I have always been fascinated by material. It has consistently amazed me how many variations of texture, weave and tactility can be conjured from tiny strands of fabric; not only how one weave might be superior to another, or one construction stronger than another but also how those fabrics, like all good things designed for practical purposes, can be so different in effect. I like many fabrics but there are some that I simply adore for their aesthetic quality; certain materials are like art – they can summon the same feeling that a painting or a sculpture can, they can provoke reactions and approvals similar to a fine piece of music or a touching moment in literature. For me, material is the poetry of an ensemble.
Linen is one of those materials that acquires a beautiful character as it is worn and ages through use. Unlike other materials, which are arguably at their best when new, linen can often look too raw and naïve when fresh; a little wrinkling and wear, particularly on the sleeves of a linen jacket or around the knees of a pair of linen trousers, add to the aesthetic appeal of the fabric.
The most important point about the texture of linen is that it should gain an ever so slightly oily patina, like an old canvas as it ages. I once had the privilege of viewing some vintage 1930s biscuit coloured linen suits that had been collected for a student play; though a little frayed at the sleeve and hem, the character of the linen was remarkable. I am looking forward to seeing my own linen suit advance in character this summer.
Is there is a more elegant or subtle fabric for a suit? Wool flannel, the favourite of Astaire, has a discreet grace that gives a gentleman an air of undeniable sophistication. The matt texture, mellow reflective quality and warm touch also make it one of the more friendly fabrics; pleasant to touch as well as to behold. When crisply pressed, and worn with a brilliant white shirt, the wool flannel lords it. The slight flecks of wool, detectable in the light, add a pleasant imperfection that saves the fabric from appearing anything other than natural. In a sea of shiny suits, the wool flannel stands out as a distinguished choice.
Like well worn linen, cotton seersucker looks splendid when it has been, as they say, ‘around the blocks a few times.’ The beauty of it is that it is so casual a fabric that almost nothing added to it can make an ensemble look overdone; silk handkerchiefs, bow ties or waistcoats, the ‘bumpy’ seersucker, though certainly not a scruffy material, manages to downplay any attempt at overdressing. The bunching together of the threads, which causes the rippled texture, has an aesthetic as well as a practical value. It roughens the overall texture of the cloth, eradicating any ‘sheen’ the cloth might have. This means that seersucker has a dull, almost dishcloth texture; while this sounds dreadful, it is actually a positive thing, providing the perfect foil for silk ties and fine weave shirts in the summer heat.
When I was a lad, I used to think the fabric for my father’s knitted silk ties came from some kind of gruff, rough-haired wild animal – the last fabric I would have suggested would have been silk; a fabric I generally knew, from my mother’s scarves and hair ribbons, to be a smooth and glossy material that I loved to press my cheek to. The beauty of knitted silk is precisely that; that it doesn’t look like silk a lot of the time. When it is an especially bright day, and the little strands of silk are caught in the light, it is unmistakable but I prefer it for it’s slightly coarse and naïve construction, particularly when patterned, that contrasts wonderfully with smooth jackets and creamy shirts.