Harris Tweed and a Tail of Vents

By Jeff Hopper
Guest Blogger

It�s odd but I�ve been thinking about tweed for the last couple of years and suddenly it seems to back in the style.  There are many tweeds, but Harris Tweed through their long history and grasp of market identity, www.harristweed.org, is the fabric that stands out in my mind.  Harris Tweed is one of those rare fabrics with its own panache, which continues to challenge designers irrespective of the fashion trends surrounding it.

My appreciation of Harris Tweed began in my early teens with a cap; one of those flat caps that were as ubiquitous to me then as base ball caps are now.  I remember the salesman showed me how to fold the cap in half and tuck the brim under the back of the cap so it could fit it in a jacket pocket, then in one graceful motion how to release it, snap it in the air, and place it on my head.  Some lessons once learned are never forgotten and that day the adult air of insouciance was priceless.  

There is nothing charming about Harris Tweed, but it is a beautiful fabric all its own.  It is rough, stiff, and often colored like peat and heather�a very organic fabric.  The fabric reminds me of that moment when land meets water.  Even the herringbone weave of the tweed nods to the sea with its repetitive wavelike pattern.  Tweed is rough country fabric not in tune with the current soft synthetic apparel predominating the market.  This is a personal bias, but to me, unlike modern fabrics, tweed grows with you.  Many Harris Tweed jackets outlast the original owner and go to a used clothing store, just as they are coming into their own.  That is the beauty and failing of tweed, it tends to grow with you and does come into its own until it is time to move on.  I firmly believe that tweed should be worn for ten years before it is ready to be really worn, if that makes any sense.

Recently I bought a used Harris Tweed jacket that was from the 1970s, a new Harris Tweed scarf, and a book on Harris Tweed�nothing like excess.  Today I will write about the jacket, which was purchased because it was in the green family (there seems to be a dearth of green tweeds, at least for the moment) and it has a double vent.  Actually now might be a good time to look at vents which is the other reason I purchased this jacket.

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Men�s jackets either have a single vent down the middle of the back, a double vent with a vent on either side of the back, or no vents.  When purchasing a jacket in the US, the styling breakdown is roughly, a single vent--primarily American, a double vent--primarily British, and no vents--primarily European tailoring.  This is a rough guide and there are variations within each of these tailoring traditions.  The important part in all of this for me is that for whatever reasons, a jacket with a double vent lies flat on my backside and a single vent has the tendency to pucker and flare.  This was true when I was young and as thin as a rail and now with weight gain and age.  Double vents are increasingly hard to find in the US, at least when I sporadically go looking for a jacket.  There is  considerable lore about the vents, but it all  usually falls back on seats, saddles and horseback riding.  The conventional wisdom is that a single vent allows the jacket to fall to either side of the saddle and the back of the horse.  A double vent falls over the saddle and covers the back of it.  I�m not a great horseman, but I have ridden with both types of venting and oddly enough they both work.  The venting styles are old enough that there are undoubtedly  more reasons than these such as the military influence on clothing or original use--did a jacket worn for many hours every day perform better with one cut over another.

With that in mind, a short diversion--a number of years ago I wore an 1870s riding coat and breeches to a Victorian Christmas party. Everyone had to come in some sort of costume from the period.  I stumbled on a private fashion collection whose owner wanted people to wear and enjoy the original garments, but that story is for another day.  What I can say is that the jacket had a single vent with  swallow tails, and it was tailored so that while I could hold the reins correctly for  English style riding, I could not lift my arms much above the elbow without tearing the garment. Additionally, the seams and darts were constructed to make me sit bolt upright.  The coat was constructed to make the wearer move in a proscribed and very stilted manner;  in essence the male version of the the female stay.  I spoke to a female friend that night who had borrowed a dress with whale bone stays and we both agreed that the only comfortable way to sit was on the front edge of a chair,  slouching was inconceivable as was any grand gesture. The clothing controlled us far more than we controlled it While I am sure the whalebone stays were more uncomfortable, I will never forget how uncomfortable seams could make a garment.  So did this make the single vent perform better on horseback?  I�ll never know the answer to that, but I can tell you a single vent in this constricted jacket made it easier to lift the swallow tails of the jacket and sit on the edge of the chairs. That simple garment made me realize that even if we wear the same general shapes today, the initial tailoring behind them may have shifted so much over the years that what we are left with may have little to do with the original construction and intent.

This 1810s hunting coat, or shadbelly coat, or swallow tail coat is in the collection of the V & A Museum. I do not have a photo of the 1870s coat I wore. However, it was similar to this in its silhouette, please note  the thin tubular sleeves. The major difference was that the 1870s version was single breasted with a row of 4 or 5 buttons, a form of which is shown in the next illustration.  (As a note, the use of a red hunting coat by a member of a hunt has its own etiquette, here the illustration of the coat is for form not color.)

?These coats from 1900-30 are also in the V&A collection and  help to show the look of a single breasted jacket and how the sleeves appear to be fuller and shorter, yet they are all considered hunting coats.  As I look at this photo if the middle coat was modified slightly with longer tails and a tighter fitting torso then it would look more like the coat from the 1870s.

So back to the jacket, I�m happy to have a Harris Tweed jacket back in the clothes closet. Like a blazer it is a staple in some wardrobes, casual, but comfortable enough to go just about anywhere; in fact its iconic enough to worn with aplomb by some individuals everywhere, and that after all is the essence of style. 

Guest blogger Jeff Hopper, Museum and Conservation Consultant, holds an MA in Museum Studies from Harvard University (2012). This is the second in a series on men's wear and textiles.

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