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The Towel Shirt

Written by Tony Sylvester 


The towel shirt is a truly intercontinental item, steeped in the history of travel and vacation-making. Nothing indicates that a man is at leisure, having dispensed with the workaday trappings of his business wardrobe, more eloquently than the donning of this iconic piece of resort wear. 


The Towel shirt is half practical and half decorative; the perfect combination of the useful and the handsome. 
 
We owe the practical side of the garment to the French. They first developed a deliberately absorbent fabric in the 1840s originally in silk. In order to create a plush pile, the looser longer knots of warp fabric are pushed through the denser woven weft of the cloth. This innovation was named ‘Terry cloth’ in reference to the French word "Tirer":  literally to pull. 
The invention of terrycloth helped popularise towels, which in turn popularised bathing as a pastime. The late 19th century vogue for outdoor activity and the health benefits of sunbathing made the fin-de-siecle Mediterranean a hotbed for bronzed adventurers. The popularity was so much that by the early twenties, any “affluent, stylish man would have owned both swimsuits and bathrobes [if he] wanted to participate in the new pagan rites of the body that accompanied emancipated attitudes after the war. These ceremonies included the private morning ritual of exercise and bath, and the the summer public ritual of sun and surf’ according to French clothing historian Ferid Chanoune. 
 
The pages of Apparel Arts and Esquire from the 30s are full of stylised Adonises, relaxing in all manner of terry cloth; from full length beach gowns to simplified sports coats and mufflers, and around this time came of the introduction of French Terry: a lighterweight alternative with looping on only one side of the cloth, giving rise to La Chemise Du Plage; the sartorial choice for any self respecting riviera playboy of the interwar years.  
 
Over the other side of the Atlantic however, a different leisure shirt was on the rise. Returning GIs from their terms in the Pacific were bringing home Aloha shirts from the exotic climes of Hawaii. These bright punchy short sleeve numbers were originally printed with traditional Asian woodcut designs, motifs of wildlife and sea creatures proving popular as souvenirs for the demobbed servicemen. 
 

 
Enterprising California beachwear companies soon cottoned on to the trend for bold statement pieces, and by the 50s, the matching ‘cabana’ set of terry lined towel shirt and boxer length beach shorts were all the rage, the perfect outfit for the golden age of post-war American life. 
 
The Brycelands towel shirt pays tribute to those hazy days of endless summer. Cut generously in plush white Terry cloth with a choice of specially commissioned patterns or made-to-order from an exclusive deadstock range of vintage Voiles in eyecatching Atomic Age geometrics and Deco-esque dots and diamonds.