Style writer Tony Sylvester gets serious about the history of one of menswear's most idiosyncratic fabrics: terry cloth.
"... The result is a oneness of the sexes and the equality of the classes. Ties are gone. Personal touches, out. Individualism, abolished. Personality, extinct. The Riviera has produced a communism that would be the envy of the U.S.S.R.".
Of all the folk devils and moral panics of delinquency of the past century, it is scarcely credible to believe the above vitriol from an American reporter posted to the South of France in 1935 was directed at the terry cloth polo shirt.
The ingenious French developed an absorbent towelling fabric in the 1840s first in silk, later cotton. By pulling the looser longer knots of warp fabric through the denser woven weft of the cloth, a plush pile was created, its name deriving from the French tirer - literally 'to pull'. It is said that the invention of terrycloth helped popularise towels, which in turn popularised bathing. The towel's first mass production coming after 1850 when the Englishman Samuel Holt invented a contraption for industrial scale terrycloth weaving in Greater Manchester - England's "Cottonopolis".
The journey to clothing came via the later introduction of French Terry: a lighter-weight alternative with looping on only one side of the cloth, a more practical flat woven side sitting next to the skin. La Chemise Du Plage became a Mediterranean standard often sporting one-piece open collars, plunging necklines or Matelot-esque lacing detail. A somewhat racy choice for the refined Anglo-Saxon tastes of the time.