One of the world’s most fantastic fabrics is also amongst its most maligned. Luke Leitch soaks up the luxurious allure of terry cloth.
Old-fashioned nappies, Paris Hilton in Juicy Couture, and Sean Connery in a pale blue playsuit… there’s no getting around it: terry towelling has had some dark times. Yet terry cloth (the proper term for towelling) is one of the greatest materials known to Man At Play, and we can prove it. But before we do, let’s look at where it came from.
Based on a coarse, hand-made Turkish fabric yet adapted from a French technique for weaving high-wefted silk – hence the bastardisation of ‘tirer’ to terry – industrially woven terry cloth was invented by a Stockport mill worker named Samuel Holt in 1848.
"Terry is based on a coarse, hand-made Turkish fabric yet adapted from a French technique for weaving high-wefted silk – hence the bastardisation of ‘tirer’ to terry."
Holt moved to New Jersey and began manufacturing the uniquely soft and absorbent cotton towelling for appreciative Americans. Sadly (for him), while seemingly on the cusp of enormous wealth, Holt fell victim to shark-like lawyers and saw his patent snaffled away.
Consequently terry cloth became established over several decades as a general purpose absorbent fabric used for towels, bath-robes, and nappies. It remained overwhelmingly white, until dyeing became popular in the Twenties.
Then, eureka: some innovator, criminally unrecorded by historians, thought to turn terry cloth into clothing.
Amongst the earliest evidence of this is a fashion feature from the May 1939 edition of Life Magazine that pictures a chap striding poolside in a two-toned terry shirt, alongside the game changing observation that: Now [men] are finding they can wear their cottons and not look like village ragamuffins.
This was true, but it wasn’t until the Fifties that terry cloth truly snagged itself a spot in the male wardrobe. As chronicled in the photos of OB-favourite Slim Aarons, the emerging leisure classes of America and the Riviera lived through a post-war, pre-oil-crisis paradise of sundowners by kidney-shaped swimming pools.
"“The terry cloth shirt (and to a lesser degree, shorts) proved not only a labour-saving device – who needed a towel? – but a style statement.”"
Pablo Picasso was photographed (see below), mid-cigarette, wearing the deep pile maroon terry polo that first inspired Orlebar Brown’s 21st Century reboot. Terry cloth had established a beach-based niche in the summer pantheon, offering a robustness unmatched by seersucker, linen or madras.
A decade or so later, around the time that oldschool terry cloth found itself on catwalks, as Emilio Pucci applied his kaleidoscopic print prowess to terry bikinis, an innovation named ‘French terry’ entered the fray. It might sound like a Guy Ritchie character, but ‘French terry’ – aka velour-terry – was a polyester blended version of the all-cotton original that featured one piled side, and the other smooth.
This invention proved both a blessing and a curse. The upside was that terry, when French, became suddenly much more versatile for clothing manufacturers – viz Sean Connery’s elegant safari-detailed sun shirt in Diamonds Are Forever. The downside was that many of those manufacturers made some deeply dubious design decisions with it.
Now, though, we are long enough beyond that episode to reassess terry cloth and to see it as Picasso, or Connery in his pomp did. The Orlebar Brown terry cloth polo, for example, contains more than a hint of homage to these early examples of the form. Picasso’s version in particular featured a generous collar with a placket unencumbered by button or ceremony.
As the photos above prove, despite towelling cloth being a fabric that has been wronged, ultimately, there is something particularly confident about a man of means dressed in such a supremely textured and forgiving fabric, even if it is called Terry.
Atoll Tonal Melange Towelling Polo
Pacific Ecru Melange Long Sleeve Slub Towelling Polo
Denim Pigment Towelling Polo
Pacific Ecru Melange Women’s Textured Towelling Wrap
Navy Women’s Textured Towelling Short
Aloha Ecru Melange Slub Towelling Top