WHEN Ben Affleck wore a Harris Tweed jacket as a CIA man in the 2012 film Argo, it was revealed that this was the uniform for US spies throughout the Cold War. Production crew on Argo spoke to the real-life spy Tony Mendez, to ask him what he wore during his covert trip to Iran. He told them it was a Harris Tweed jacket and slacks, with Harris Tweed acting as a subtle means of indicating their work in covert international operations against Russia. "That was our uniform," Mendez told The Guardian. "The jackets were representative of our group. Those of us in the CIA who did overseas work, work in the field. If you were in the field during the Blitz, you wore a trench coat. If you were tracking Ivan [the Soviet Union and its allies] you had Harris Tweed."

So what was it about Harris Tweed that made it the CIA choice of fashion? It’s a jacket unobtrusive enough not to attract attention, it has sedate connotations as the clothing of Oxford dons, but it also indicates a certain individual flair.

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With its sense of uniform formality as well as the opportunity for different colour and texture combinations, tweed lends itself to being distinct. It came to represent the dandy, Ivy League style and the mod. It traversed the wardrobe of aristocrats spending their weekends taking part in country pursuits such as hunting and shooting, as well as those of teachers and professors with their obligatory elbow patches. In the last decade, tweed has become an ironic statement.

While Harris Tweed’s history is of a practical

fabric produced by Scottish crofters in the Outer Hebrides, it was Scots such as Sir Walter Scott who in the 1830s influenced a fashion for gentlemen to wear tweed trousers and shooting jackets. As a warm, hardy fabric it was ideal for outdoor sportswear. It was also the work of the influential Catherine Murray, Lady Dunmore, who brought Harris Tweed from the Outer Hebrides to the salons of London. "Harris tweed was a cottage

tweed, and Lady Dunmore saw it as a way of crofters being able to make money," commented Anne Dunmore, the current Countess of Dunmore. "So she took it off the island and showed it to friends, and marketed it to places like Liberty of London. She had a circle of influential friends, and so was the ideal person to get the industry going. She thought she would give it a chance and succeeded with it."


With the advent of the bicycle, a fantastic new mode of transport that allowed men, and women, to travel around independently, tweed was used to create fashionable cycle-wear.

Cycling became a craze for women in the 1890s,

as they could independently travel the streets without the need for a carriage, a horse or a male companion. However, one concern was finding practical women’s cycling clothes, particularly as the fashions at that time were for frills and froth. The cycling woman of the 1890s therefore chose tweed instead of silks and lace, and on the cover of Ella Hepworth Dixon’s The Story Of A Modern Woman, written in 1894, is a photograph of

a female cyclist with tweed jacket and bloomers.

Comfortable sports clothes were further pushed

by the Rational Dress Society, a feminist movement founded in the 1880s to promote practical clothes for women, with a recommended maximum weight for clothing of 3.2kg/7lb. Contemporary fashion with its bustles and corsets "impedes the movement of the body" to make "healthy exercise almost impossible", the Rational Dress Society wrote in the introduction to its gazette.

An outdoor outfit consisting of a fitted tweed jacket and skirt had become fashionable daywear for women by the 1890s, particularly with the founding of ladies’ clubs for cricket, golf and hockey. Meanwhile long tweed trousers could be worn under skirts, allowing for ease of movement when taking part in outdoor sports such as riding.

Golfer May Hezlet, who won her first British Ladies Amateur title in 1899, described her ideal outfit as a tweed skirt 6 inches off the ground, with a coat to match, or a woollen or silk jersey, and a pair of good shoes with square heels. There were criticisms of this type of clothing for women as tweed jackets and caps were considered mannish. Punch magazine suggested it was more charming for women to appear in "ribbons and laces", and "feminine graces", by critiquing in a rhyme: "With garments for walking, and tennis, and talking, All terribly manful and too trouseresque/And habits for riding, for skating, or sliding/With ‘rational’

features they claim to possess ..."

While tweed was seen as too masculine and

brusque for women, it would gain another famous

Victorian depiction – and one that would influence

the steampunk subculture more than 100 years later. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes became known for wearing tweed after etchings by Sidney Paget appeared alongside Doyle’s stories in the Strand, a Victorian magazine. Paget, an artist based in Finchley, produced more than 200 illustrations of Sherlock Holmes between 1891 and 1893, and a further 155 between 1901 and 1904, with Holmes dressed in a deerstalker cap and Inverness cape. The tweed cape and cap became an integral part of the character’s depictio in film and television, although Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern incarnation of Holmes wears a Belstaff Milford coat – first made in the 1920s and inspired by a 19th-century heavy tweed coat.

By 1901, tweed had become such a popular fabric

that there was even a tuberculosis scare in London,

believed to be carried in the fibres of jackets made from Harris Tweed. According to the New York Times the tweed was: "largely worn in men’s sporting clothes and rough wear suits generally, which is made in little, ill-ventilated, single-room cabins by peasants among whom consumption prevails. It is believed that the cloth sent from these huts is full of whatever bacteria are generated

or developed in them."

After the First World War, with clothes offering more freedom for women, and a relaxed sportswear look for men becoming increasingly common, tweed became widespread in male and female fashion. A tweed jacket was useful for motoring, while tweed plus fours were perfect for keeping warm on the golf course. The 1920s was the era of the dandy, with sports casual and dandy fashions at universities. The Duke of Windsor, at that time the most fashionable man on the planet, made tweeds a must-have, while also representing the foppish

masculinity of the jazz age. Coco Chanel also championed tweed as

a comfortable, practical yet stylish cloth for women.

The Ivy League

American men typically dressed in a more casual way than their British counterparts, and on the university campuses they combined this sporty style with British tailoring, as London, particularly on Savile Row, was considered the centre of excellence for tailoring. To reflect this very British style, manufacturers such as Brooks Brothers purchased Scottish- and English-made tweeds, with Harris Tweed a particular favourite.

Apparel Arts, a guide to dressing for young American college students, launched in 1931. The March 1937 edition noted the college man spent 51 per cent more on clothes than the "average man", and Princeton University was the leader when it came to sartorial tips. A freshman would arrive at Princeton and soon learn how to set style trends for the whole country, with a tweed jacket as an essential item for the dress-down sporty look, worn with button-down shirts.

Throughout the 1950s, this Ivy League style would also be worn on Wall Street, Madison Avenue and by modern jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. The shops on campus would be the place to buy these essentials – Harris Tweed, Madras sports jackets, seersuckers, grey flannel suits and Shetland jumpers.

British mods, originally a group of jazz fans who

frequented the Flamingo club in London’s Soho, were inspired by Miles Davis to adopt Ivy League style mixed with Italian tailoring. As mod fashion swept the country, the houndstooth check was used to create zippy jackets and skirts for its black-and-white geometric design, which suited modernist, Op Art sentiment.

With punk, skinhead and glam-rock subcultures

taking over fashion in the 1970s, designers such as

Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren offered a clean Ivy League alternative with their wholesome, all-American, preppy style of ties, tweeds and chinos.


At the start of the 1980s, as the economy in Britain was making a recovery, a new style tribe that celebrated an aspirational way of life gathered around Fulham and Sloane Square. In an update of the Mitford sisters’ U and Non-U lists, these Sloane Rangers (as they were nicknamed) were upper-class men and women from the country, bringing to the city fashions such as tweed coats and skirts, wellies, body-warmers, lamb’s wool sweaters and pearls. Following ITV’s production of Brideshead Revisited in 1981 and the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, nostalgia was in the air for an upper-class lifestyle, now seemingly in reach of the middle classes. Sloanes were regular visitors to Annabel’s nightclub or Ménage à Trois for an Iron Lady cocktail, and shopped at Harvey Nichols, Harrods (or ’Rods) and

Peter Jones department store.

In 1982, the Official Sloane Ranger Handbook by Peter York and Ann Barr became a bestseller as it captured the aspirational mood of the time. The handbook identified the typical Sloane Ranger as "Caroline", or "Henry", and this was picked up by the New York Times in its profile piece on the Sloane in 1984: "Henry will be wearing a bespoke suit, dotted tie and silk handkerchief (probably also spotted). Or, perhaps, he will sport his casual garb:

jeans, decent tweed jacket and either a navy Guernsey or olive army sweater; sometimes he will brighten the outfit with a yellow pullover."

The style of these "Hooray Henrys" would influence a new public-schoolboy fashion, with fashion editor Suzy Menkes writing in The Times in 1982 of a menswear trend for tweed, worn with striped ties, braces and waistcoats: "Tweed, and especially the overgrown school coat, is one of the strongest threads in the public school style ... Margaret Howell, whose quiet English style tunes in delicately to the current look, has also made a tweed greatcoat that looks as though it belongs on a peg in the gunroom of some draughty country house."

In the mid-1980s, the preppy fashion for gentlemen

in tweeds continued as the economy boomed. A group calling themselves the Young Fogeys wore their tweeds with Viyella shirts, knitted ties, V-necked sweaters and waistcoats. The new Savile Row tailors such as David Chambers created bespoke tweeds for Bryan Ferry and David Bowie, while Tommy Nutter was known for his loud tweed suits that referenced the Duke of Windsor and were worn with herringbone tweed trousers and dandyish brocade waistcoats. Marks & Spencer reported in 1985 that their Harris Tweed jackets were bestsellers, while herringbone tailoring was one of the hot trends at Harrods.

However, by 1990 the popularity of tweed crashed with the stock market – as gentleman tailoring became a fragment of the 1980s in the face of grunge and acid house. Yet, a decade later, London had positioned itself as a city for billionaires, with sky-rocketing real estate in Knightsbridge and Mayfair, and Russian oligarchs and Saudis outpricing London bankers. After marrying film director Guy Ritchie in 2000, Madonna reinvented herself as lady of the manor, and she moved to a Georgian mansion in Wiltshire and took up horse

riding and clay pigeon shooting. She threw herself into the English country lifestyle to suit her husband, known for his preference for all things British and for sporting a tweed cap and Barbour jacket. In August 2005, Clare Raymond wrote in the Mirror that: "She bought suitable clothes, including a tweed hunting vest, moleskin trousers, a £975 cashmere field coat, knee-length

breeches and a £65 cashmere shooting cap. She is the perfect hostess at their shooting parties, attended by showbiz friends who call her simply M – among them Brad Pitt, Sting, Vinnie Jones and chef Marco Pierre White."

By 2010, Kate Middleton had heralded a new

generation of Sloane Ranger, with her casual wardrobe of tweed skirts, jackets and jeans, and her glossy mane of hair. With the influence of Made In Chelsea, combined with the new money excess of The Only Way Is Essex, fashion was once again about showcasing wealth and making upper-class statements. According to Tatler in 2013, the East End "has the fastest growing Sloane tribe".

Popular British label Jack Wills referenced old British gentry and, as part of the millennial hipster movement, tweed returned as pastiche on the streets of Shoreditch. A neo-Victorian fashion for tweeds, waistcoats, brogues and beards was a way to look nostalgically to the past at a time of economic hardship and terror threats. It seemed that people looked for a notion of comfort in the face of adversity, and with this nostalgic way of dress was a desire for locally sourced, organic foods and environmental-consciousness. Because tweed was the ultimate long-lasting fabric (the Duke of Windsor boasted that he still wore a tweed jacket owned by his grandfather from the 1890s), it was a good choice for those interested in recycling clothes by wearing vintage or highly durable fabrics.

Similarly steampunks took up tweeds worn in a

Victorian style but with a futuristic twist. The "dress-up" fantasy subculture was inspired by Victorian science fiction writers such as HG Wells and Jules Verne, and tweed jackets, with their links to Sherlock Holmes and Victorian gentlemen, became part of the costume.

Vivienne Westwood was actually the first designer with a steampunk vision when she launched her Time Machine collection in 1988, combining tweed with corsetry, following the designer’s rich tradition of plundering 18th-century fashion and British fabrics.

The new interest in tweed had gone mainstream by 2010, with Matt Smith dressed in a tweed jacket as the 11th Doctor Who. Doc Martens and Nike produced shoes made in tweed, and bespoke tweed garments from Savile Row tailors such as Huntsman or Norton & Sons became increasingly popular.

The Tweed Run, first organized in London in 2009

before spreading to cities around the world, references Victorian cyclists, with tweed jackets and plus fours. It described itself as "a metropolitan bicycle ride with a bit of style. We take to the streets in our well-pressed best, and cycle through the city’s iconic landmarks. Along the way, we stop for a tea break and a picnic stop, and we usually end with a bit of a jolly knees-up".

Another movement for the 2010s was Chaps, as

championed through Chap magazine, in which the

lifestyle of a 1940s’ English gentleman was celebrated with vintage tweed, boating blazers, tweed caps and Oxford brogues.

Extracted from Tartan + Tweed by Caroline Young and Ann Martin, published by Frances Lincoln, £25