Blazers Featured Tailoring
The Tussah Silk Jacket
By G. Bruce Boyer
Jul 13, 2022
We usually use tussah silk for our handmade ties, but this season we made this very same material into a tailored jacket. G. Bruce Boyer traces the history of the tussah jacket back to the early 20th century.
Tussah silk conjures up images of ladies in softly flowing cocktail dresses and gentlemen in cream-and-biscuit coloured suits, possibly in Monte Carlo or on an ocean liner in the early years of the 20th century when natural silk provided the only fabric for summer garments that could expectedly be both cool and elegant. The silk was lightweight but strong, had a soft but coarse-textured hand, and tailored easily. The fabric was rather expensive because the silk worms were wild and rounding up the cocoons attached to trees in the forest was labour intensive work.
Actually, silk tailored garments for men – the terms tussah, pongee, doupioni, nankeen, and shantung have all been names attached and thrown about interchangeably over the years referring to this rough-slubbed silk fabric, although these various terms are not quite synonymous, there are technical differences – first became widely popular after World War II when the Italian silk mills began to export the fabric to manufacturers internationally. They were able to do this because of two scientific breakthroughs: means had been found to domesticate the worms, and dyes were invented to impregnate the silk yarns which were previously impossible to colour. The cost of silk fabric decreased, became reasonable, and the 1950s saw a new interest in silk fabric for tailored clothes to rival the newer synthetics.
Summer silk suits became the dressy, more sophisticated alternative to the newly developed “miracle fabrics” such as Dacron and Orlon increasingly being used for everyday wear. This turn towards natural silks and mohairs was all part of the “Continental Look” emerging from Italy in the mid-50s, bringing sleek silhouettes and a rainbow of colour to men’s wardrobes. Colour was something new to tussah silk, previously only found in its natural shade of light brown, the Italian mills found ways to dye the yarn. Italian menswear was suddenly awash with bright green and red, amethyst, silver, canary and azure.
In men’s fashion, this trim look with added colour was revolutionary, a reaction to the cheaper man-made fabrics. Men started wearing silk as a status symbol, and no wonder. Hand-loomed tussah silk had a natural, quiet lustre, superior draping ability, and a jaunty, irregular-textured quality because of the irregular slubs inherent in the weaving process. As Apparel Arts magazine succinctly put it at the time (1953), a silk suit or sports jacket was “cool, crisp, lightweight, porous, and resilient.” They might have added sophisticated, cultivated, and cosmopolitan.
The fabric was so incredibly handsome, with its rough-but-soft tweed-like hand, it was quickly translated into sportswear, formalwear, and even accessories (ties and cummerbunds, hat bands, and even – you’re not going to believe me – shoes). It was used to brilliant effect in summer “country club” dinner jackets in jewel-like colours of emerald and ruby, peacock blue, iridescent dark jade green, champagne and copper. These dinner jackets were so popular that country club dance floors started to look like large candy boxes. Not to mention being taken up by the incredibly cool likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in Las Vegas wearing their laser-cut tuxes by Don Loper, Hollywood’s hippest tailor.
Today tussah silk finds its best use in lightly constructed blazers and odd jackets. Dressed down with cotton slacks and an open-collar shirt, or up with tropical worsteds and a natty four-in-hand, a well-cut silk blazer is at home in any situation and perfect for travel. Chukka boots, tassel slip-ons, or espadrilles will all do nicely.