No need to wait until the ‘Glorious 12th’, the twelfth of August to take to the hills in Highland gear when you can take to the streets any time in tempting tweed. The dish you’re after may not be that fat pheasant, but rather that elegant young heir to a wild Highland estate!
Tweeds are synonymous with hunting, shooting and fishing, the Highland Estate and the grand gatherings that take to the moors and mountains in pursuit of game. The British Isles are still blessed with true wild patches – from the stormy Irish West coast to the rugged Scottish Highlands, places still empty of people and their trappings and very much the way it has always been. Civilization is limited to narrow winding roads, tiny cottages clinging to open hillsides and the odd crumbling castle sheltered behind a few ancient wind-bent trees. All of this, of course, overseen by the ever-watchful armies of sheep!
The hardy highland sheep gave us tough and trusty tweed, a subtly patterned weave of local wool, originally dyed with native lichen and wildflower pigments since the early 18th century. Warm and cosy, neck-to-toe, traditionally the faithful fabric for farmers in Scotland and Ireland. Not particular to any one town or particular place, the name was apparently a mistake, when a London merchant mistook the old Scots word ‘twill’ for a description for the River Tweed in Scotland.
Originally, a very fitting camouflage, those mossy greens and purple heather marls are so of the wild Highland landscape, and yet now unmistakably iconic. To boot, the trusty steed, the matching Land Rover, the Artisan’s bonnet, the green Hunter wellie boots, the obligatory Fortnum & Mason picnic hamper, the hip flask of the best Aberlour 18 year-old single malt whisky and we’re off (and don’t forget your shotguns and fishing rods)! And so to the expedition, the pursuit of ‘game’ of all sorts, from passion to pleasure, pheasant to fashion. Oh, and beware of Barbour jacket-clad secret agents having a Skyfall shoot out …
Watch Skyfall Movie trailer here:
Gamekeepers and ghillies (stalkers), lairds (untitled lords) and landowners have bedecked themselves in tweed for the great outdoors for centuries. The 19th century fascination for wild Scotland with its vast Highland deer park estates, endless salmon and trout-rich fly-fishing rivers
and magical mountains hugging ruined castles, were all promoted by the writings of Sir Walter Scott who would put tweed on the map forever as the appropriate dress for the landed elite. Tweed garb was the sportswear of the day in the 19th century, albeit mostly for the male aristocratic ‘game’, but it also provided an escape for women, letting them wear something practical, shapely and less socially confining.
Today Harris Tweed is the leading tweed brand, woven in small batches on Scotland’s Outer Hebrides Islands, still a cottage industry on the wild remote Atlantic west coast. Extensively used on the mainland, but also exported to over 50 countries – to haute couture fashion houses, New York tailors and multi-national companies – Harris Tweed is a stalwart cloth to the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Yohji Yamamoto and Thom Browne.
Scotland’s famous tweed houses, such as House of Bruar, Johnstons of Elgin and Barbour, with the shooting and fishing clothing traditions as their backbone, supply the finest of outerwear … indeed robust enough for a Scottish summer! Jackets, waistcoats, breeches, trousers, skirts, coats and bags are made of the hardy, yet subtly coloured tweed wools, often adorned with shiny brass, antler horn and local leather.
Judy R Clark, a clothing designer based in Edinburgh, uses tweed in a contemporary, elegant and charming way, exploiting its subtle shades and tactile texture to the full. The late Stella Tennant, 90s supermodel and face of the Scottish Highlands, regularly modelled Isabella Cawdor’s relaxed minimalist high couture Scottish offerings. Isabella Cawdor’s aim was to keep with the tradition of keeping it simple, improving the cut, and exploiting the fall and weight of the cloth.
Across the Atlantic, Ralph Lauren leads the US market for tweed, appealing to that same country set – the country house brigade with its estate, horses and ridings. Perhaps not as cold and wet as its Scottish origins, his tweed world operates on the same narrative as its British counterpart: the thrill of the wild, the comfort of the lodge, the stylish enduring traditional dress and accompanying lifestyle.
Perhaps the most poignant exponent of the tweed tradition was the late Alexander McQueen, who, in his amazing 2006 show The Widows of Culloden offered an insight into one of the darker aspects of his own, and Highland history. Using Highland fabric and fauna, a troubled McQueen’s ghostly tweed-clad figures strut out of a time past, as if the horror and loss of the clan way of life on the Culloden battlefield is still with us and waiting to be exorcised. Topped with fluttering birds wing head-dresses, suggestive of carnage and flight, the ladies are dressed in immaculately cut and crafted tweed coats.
Watch Alexander McQueen’s Widows of Culloden 2006 here:
Vivienne Westwood, outrageously creative as ever, is the headline-grabbing designer who firmly put Celtic traditional elements – from crowns and orbs to tweeds and tartans – on the global map. Her crazy fashion alchemy mixed punk and royalty, hence traditional tweed with bawdy burlesque should be more than expected! She can never say never! Perhaps a little more tartan than tweed over the years, Vivienne none-the-less injects an explosive glamour into this traditional ‘dyed in the wool’ culture, bringing fun, joy and humour. Her ladylike, exquisitely crafted, soft and subtle hand bags so contrast with her punk tweed thigh booted showgirls in the Vivienne Westwood X Vienna State Ballet Collection.
New York’s Thom Browne is obsessed with monochromatic tweed in his ever-expanding male female cross-over wardrobes. His preppy black, white & red plaids and tweeds dominate his ‘uniform’ collections, which are like reduced colour-way comic book prints of an alternative school and college reality. All converges into a cultural frenzy with his 2022 show, where sporting tweed meets gender bending in The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party of distortion, exaggeration and supreme impracticality! But hey, ho, genius has never looked more tweedy!
Watch Thom Browne’s extraordinary Fall 2022 show here:
Like all good traditions, Tweed and its world was born from need and functionality. Now having woven its way around the world and into all layers of lifestyle and fashion, tweed is an apex fashion predator, hunting in all lands!
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