The stereotypical image of a 'gentleman' is a tall, handsome, mysterious stranger swathed in a dark navy wool suit and tie. He is by all definitions cool, like a block of marble; his tailored body chiselled like his mind. He is impenetrable and equally indecipherable. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine him wearing one of the most unpredictable fibres in the world: linen.
Linen is the oldest natural fibre ever woven by humans. Its history is intertwined with the history of civilisation. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of linen being woven over 36,000 years ago in caves in the Georgian Alps. Ancient humans that ruminated in what is now Switzerland are also believed to have woven linen over 10,000 years ago.
In the West, we most associate linen with Ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptians sourced linen from the fibres of flax plants that sprouted along the banks of the Nile and used it for everything from mummification to everyday clothing. It was a miraculously breathable fabric, that although tricky to weave, was supremely durable.
White linen, in particular, was exalted as a sort of ‘divine cloth’. The priestesses of the Cult of Isis draped themselves in this noble fibre to signal their spiritual purity while the wealthy were mummified in linen to showcase their wealth and disguise their moral ugliness.
The belief that linen has supernatural properties might seem positively pagan by today's standards. But just try enduring a Sydney summer in anything else. You'll soon find yourself praying to the gods for a measure of relief!
Linen’s most prized quality, as the ancient Egyptians appreciated, is its supreme breathability. In summer, linen is often woven in open, airy weaves that allow the cloth to breathe, creating a specialised micro-climate which keeps you cool. This exceptional quality owes itself to the structure of the linen fibre. The long staples of linen, lend it a particular stiffness that stops it clinging to the body. This also helps create diaphonous billows that keep the body feeling fresh in summer. Linen possesses another distinctive quality: its slubby, corrugated appearance. Unlike wool which drapes over the body, linen seems to hang casually. The long staples of linen don't accommodate the contours of the body and so make linen garments look like they have a life of their own. Linen does not bend to the will of the wearer. Suits made of linen in particular, reject idealised notions of men as mechanical minds encased in bodies under control.
Similarly, linen shirts herald the coming of spring & summer. Disposing of deep fall tones, linen shirts inject much needed brightness into warmer weather wardrobes. Unlike structured wool flannel suits, linen shirts promote stylish dishevellment. Rumpled and loose-fitting, their casual cool evokes the likes of Alain Delon in Purple Noon, and Connery's Bond in Thunderball. (They are also infinitely more stylish than Bintang singlets, that's for sure.)
Linen is, therefore, a fibre that celebrates a certain spiritual and physical looseness. It behaves erratically yet provides unparalleled comfort and cool. It is self-assured and confident. And for men secure enough to wear it, they will find themselves at ease in both body and spirit. Gentlemen in dark navy suits, we wish you the best of luck this summer.