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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

(continued from page 1)

This is all part of a greater movement in the modernization of men's clothing. The initial step was democratization. As the Industrial Revolution and democracy advanced in Europe and the United States, democratic business dress first replaced privileged court and aristocratic dress, then became a standard uniform as well as being uniformly standardized. After the form was set, comfort became the goal.

Tweeds are perhaps the best example of this. They were, at the fin of the last siècle, the great social leveler in dress, worn by kings and subjects, presidents and citizens alike. What is different about tweeds today is that they are no longer the hairy, blanket-like, bullet-proof and scratchy productions they once were. Originally weighing in at 18 to 28 ounces (cloth weight is determined by the square yard), tweeds in traditional patterns and colors are now half that weight.

With a return to a more retro English styling of late, these cloths are perfect for that country house look--when the country house is climate-controlled.

"Mind you," says James Sheed, director of Dormeuil, one of the world's most eminent woolens houses, "for the past several seasons now in Europe, the weights have stabilized as far as consumers are concerned. I would say that 10- to 15-ounce cloths are preferred. And we see that in the United States as well. Our Sportex line of tweeds, which we developed in the 1920s for golfers, originally weighed 22 ounces. Today that same cloth is 14 ounces. The tailoring properties, durability and good looks are still there, but in a more comfortable cloth."

Jay Kos, a decidedly upscale Manhattan haberdasher with a British sense of styling, agrees. "I'm doing mainly tweeds and flannels: flannels for town, and tweeds for country suits. My preferred model is a three-piece suit, done in either a hacking or Norfolk style, in 15-ounce Shetland. We do those in beautifully dusky colors with muted windowpane patterns. They're not the sort of thing to sell to stockbrokers, who are locked into their pinstripes, but we do a brisk business with fellows who can dress with a bit of individuality, like doctors and other professional men. It's the kind of suit that becomes an old friend."

Tweeds are known in the cloth trade as woolens, a category that accounts for the bulkier, loftier and fuzzier wool cloths that also includes twills. The other category of wool cloth is worsteds, which are smoother and more tightly woven, and thus stronger, than woolens. Flannels can be either, depending on how they have been woven.

"Actually, we've increased our offerings in tweed this year, as well as other more substantial cloths like alpaca-wool blends, camel hairs and wool-cashmere blends," says Rod Smith, spokesman for Southwick, one of the United States' most prestigious manufacturers of quality-tailored clothing. "We've always felt that a fall suit should look like a fall suit. This fall we're particularly strong on Irish Donegal tweeds, and neat patterned tweeds such as barleycorns, miniature herringbones and checks. It's a movement back to basics, back to traditional English cloth and styling."

Dougal Munro, president of the renowned British cloth firm of Holland & Sherry Inc., confirms this shift towards more substantially finished cloth, "particularly in more sophisticated suiting for both town and country," he notes. "We do an extensive range of tweeds we call 'Country Elegance.' They're only 11 to 13 ounces, but perform just like the older, heavier cloths which, at 16 and 18 ounces, were too heavy for the American market. These newer, lighter tweeds tailor and drape just as well, and are just as durable."

Holland & Sherry has also taken a renewed interest in Donegals, with an extensive range of 11-ounce tweeds in some 20-odd beautiful colorings, from darkest tobacco brown to palest golden grain, with everything in between from indigo to olive, but with an emphasis on lighter and brighter shades this season.

Flannels are the other resurgent cloths this year. "Being a designer of classic English-styled clothing," says Edgar Pomeroy, Atlanta's flamboyant Anglophiliac custom menswear designer, "I prefer to work with English fabrics that weigh between 10 and 12 ounces in the Super 100s and 120s ranges. They tend to have good drape and a soft hand, and they hold their shape better. I favor the slightly napped surface texture of the woolen flannels and mill-finished worsted flannels. There's nothing quite as elegant as a classic double-breasted, chalk-striped flannel suit for making a noted sartorial statement."

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