For most recreational dressers, August is to be survived. The happy vernal reunion with our half-forgotten warm weather wardrobes is by now a sunbleached memory, and we’ve all been well reminded of how cotton can bind, linen will wrinkle, and even tropical wools tend to wilt in the hot mess of high summer. The salty trick is to embrace this entropy, wearing the rumpled trappings of civilization hard, pulling them into our own sweaty shapes with defiant colonial pride, mopping noble brows and stiff upper lips with damp white handkerchiefs that signify anything but surrender. There are occasions in this season, however, when a crisper presentation is desired, admitting less of one’s circumstances, and for this one should turn to the least familiar and perhaps most underappreciated of all the classic summer cloths: mohair.
An Angora goat at the 1920 Oregon State Fair. (Image courtesy http://thegoatguide.com/)
Harvested for millennia from the silky long coat of the Angora goat, mohair (from the Arabic mukhayyar or “goat’s hair cloth,” later known in medieval Europe as “mockaire”) is straighter and smoother than sheep’s hair, and stronger than steel. When spun into yarn and knit, it produces lustrously gauzy women’s sweaters and scarves, soft and lightweight but deceptively warm and sturdy. When woven into cloth, it is dense and shiny, with a springy, rough hand that can be stiff to the point of cracking when repeatedly creased; for these reasons it is usually blended with other softer fibers, yielding some of the most resilient cloths available.
Although it is an excellent insulator and thus very wearable year-round, mohair owes its renowned warm weather reputation to low heat conductivity (unlike, say, silk) which allows it to wear cool, and its ability to absorb a third of its weight in moisture without losing shape or feeling wet to the touch. The smooth, strong, and elastic fibers that resist soiling and wrinkles in muggy climates also bounce back fresh out of packed suitcases, making mohair a premier fabric for travelling clothes in any season.
In the early 20th century, mohair was used as a cooler lining alternative to silk before both were supplanted by synthetics, but its most widespread early adoption was as an unnamed element in perhaps the first branded “performance” fabric. Within months of its introduction in 1911 by Goodall Mills of Sanford, Maine, “Palm Beach Cloth” – a porous weave of mohair weft and cotton warp -- was changing the way American men dressed by offering a crisp, lightweight (and usually light-colored) alternative to the heavy, dark worsted wools which constituted most men’s year-round wardrobes. As a Goodall executive later observed, Palm Beach Cloth conjured the “class and dignity and weather and affluence and the beautiful people” of the nation’s most exclusive resort in the aspirational Jazz Age. By 1923, sporty “Palm Beach suits” (as cream-colored suits were becoming generically known) were so ubiquitous that Goodall advertisements admonished readers that “Palm Beach is not a color; it is a cloth” and begged wider consideration of its over 140 proprietary hues and patterns.
A 1920s advertisement for Palm Beach Suits. Image courtesy http://vintagefashionguild.org/
By the 1940s, Goodall had softened the somewhat coarse texture of Palm Beach Cloth with the addition of rayon and other synthetics, reducing the percentage of mohair until it was entirely replaced by Dacron polyester in 1956. By that time, however, mohair was being marketed less to aging resort swells than a new breed of jet-set playboys, mugging for the paparazzi in a sleek shimmering suits made from yet another iconically branded mohair blend. Introduced in 1956, Dormeuil’s “Tonik” was a rather bulletproof three-ply mix of up to 90% mohair and 10% worsted wool with a liquid drape and slick two-tone luster. Much like Palm Beach Cloth, it came to refer more generically to an entire category of cloth -- in this case anything with a sharkskin sheen. If Palm Beach Cloth had brought a whiff of aristocratic whimsy to aspirationally dressed men, Tonik sold them sex and modernity. These were predatory clothes for the city, for the night, for the moment.
Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra with their whiskey and Tonik. (Image courtesy http://theratpack.wordpress.com/)
Of course, that moment soon passed. The boozy, Brylcreemed schtick of the Rat Pack and their dapper disciples didn’t wear well as the 60s progressed, and neither did their suits of Tonik armor, impervious to anything but ridicule. The future was no longer shiny, and it’s never quite been since. Tonik would go on to be embraced by mod and skinhead subcultures (often as “Tonic”), and dandies and iconoclasts have continued to indulge eccentric tastes for mohair, but to the extent that iridescence moves any mass market menswear today, it tends to be in the realms of high or fast fashion existentially shunned by most learned dressers.
The modern take: Greg Lellouche, proprietor of No Man Walks Alone, shown here in a double-breasted suit in 70% wool, 30% mohair from Bateman Ogden. Bespoke by Sartoria Formosa.
Yet Mohair abides. Mixed with more and finer wool than classic Tonik -- the sweet spot seems to be around 80% wool – and woven with high-twist yarns which lessen the sheen and open the weave, modern mohair blends are akin to Fresco in their appearance, breathability, and durability. Although patterned examples are harder to find (old Polo remains a reliable secondhand source), they further mute the fabric’s natural luster. Not that a flash of quicksilver is a bad thing in cloth; on the contrary, it is highly desirable in eveningwear, and for this reason mohair remains an excellent choice for warm-weather tuxedos.
Editor's note: in this month's newsletter, this article was erroneously attributed to David Isle. The author of this excellent piece is Andrew Yamato.