What fabric could better encapsulate the joys of summer? David Coggins makes the case for linen.
More than any other fabric, linen announces its history. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising since textiles made from flax (as linen is) have been with us since antiquity. In Egypt, pharaohs were buried in it. In Mesopotamia, it was worn by priests. Linen feels cool to the touch, is stronger wet than dry, and doesn’t like being put in the dryer. It wrinkles, of course (as we all do!), and shapes and bends, becoming more singular as it's worn. Linen is for summer and, in my mind, looks perfect on an older Italian gentleman in a colour you never considered before, like mustard or some exotic fruit. It implies ease, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. That linen doesn’t remain pristine makes some men nervous. But this lack of control helps it make such an impact.
To wear linen is to embrace the season. If you unbutton your linen shirt a few buttons, you embrace a certain swagger, and are ready for gelato. It seems to go hand in hand with an aperitif, with bodies of water, with nights that still retain the heat of the day. But it’s more than that. If you commit to a linen sport coat or a safari jacket all summer then it becomes an ongoing record of the season—let it wrinkle, age, do all the things that linen does. Yes, you’re going to have to give in.
Linen can have a lived-in quality, and you want to keep it on the near side of rumpled. It implies a Graham Greene character on a remote island down to his last suit, spending his time hiding from the sun in some decaying colonial bar. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you maintain your dignity and your suit isn’t stained with Campari. Blue is beyond reproach, reassuring, vaguely naval, while a pinstripe provides visual punctuation and a sense of refinement. But don’t overlook a more ambiguous palette, often embraced by Southern Italians: here’s to brown and ochre! As jackets they look great against a pale blue shirt. Or pale pink, if you’re a man of confidence (and you should be!).
But linen dresses up just as well. Because linen has such a strong texture it contrasts very well with its opposite: a smooth cotton shirt, or an immaculate silk tie. I love a man who’s mastered the linen equation, he looks at ease with an understated sense of formality. In summer you want to be well-considered, but you don’t want to think too hard. Linen rides shotgun to your seaside vacation or sultry day in the city. With espadrilles or old white bucks, with a Panama hat that’s starting to fray, with naval stripes or a knit tie, with a summer scarf if you want to channel the decadent time when artists still dressed well. These associations are strong because linen is stitched into our consciousness about what summer is. It goes well when we are at leisure, drinking cold white wine. It’s sensory and evocative, like tweed for a warm climate.
That, my friends, is part of the enduring case for linen. It works in sober tones, it works when it’s vivid. But its texture makes it great, whether you iron it obsessively or let it wrinkle. Clothes shouldn’t look new, they should have an air of inevitability, like they've been waiting patiently for the moment when you choose to wear them. Linen always looks seasonal but, like a good recipe, it seems like it existed forever. That’s because it reflects the sense of style and values of the man who wears it. Give yourself over to linen and let it express itself, because more than any other fabric, it becomes you.