The story of … tweed

Wearing tweed evokes a complex history spanning fashion, class and gender politics. JoePhilipson

Tweed is a mainstay of traditional tailoring; it is the cloth of royalty and aristocracy, fly-fishers and deerstalkers, bespectacled academics, Doctor Whos, fictional detectives, politicians and leaders of fashion.

Following the thread of this cloth reveals a complex history interwoven with the redefinition of class, gender and fashion from the 19th century to the present.

Tweed trousers and coats, c.1870. Wikimedia Commons

Tweed is a woollen twill cloth woven in herringbone, checked, covert (speckled) and houndstooth patterns. Tweed originated in rural Scotland and is still produced there. Its name reflects both its weave and its national origins. Initially, “tweed” was a misreading of tweel (the Scots form of twill). This misapprehension was aided by the cloth’s association with the River Tweed. The term quickly took off.

Tweed emerged as a fashionable cloth in the 1820s and 1830s thanks to the celebrity of Scotsmen Sir Walter Scott and Lord Brougham, Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, both of whom favoured bold tweed trousers.

Throughout the mid-Victorian period, tweed was popular for country sportswear due to its warmth, breathability and cultural currency. Shooting-jackets, trousers, coats and cloaks were tailored in this cloth. These garments connoted physical strength, endurance and power borrowed from traditional rural masculinity.

Men’s and Women’s bicycle suits, 1896. Pinterest, Butterick Patterns

During the 1860s, the shooting-jacket was refashioned as the lounge-jacket. When matched with a waistcoat and trousers, the modern business suit was born. Tweed suits became fashionable for cosmopolitan men as stalwart rural masculinity gave way to modern middle-class professionalism and respectability.

Towards the end of the 19th century, new tweed cycling-wear represented the desire for social, as well as physical, mobility.

Simultaneously, women refashioned their identities in tweed; they adopted its masculine styles and connotations in a challenge to the sartorial and socio-political coding of late-19th-century gendered roles.

The cycling New Woman was an icon of the 1890s. She traded the laces and silks of women’s fashion for tweed “tailor-mades”. This was both a practical choice and a sign of her rejection of late-Victorian femininity. The New Woman cycled the streets in pursuit of independence, education and equality.

Sporting tweeds. Allison Marchant

In the first decades of the 20th century, tweed became conservative once again, with the Prince of Wales’ characteristic check widely fashionable. Tweed’s genteel, even royal, connections also influenced women’s haute couture.

Inspired by the tweed suits worn by her lover Hugh Grosvenor the Duke of Wellington, French fashion designer Coco Chanel began redesigning such garments for women. From 1924, she commissioned Scottish tweed for her collections and tweed dresses, jackets and skirts remain characteristic of the Chanel “look”.

During the second world war, tweed was both fashionable and practical. In 1939, UK-based luxury clothing manufacturer Aquascutum advertised a “three-piece suit for the wartime cycling girl”. Its combination of jacket, trousers and skirt allowed: “a girl … [to] ride to work … in trousers and then change into a skirt”.

This ensemble represented women’s negotiation of traditional gender roles during the war years as they were expected to work and “keep the home fires burning”.

1960s tweed dress and hat, from The Australian Women’s Weekly, 15 June 1960. Bess Georgette

During the 1960s, tweed became radical. The abstract patterns and contrasting colours of check and houndstooth suited the contemporary aesthetic. Women’s mini-skirts and swing coats and men’s flared plaid trousers were tailored in these cloths.

Instead of representing professionalism and respectability, tweed became popular with the young, fashionable and politically progressive.

In 1987, English fashion designer Vivienne Westwood reinvented tweed and British tailoring traditions for another generation in her historically- and punk-inspired “Harris Tweed” collection.

Tweed then fell out of fashion and the only people wearing it were bespectacled academics and frequenters of op-shops. The cloth became associated with conservative and old-fashioned values.

In the 21st century, fashion houses have dictated that “Tweed is Chic” again. Its use is driven by its high quality and informed by its complex history and connotations.

London Tweed Run. Rion Nakaya

The Tweed Run, inaugurated in London in 2009, is now held in cities worldwide. This “Metropolitan Cycle Ride With a Bit of Style” sees the streets teem with cyclists in neo-Victorian tweed plus-fours, bloomers and jackets.

In a nod to history and fashion, Doctor Who, Robert Langdon, Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple are costumed in tweed suits and overcoats.

Doc Martens produces iconic shoes in Harris Tweed as part of its Made In England range, drawing on both the cloth’s quality as a handmade British product and its punk heritage.

Nike also has a range of shoes in Harris Tweed and leather, indicating a shift in tweed’s associations from traditionally upper-class country sportswear to modern streetwear.

Harris Tweed swoosh. The Croft

At the other end of fashion, Versace and Moschino release tweed mini-kilts and tartan suits influenced by 1960s’ fashion and the punk styles of the 1980s. Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, Paul Smith, Ralph Lauren and Commes de Garçon, amongst others, borrow from 19th and 20th-century traditions in their tailoring.

In the 21st century, wearing tweed evokes this complex history and its negotiation of fashion, class and gender politics. Tweed is at once traditional, professional, old-fashioned, haute couture and radical.

As a young female academic and tweed wearer, I revel in evoking and refashioning these styles and traditions.


See also:
The story of … the men’s white shirt
The story of … the top hat

Are you an academic or researcher? Is there a fashion item – iconic, everyday or utilitarian – you would like to tell the story of? Contact the Arts + Culture editor with your idea.