Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

A Telltale Textile: Tweed (& Thorstein Veblen)

Who’d have thought it; tweed, trendy and ubiquitous?

Dashing tweedsNo longer the preserve of humanities professors and grandparents, tweed now appeals to a diverse cross-section of consumers, as the dizzying array of tweed-clad products reveals: clocks, cufflinks, headphones, hip-flasks, Dr Martens and Eames-style furniture have all been given the tweed treatment.[i] Harris Tweed, in particular, is flourishing. Over a million metres of the hand-woven and legally protected cloth was due to be produced last year, the most in fifteen years.[ii] According to Guardian columnist Severin Carrell, (Harris) tweed’s renaissance has much to do with Dr Who and Tinie Tempah, Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs.[iii] Patrick Grant, owner of Savile Row’s Norton & Sons, and Guy Hills of Dashing Tweeds should probably also be credited.[iv] On a superficial level these personalities and brands may have fostered tweed’s renaissance, but the current vogue for this unique woollen textile has much more to do with societal values and status expenditure, as outlined by Thorstein Veblen over a hundred years ago.

Thorstein Veblen: The Theory of the Leisure Class

Womaniser, disgraced academic and recluse, Thorstein Veblen had an uneasy existence, but his intellectual output has been immortalised in the oft-used (and I suspect, little understood) phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’. This expression, along with ‘vicarious leisure’ and ‘invidious waste’, appears throughout his Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899. Synthesising history, sociology and economics, Veblen’s work sought to explain the role of consumption in demarcating social hierarchies within contemporary American society. In so doing, Veblen identified and defined the leisure class, a group of affluent and industrially idle people whose position at the apex of society is demonstrated and maintained through prolific status expenditure.[v] The expenditure of the leisure class is wasteful, conspicuously so, because it does ‘not serve human life or human well-being on the whole’.[vi] One of the clearest indicators of the conspicuous consumption of the leisure class is provided through their dress.

[O]ur apparel is always in evidence and affords an indication of pecuniary standing to all observers at the first glance. It is also true that admitted expenditure for display is more obviously present, and is, perhaps, more universally practised in the matter of dress than in any other line of consumption. No one finds difficulty in assenting to the commonplace that the greater part of the expenditure incurred by all classes for apparel is incurred for the sake of a respectable appearance rather than for the protection of the person.[vii]

VeblenVeblen’s controversial thesis was published over a century ago and some of his arguments now seem questionable. Veblen’s understanding of dress is not always persuasive, particularly when he discusses the novelty and transience of clothing trends.[viii] Fundamentally, societal mores have changed. The days of overt conspicuous consumption, as practiced by the Brideshead Flytes, have passed, just as they have for the Gordon Gekkos and Patrick Batemans. In the West, idleness at work and excess in expenditure is now frowned upon. Politicians have to be prudent in their attire and Britain’s royalty must monitor its air miles.[ix] Entrepreneurs, who have little and risk more, are pin-ups for the ‘how to generation’ and lauded.[x] It is also the case that certain symbols of leisure, especially in men’s dress, have been abandoned, as Veblen himself noted, citing the powered wig and gold lace.[xi] These symbols have been replaced by others, which are considered more ‘delicate’. The change does not mean that the leisure class is thinning. On the contrary. The use of subtler signifiers is a consequence of the expansion of the class, which has rendered ‘loud’ dress unnecessary and vulgar.[xii] In today’s target-driven and work-obsessed world, the ideas of Thorstein Veblen, particularly as they pertain to dress, are therefore far from redundant. One of the most compelling aspects of Veblen’s thesis, which has been pursued further by Roland Barthes, is the argument that fashion is an expression of a diverse, mobile and economically complex society.[xiii] In other words, dress will remain a crucial cultural signifier, and will possibly become more important as technology makes our personal and professional relationships more intricate. As contemporary attitudes towards work have altered perceptions about dress, it is possible to suggest that they have begun to define a new kind of leisure class. In this brave new world, tweed plays a crucial role.

Off-Duty Dress

Recent commentary on Hillary Clinton’s punishing schedule as Secretary of State reveals how hard work and busyness are prized in contemporary (Western) society.[xiv] This sentiment is undoubtedly a consequence of the recent economic downturn, but the idea that ‘graft is good’ has long prevailed in the West. In dress, the emphasis on efficiency and output in the workplace inevitably helps to explain the longevity of the male suit, an item of costume that conveys both sobriety and status.[xv] Over the past twenty years, the strong identification with work dress has caused an equally strong desire for an off-duty dress – actions having equal and opposite reactions, and all that. The desire for a very unwork-life outfit has contributed to tweed’s rising fortunes, chiefly because of its age-old associations with aristocratic leisure.

Edward VII

Talk of tweed may conjure images of Miss Marple and vicars, as Severin Carrell notes, but photographs of British aristocrats, chiefly members of the royal family, are probably more indelible images of tweed-clad people, at least for men.[xvi] Photographs of King Edward VII and the Duke of Windsor in tweed present these men as the epitome of Thorstein Veblen’s leisure class because they are engaged in a recreational activity that is conspicuously wasteful: hunting.[xvii] This most historic and manly of pursuits is also enjoyed with the accompaniment of two domesticated animals, horses and dogs, which are ‘on the whole expensive, or wasteful and useless – for the industrial purpose.’[xviii]

It should be noted that in the graduated appreciation of varieties of horses and of dogs, such as one meets with among people of even moderately cultivated tastes in these matters, there is also discernible another and more direct line of influence of the leisure-class canons of reputability.[xix]

A textile associated with aristocratic and manful leisure, tweed has therefore become the sine qua non for modern men, generally of a certain socio-economic background, who wish to express their distance from work and their incorporation in a new leisure class that works hard and plays hard. At the risk of overt generalisation, this new leisure class is probably best defined by the geographical pattern of its weekly organisation: working in the city from Monday to Friday and relaxing in the country on Saturdays and Sunday. The length of commute from city flat to country pile, which possibly remains vacant for much for of the time, and the adoption of country pursuits during the short week-end sojourns, notably horse-racing and shooting, are twenty-first century signifiers of vicarious leisure, invidious waste and conspicuous consumption (see video below). Crucially, the recreations enjoyed by this new leisure class are made possible through successes at work. It is the reference to work and economic efficiency, rather than the rejection of them, which distinguishes the twentieth-first century leisure class from its nineteenth-century predecessor.


Leisure Wear For All

Prince WilliamTweed’s historic associations explain its current popularity, but this alone does not account for its ubiquity. Since Veblen published his Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899, there have been seismic changes in the production and sale of clothing and textiles. Today, there are few barriers to acquire any article of clothing. Dress is democratic. Whilst clothing conveys social demarcations, it does so through the cut or material of a garment, rarely through the garment itself. Tweed has associations with aristocratic leisure, which make it particularly attractive for men (and women) wishing to make a sartorial statement befitting their sense of status, but the textile is widely available, if generally expensive: it can be selected in Norton & Sons of Savile Row for a bespoke suit or it can be bought in the form of a ready-made jacket from The Edinburgh Woollen Mill or Gap. The same is true for another signifier of leisure, the baseball cap, which is also enjoying a renaissance. The cap lacks the aristocratic association of tweed – although brands such as Acne do sell tweed baseball caps – but this reflects an overriding concern that modern dress should be accessible to all, as baseball cap wearers Robert Pattinson and Prince William demonstrate. Of course, for people wishing to make a particular statement there are deluxe variants: Lanvin’s baseball cap costs £400.[xx]

The consumption of expensive goods is meritorious, and the goods which contain an appreciable element of cost in excess of what goes to give them serviceability for their ostensible mechanical purpose are honorific. The marks of superfluous costliness in the goods are therefore marks of worth – of high efficiency for the indirect, invidious end to be served by their consumption; and conversely, goods are humilific, and therefore unattractive, if they show too thrifty and adaptation to the mechanical end sought and do not include a margin of expensiveness on which to rest a complacent invidious comparison.[xxi]

The ubiquity of tweed will probably make it less appealing over time, but for the present, clamour for the textile only seems to be enhancing its status and, crucially, the status of those that wear it. And if you’re wondering, I do wear tweed. Lots of it.

[i] S. Carrell, ‘Island crofters’ cloth joins the fashion mainstream’, The Guardian (Saturday, 10 November 2012), 13.

[ii] Ibid; L. Platman, Harris Tweed: from land to street (London, 2011), 24.

[iii] Carrell, ‘Island crofters’ cloth’, 13.

[iv] Platman, Harris Tweed, 20-23; 123.

[v] T. Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (Oxford, 2007), 33.

[vi] Ibid., 67-69.

[vii] Ibid., 111.

[viii] Ibid., 114-15.

[ix] ‘Wish they were here? Royals’ travel spend’, The Independent (Tuesday, 3 July 2012), 14-15.

[x] S. Bloomfield, ‘How to… – Global’, Monocle, 60 (February, 2013), 31-35.

[xi] Veblen, Leisure Class, 123.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid., 115-16; R. Barthes, ‘Fashion and the Social Sciences’, The Language of Fashion, ed. & tr. A. Stafford (Oxford, 2004), 91-97.

[xiv] M. Kinsley, ‘A million air miles is too many, Hillary’, The Week (19 January 2003), 15.

[xv] A. Hollander, Sex and Suits: the evolution of modern dress (New York, 1994).

[xvi] Carrell, ‘Island crofters’ cloth’, 13.

[xvii] E. Musgrave, Sharp Suits (London, 2009), 57-63.

[xviii] Veblen, Leisure Class, 95.

[xix] Ibid., 96.

[xx] S. Brooke, ‘A price on one’s head’, Financial Times (December 1/2, 2012), 5.

[xxi] Veblen, Leisure Class, 103.

3 Responses to “A Telltale Textile: Tweed (& Thorstein Veblen)”

  1. Praise

    Hi Ben! I’m sorry I’ve only now gotten around to looking up your blog. It is a marvelous thing, and I shall be sure to read everything here! I hope you are doing well and that February isn’t proving to be too much of a drag. I must say, the first person who comes to my mind for “tweed” is Patrick! (I’m sure you know which one). –Praise

    • linleywild

      Hello, Praise.
      I know exactly who you mean. Ha! Thanks for your kind words, they mean much. I think you probably can imagine how things are here… I hope all is well with you. Bx

  2. linleywild

    The pitfalls of pursuing the city-country lifestyle are wonderfully satirised by Adam Edwards in February’s edition of FT’s How to Spend it (p.65).


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