Cool Threads For Summer

Cool, Light and Unconstructed are the Breezy Bywords in Luxurious Warm-Weather Suitings
| By G. Bruce Boyer | From Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

"There are cloths today, the super 100s and 120s, that weigh as little as seven ounces, and are incredibly wrinkle-resistant. And they tailor well."

The speaker is Manhattan custom tailor Vincenzo Sanitate, a man who knows whereof he speaks when it comes to fine cloths and clothes. "We like fully unconstructed jackets and trousers for warm weather: no pads, no chest pieces, no thick trouser waistbands. We use featherweight fabrics, pockets and interlinings. You can have a summer suit that weighs practically nothing, and yet holds up well enough to heat, humidity and dry cleaning."

It's not that styling changes so much in traditional men's tailored clothing as there is a continuing attempt to improve the product. Unlike women's clothing, in which styling seems to be everything, men's fashion changes are incredibly subtle. These days, suits and tailored sportswear are in great measure fabric-driven, and the trend in clothing is to luxury fabrics and comfortable construction.

"Absolutely," agrees Massimo Bizzocchi, who represents the prestigious Neapolitan tailoring firm of Kiton, world renowned for its classic hand-tailored garments. "For spring, we are using worsted and crepe cashmeres that weigh only eight ounces, as well as super 180s worsteds at that weight. We like to do these in dressy tones of blue, gray and brown for town suits and in dusty pastels and citrus colorations for sports jacketings. These fabrics have an extraordinarily soft hand and the fibers can take the most delicate tones."

Jack Simpson, owner of Bespoke Enterprises in Manhattan, which produces custom wardrobes for more than a few fashionable men about town, couldn't agree more. "What I see is that many men are now looking for something beyond the dark gray or blue high-performance business suit and navy blazer that they have been wearing as a uniform. They want a range of options, and we provide these by using slightly more unusual cloths with some interesting texture, color and pattern.

"I like mohair blends for spring," continues Simpson. "The newer kid mohairs are softer and much less brittle than mohair was 20 or 30 years ago. Mohair has an outstanding ability to take color in the dyeing, and the fabric runs the gamut from pale shades to deep and vibrant hues. Today, firms like Dormeuil and Holland & Sherry blend it with fine merino worsteds, which gives the cloth a combination of soft luster and a matte finish, a very sophisticated characteristic of the cloth. It works well with suits, sports coats and even dinner jackets. There are also wonderful seven-ounce Dupioni silks, and a 50/50 super 100s worsted-and-silk blend that combines a soft silk look with considerable wrinkle resistance."

Today, there are two approaches to luxurious summer fabrics: the traditionals and the new classics. The trads include the pure, high-quality cottons (poplins, twills and seersuckers), the silks, the linens (Irish and Italian) and the worsted tropicals. Most manufacturers produce these cloths, tailors have the swatch books, and retailers stock them in suits and sports jackets. It's the new classics, which have emerged during the last quarter of this century, that make up the most important part of the largest trend in clothing: the movement towards comfort.

Until the 1920s, little concession was made to warm weather. Even though there had been attempts at lighter-weight, more wrinkle-resistant man-made fabrics--"artificial silk" cellulosic fiber was invented in 1889 in France, viscose in England in 1892, and cellulose acetate in Germany in 1899--the natural fibers held the day. In the United States, cotton seersucker was popular in the South, but in other parts of the country men sweltered with a stiff upper--albeit moist--lip. Flannels and gabardines were lightly colored, but still weighed in at 14 and 15 ounces a yard; alpaca was popular because it was a bit lighter in weight, but it was also stiff, scratchy and brittle.

Silk was used for suiting, but good silk was terribly expensive, and not much cooler than mohair. Worsteds for summer were a bit more loosely woven than their winter counterparts. The grandfather of tropical worsteds was called "Fresco" cloth, although it was hardly lightweight by today's standards. At around 13 ounces, the cloth's primary claim was that it was wrinkle-resistant and porous. At a time when there was no air conditioning, and men were told as a matter of business propriety to keep their jackets on even in the office, staying cool was more a matter of temperament and character than lightweight clothing.

By the early 1930s there was some attempt at achieving comfort in summer tailored clothing, as the era of man-made fabrics got under way in earnest. The idea of changing the business costume--i.e., getting rid of the suit-- was never considered an option, strangely enough, and casual Friday lay 60 years in the future. Up to this point summer concessions had consisted of little more than quarter-linings in coats, linen for sports outfits, white flannel and blue serge. Men were still changing into 14-ounce white Shetland suits at Easter time. On May 16, 1937, the writer Raymond Chandler happened to list some fashion outfits in his notebook, presumably clothes for his characters to wear. One of these outfits was a "creamy white Shetland wool sports coat with dark Oxford gray slacks, solid burgundy four-in-hand tie, plaid handkerchief to match, plain white shirt, collar slightly stiffened." Chandler was living, by the way, in Southern California.

During the '30s the Goodall Worsted Co. devised and produced the first successful "blended" fabric--a cotton/mohair combination that it named the "Palm Beach" suit. At around two pounds, nine ounces, it weighed just half of what a normal winter suit did.

By the end of the 1930s, comfort was beginning to be taken seriously. Real summer suits, as we think of them today, began to evolve. As early as mid-century, tropical worsteds had gotten down to nine ounces. Rayon, which had been invented in 1924, was first used for suiting--as were blends of 50/50 rayon and acetate--by 1934. Gabardines, woven in 12- to 13-ounce weights, were popular. Dupont invented nylon, which it introduced at the 1939 New York World's Fair in the form of stockings for women. Fabric for suits would shortly follow.

The Second World War had spurred development of synthetic fibers, as new materials were sought for parachutes, uniforms, airplane seats, tires and hundreds of other products. Polyester and acrylic fibers seemed to be the most important for commercial use, and the first development and use of these manufactured fibers came in the decade and a half after the war. Polyester was trademarked as Dacron by Dupont. Suits made of Dacron, Dacron-worsted and Dacron-cotton were all seen shortly thereafter on the market. The first so-called "wash-and-wear" summer suit was tailored by the Haspel Co. in 1952: a 60/40 blend of Orlon--an acrylic fiber--and cotton.

While the next two decades saw further developments with synthetics, there began to be a movement towards refining the traditional natural fibers. The movement produced the "super" cloths that are garnering so much attention at the upper end of the tailored clothing market today.

"The super cloths and natural blends have definitely been the next important step in tailored clothing these last few years," says Dougal Munro, of the international textile firm of Holland & Sherry. "Our goal has been to maximize the strengths of each cloth to improve the blend. Regular mohair, which was enormously popular in the 1950s and '60s as sophisticated summer suiting, was good, but it had problems: too shiny, too brittle, too scratchy. If you pressed it too often, it split down the creases. Today we blend super 100s merino worsteds with just enough kid mohair to give it a muted luster. Or we blend it with silk and fine wool in a Donegal-weave cloth that looks like tweed, but only weighs eight ounces and can hold its shape.

"Of course we still do pure linens, silks and cottons. Actually, we've got 58 different quality cottons alone, including some beautiful featherweight, pin-cord Italian corduroys which weigh only nine ounces. They're very much a Duke of Windsor sort of thing."

Vincenzo Sanitate agrees about the natural fabrics. "You know, those 100 percent polyester seersuckers and poplins are about the hottest, most uncomfortable thing you can wear. They're not porous, so they don't let body heat and moisture out. You bake in them.

"What I would recommend is one of the supers. The thing to remember is, the higher the number, the more delicate the cloth. So, the 150s and up are really for the man with an extensive wardrobe. They're not everyday suitings. The other fabric I like that is just that bit different is a 100 percent Irish linen, but in a shirting weight of around six ounces. It's got a wonderful slubbed texture and comes in a beautiful range of colors. We make unconstructed sports jackets out of it. You can roll the sleeves back, and you feel like you're wearing the airiest cardigan."

Andrew Tanner, speaking for Isaia, the acclaimed Italian firm of bench-made clothing, agrees that the newer cloths have taken us in two directions. "We prefer the Supers 120s and 150s for important executive suits, the solids and stripes and muted plaids and such. And then there are the crepe-woven cashmeres and silk/wool blends for sports jacketings, and our more casually tailored jackets. These latter fabrics are not the workhorses like the old-fashioned and heavy Irish linens used to be, but because they're crepe-woven--that is, the yarn is twisted round before being made into fabric--it's not as ethereal and fragile as you might think. These are cloths which, in fact, have substance and drape to them."

Bespoke Enterprises (212) 581-9003
Dormeuil (212) 396-4444
Holland & Sherry (212) 758-1911
Isaia (212) 245-3733
Kiton (212) 702-0136
Vincenzo Sanitate (212) 755-0937