Menswear experts often fall into two camps—those romantics who revel in traditional heavy-weight tweeds and full-bodied worsteds, and those who, recognizing that the modern world is full of innovation not the least of which is climate control, find the heavy stuff largely irrelevant and instead seek the super-duperest of gossamer cloths. Members of the first group usually make better drinking company. But those that embrace innovation have the advantage of science, which supports the notion that if we are to spend most our time pattering around the comfortably conditioned indoors, we might as well do it in as pajama-like a state as possible. As the business robe has not yet been invented, cloths for tailored garments have increasingly moved towards the soft, light and breathable. But I’d like to introduce an inconvenient truth: many of these same advocates of modern cloth are quite happy to recommend heavy knits for casual wear. Surely this is a chink in the logic.
I was invited not so long ago to take a tour of what I suspect is the future of high-end ready-to-wear: a high-profile membership retailer. These operations work by enticing potential customers with warmer, friendlier shopping environs and merchandise not usually found at some of the bigger names in retail. I was plied with cold beer and told by numerous attractive saleswomen how good I would look in one thing or another. I must admit, it was a heady experience, particularly once ensconced in a rich chesterfield while samples of cloth and accessories were paraded before me. But something rankled; the cloth for suits and jackets was no more substantial than velum, but the casual knits were as lofty and heavy as attic insulation. Why no balance? What about some singly ply merino to slip beneath a dense flannel jacket? What about some practical tweed, say around fourteen ounces?
That said, I am not anti-heavy knit. In fact I have a small but loved collection of the heaviest specimens. My favorite is perhaps a four-ply camelhair cardigan with leather buttons and a shawl collar that stands four inches off the neck and is warmer than most outerwear. Fairisles—wiry wool sweaters knitted in involved patterns on the minuscule and remote Scottish island of the same name—are a favorite, despite being rather difficult to wear. For me they are purely for those outdoor occasions when layers are called for, like caroling. Serving in a similar capacity is another classic: the Guernsey. Mine is heavy with lanolin, virtually waterproof and about as heavy as a shirt of mail. I’m also in pursuit of an Aran, the familiar Irish equivalent of hardy, sea-worthy knitwear that features unique knitting patterns said—and this is awful—to be one way the wives of washed-ashore dead fisherman could be identified. Morbid, but warm.
I suppose warmth is why the fashion angle irks me. How can the desire to have it go in and out of style from one F/W collection to the next? Surely being cold in skimpy clothes is never in fashion, so why would the necessary articles for staying truly warm be in flux? Actually, the larger question is why is retail fashion continuously polarizing itself into the extremes of lightweight ventilation and stifling loft? Though increasingly hard to come by, I can vouch for the middle.