is now being touted by the fashion press is sartorial. Translation: dressy, with an emphasis on accomplished tailoring. It is fashion's latest about-face to its overzealous advocation of casualness and limp, crepey, pebbly fabrics four or five seasons ago (about a year and a half in human time). What this means is a return to a more precise silhouette and good, traditional suiting fabrics such as flannels and tweeds, twills and worsteds, with more than a nod given to the luxuries of the newer Super merinos, worsted cashmeres and the other sybaritic cloths of high pedigree. The Duke would have thoroughly approved of fashion's return to the fold of taste.

It is, therefore, not so much drastic change in styling that drives men's fashion today, but fabrics. After all, suits are basically a conservative medium of dress and haven't changed radically for decades and decades. As Anne Hollander has noted in her study, Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress, "Advances in technology and economic organization during the past two centuries have in fact been bent on preserving the character of men's tailoring and spreading its availability." The rules were established at the end of the eighteenth century: coat, trousers and vest, designed and constructed to produce a uniformly ideal silhouette and image for any man. A slightly wider lapel here, a fractionally narrower trouser leg there, is as much as most of us are willing to tolerate.

Unlike women's hemlines, which seem to go from here to there in a blink, more than a half-inch taken or given anywhere in a man's wardrobe constitutes a revolution. The general thrust in menswear since the beginning of the twentieth century has been to make the basic suit more comfortable: lighter-weight fabrics and construction techniques have reduced stiffness, heaviness and constriction. Men's tailoring today is positively airy compared to what it was before mid-century.

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