Above are samples of Robert Noble’s Gamekeeper tweed. I found them after reading Eric Musgrave’s post about Kathryn Sargent, and seeing the handsome Robert Noble tweed jacket he had her make up for him. This is some really, really beautiful stuff.
Country Mouse & City Mouse
Almost all of menswear’s tradition is based in England, and particularly the England of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The lifestyle of the upper and upper-middle classes at the time - professionals and gentry alike - was sharply defined by geography. If you had the money, you lived two lives: one in the city, one in the country. Each of these lives had a wardrobe, and each of these wardrobes was distinctive.
This separation still shapes our dress today. Let’s take a look at how.
You can see this distinction if you watch a period television show. Jeeves & Wooster is a favorite of mine, with two brilliantly hilarious performances from Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. As Bertie Wooster, Laurie flits between city and country, discarding his conservative urban attire (left), and donning country togs (right). Sometimes absurdly outrageous ones.
As Downton Abbey has crossed the threshold of World War One and moved toward modernity, the clothes have become more recognizable there, as well. Since almost all the action on the show takes place on a country estate, you’ll see almost exclusively country clothes. You’ll also recognize the role that outdoor sports have played in the development of menswear, and of the distinction between country and city.
But is this antiquated tradition meaningful to us in modern times? Do we owe anything to the gentlemen above, passing each other on the train platform, one headed into town, one out?
Let’s start simply, though, by defining better what “country” and “city” clothes are.
What Are City Clothes?
Broadly speaking, city clothes are made to match the aesthetics and demands of city life. That means they’re largely built for business.
- An urban color palette of gray and blue.
- Solid-colored suits.
- Business-striped suits.
- Small-scale checks in conservative colors.
- Worsted wool.
- Black leather shoes and accessories.
- Color in patterned shirts and (in some cases) ties.
- Dressing down from suits with conservative blazers.
What are Country Clothes?
Country clothes are defined by their sporting heritage and their ties to the colors of the outdoors.
- A country color palette featuring the colors of nature, like tans, browns, and greens, with sometimes-bold complimentary accents, like burgundy and orange.
- Frequent use of bold patterns, like checks and multi-colored tweeds.
- Suits often replaced with sport coats and odd (non-matching) trousers.
- Sporting details like hacking pockets, ticket pockets, patch pockets and leather buttons.
- Fabrics with soft finishes and sporting heritage, like tweed, corduroy and flannel.
- Brown leather accessories, including suede and heavier shoes and boots.
What does this mean today?
Unless you’re a member of the House of Lords, it’s unlikely that you’ll be flitting between a Mayfair manor and a country house, with a special wardrobe for each and a valet like Jeeves to keep you dressed appropriately for your milieu. Many folks in the first world live between country and city these days, in suburban and exurban environments that are neither dominated by gray concrete nor appropriate for grouse hunting. The days of strict adherence to the line between country and city are over - but understanding the line is still important.
Remember that these lines aren’t just about place, they’re also about tone. City clothes are still the most appropriate for most business contexts. Show up to court in tweed and you’ll still look foolish in the 21st century. Country clothes are still the most relaxed - that’s why you can wear heavy country brogues with jeans but sleek black cap-toes would look out of place.
So consider the tone of the place where you live, and the activities that make up your daily life. If you’re a city lawyer, your wardrobe should be dominated by traditional city clothes. On weekends, you can dabble in country garb. If you live in the outskirts of Savannah, where you’re a graphic artist, you can wear blue jeans and tweed without looking out of place at the Piggly Wiggly. No matter what you choose to wear, let it be informed by a hundred years of history and tradition.
A nice guy at Richmond Park asked “do you mind if I take a picture of the photographers in the tweed caps?”
Our London team.
Wearing semi-matching hats completely accidentally. It was cold outside.
Just saw a note over on StyleForum that our friends Kieran & Shaun Molloy at Molloy & Sons have gotten some stock together for retail sale. This is a relief to me, as ever since I posted our video on the Molloys, I’ve been inundated with questions about when consumers will be able to buy yardage from them. The price is a modest 39 Euros per meter, and they have a selection of basic styles in a traditional heavy weight of 18 oz for the plains and 20.5 for the herringbones. You can see the selection on Flickr here, and get in touch with Shaun & Kieran directly here to place an order.
I had the first length I bought while I was visiting the Molloys made up into a suit last month, and you’ll be able to see it in our second season.
One of my favorite blogs, Heavy Tweed Jacket, has a habit of long hiatuses wherein he takes down his content completely. Luckily, he’s back, posting pictures of Secretary of State Dean Atcheson in three-piece tweed suits. Which is tremendous.
“The tweed hat is favored by men of intellect and science, who would not wish either their foreheads or their thinking to be restricted by rigid hats.”— Bernhard Roetzel, “Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion”
This is the picture I’m taking to my tailor when I get my Donegal tweed made up.
David Saxby & Old Hat
On my recent trip to the UK, I had the good fortune to spend a couple of days in London, and I decided to head out to what I’d heard was the best vintage store in town: Old Hat. It’s on the Fulham High Street, which is about a half-hour train ride from the center of town, but it certainly delivers on its promise.
It’s actually more of a complex than a shop, with three storefronts - men’s vintage, women’s vintage and a made-to-measure gallery. Old Hat is a classic vintage shop, with racks and racks of dusty tailored clothing, ranging from the perfectly good (ready-to-wear Daks) to the fantastic (Savile Row bespoke). The lower level looks like the basement where your elementary school held gym class when it was raining, with pipes running here and there and halogen torchieres providing the light. My kind of place, in other words.
It’s the kind of spot where there are piles of trousers for day formal on top of the counter, and fifteen or twenty feet of rack space dedicated to evening wear. The staff is lovely and pleasant, and while I went home empty-handed, it was a blast to visit the store.
Even more of a blast was connecting with the owner of the place, David Saxby. Saxby was behind at the counter at the made-to-measure shop that bears his name. It’s filled to the brim with classic country clothes in bulletproof tweeds. There are stacks of sock garters and piles of driving caps on every surface. Saxby himself is a charming and fascinating host.
He told me he got into vintage clothes after a stint as a camera dealer (before that, he’d been a professional photographer). When he wanted more country clothes than he could buy second-hand, he started contracting with English manufacturers to make them for his customers. One by one, the manufacturers shut their doors, until David found himself buying the plant and hiring the staff of the last. Now, his factory, an hour or so outside London, makes the kind of rare breed clothes you really can’t find anywhere else, short of bespoke.
When I was there, David was wearing a preposterously loud country ensemble, and he looked spectacular. His manner matched his look - sharp, funny and very slightly outrageous. We discussed suit silhouettes (he only makes one and three-button coats), Fred Astaire (he says if Fred Astaire wore a butonniere with a pocket square, then it’s right, because Fred Astaire is Fred Astaire), the best American factory-made suits (that’s Oxxford, if you’re keeping track) and more. I’d meant to get back on the train and hit another shop before heading back to my wife and baby, but between the conversation and digging in Old Hat, I ended up in Fulham for two hours.
If you’re in London, or making a trip, be sure to stop by and say “hi.” You’ll enjoy the experience.
Donegal Tweed at Molloy & Sons
I just got back from a visit to the UK and Ireland, and one of the highlights was a sidetrip to Donegal, and the two-man woolen mill operated by Shaun Molloy and his son Kieran.
Donegal’s in the northwest corner of the Emerald Isle, and it’s known for its distinctive tweed. Donegal tweed is easy to pick out from other styles - its hallmark is the nubby flecks of color in the weave. Fabrics that may look like one color on the surface reveal a rainbow when you get in closer. It’s a look that’s been sought after for a couple hundred years now.
Shaun and Kieran come from generations of weavers. Shaun’s father, John, founded a woolen mill in the mid-20th century, but over the years that mill has gone from making tweed to making knits almost exclusively.
A couple of years ago, Kieran brought an industrial design degree back home, and he and his father decided to take the tweed-making equipment out of mothballs and start up a tiny artisinal weaving company. They called it Molloy & Sons.
The Molloy archive of patterns stretches back into the 60s, and the pattern has to be transformed from a swatch on the page into a pallette and a set of instructions.
The process of making tweed starts with dyed wool. It’s processed into yarn in Donegal, according to the Molloy’s specifications.
Then, that yarn is taken from its spools to a huge de-spooling machine, which sets it up to be woven. (All of these machines, by the way, are forty-plus years old.) When I was there, they were working on a fabric with a pretty simple color scheme (for a company whose name rhymes with “day shoe”), but for more colorful fabrics, every color has to be in exactly the right place.
Once the yarn’s unspooled, the Molloys program the weaving pattern into the big mechanical loom. Believe it or not, they do it with punchcards.
The long threads that go through the machine are called the warp. The machine’s job is to lift these up and down while shuttling through the weft yarn, which weaves over and under, back and forth, so fast you it doesn’t even show up in video.
The flecks, which you can see even in this black-and-white pattern, come from wool that’s been washed and felted before it’s spun into yarn. Because little bits of color are felted and don’t stretch out, they just glob onto the yarn like bubble gum on a piano string.
The flecks are a built in defect, in a way. Because they’re so unpredictable, the machine runs at a quarter the speed it would if it were weaving a plain worsted wool, like you might see in a suit at Macy’s. Shaun and Kieran have to keep a constant eye on things, tending to these imperfections as they come along.
Once the fabric comes out of the machine, they load it onto a huge roller, and run it through to check for problems. Their goal is to make a product that’s perfectly imperfect.
Weaving used to be one of Donegal’s largest industries, but today it’s almost gone. Unlike Harris & Lewis, where Harris Tweed is made, there are no trade protections for Donegal Tweed. Anyone can call anything “Donegal Tweed.” If you see a tweed in the store in a Donegal style, it was most likely woven on the cheap in China or Italy.
When Shaun and Kieran started making tweed again, there was only one tweed mill left in Donegal. Their factory, if you can call it that, sits just a few steps from the house where Kieran grew up… and where his father Shaun was raised. Something like half a dozen generations of weavers have lived there, in fact.
These guys aren’t quaint, and they’re not museum pieces for tourists to gawk at. They’re two sharp businessmen determined to develop a craft that has helped define who they were, who their families were, and what their home is. I think that’s pretty spectacular.