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Part Three: Under-shirts, Socks and Tank-tops

In this, the last of our ‘wool’ themed entries, we round up a few final woollen items to aid in keeping you toasty warm this winter.

First off, lets start with something close to my heart… literally!

The woollen under-shirt

Now the first recognisable form of this staple of gentleman’s wardrobes for most of the 20th century is that of the ‘Chemise’ (sometimes called a smock or shift), which during mediaeval times could be found keeping people warm when the only heat available was the open fire (or fireplace). This was a woollen garment warn long and tucked into breaches underneath a doublet. Over time this evolved firstly into that ‘butt’ of all wild west jokes the ‘Union’ suit – an all-in-one undergarment – and finally into the under-shirt.

This woollen under-shirt kept British Tommies warm in the trenches of the Somme, hard working country farmers cosy whilst digging fields during the inter-war years, to soldiers on both sides of the conflict during the winter months in the forests of the Ardennes. The most famous appearance of this unsung hero of menswear can be seen during the scene in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ after George rescues guardian angel Clarence rather than ending it all.

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Glossing over the delicate subject of ‘drawers’ or ‘pants’ as we call them here in the UK, we head south down to our feet and look at socks.

Woolly socks

Ever since the Ancient Greeks wrapped their feet in matted animal hair to keep warm in the winter months, men, women and children alike have been wearing the humble sock. Just ask any soldier in any of the major conflicts of the 20th century what their most treasured possession would be and nearly all would answer “a dry pair of socks”. The most standard form of sock has always been the knitted woollen variety, warn by everyone from golfers, to upper-class lords on ‘shoots’ in the highlands, these versatile fellows can be worn with dress shoes, boots, and wellies alike, they can easily be repaired when worn out, and if you are lucky enough to know an enthusiastic knitter can be home-made! Not only that but they can come in a variety of lengths, colours and patterns, including stripes, diamonds, Argyll, cable knit, you name it.

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Woman knitting socks on the London Underground as part of the ‘knit for soldiers’ drive during World War 2

Tank Tops

Finally we look at that iconic emblem of the 20th century working or sporting man, the tank top (or sweater vest). Basically a sleeveless woolly jumper, and available in all the same styles, this stalwart chap appeared around the turn of the century when somebody decided that for sports activities it might be more comfortable to remove the sleeves from their sweaters. Championed by royalty, politicians and film stars alike the sleeveless woolly top soon gained in popularity and became a more comfortable go-to to be worn under ones jacket than a waistcoat.

The collarless shirt and fair isle tank top look has become synonymous with the British working man during the war years of the ’40s, partly one would guess because of the fact that tank tops can be knitted at home, with many knitting patterns made available and thus, like socks, also formed part of the home-front knitting drive for servicemen.

As seen in the current BBC drama My Mother and Other Strangers

As seen in the current BBC drama My Mother and Other Strangers

I’m a big fan of the knitted waistcoat variety of tank top, and often wear one with a spear-point collared shirt, tie and straight legged trousers.

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January 10th, 2017

Posted In: Style Guides

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