Falling For Flannel - That Autumnal fabric, and Bags of Style!

Written by Jason Disley
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As soon autumn arrives, so thoughts start turning towards warmer clothing. There is a fabric that has been used for at least the last century that should be addressed, especially as it has seen a bit of a resurgence since certain period dramas on television (Peaky Blinders) for example have had an impact on tastes when it comes to tailoring.

The obvious fabrics to write about are Tweeds, and the use of different textures such as Herringbone, but these I will come to soon, but, not yet. Instead I will address a style that is truly classic. Because, if there was one outfit that defined British menswear during the mid 20th Century, it was the casual combination of grey flannel trousers worn with a darker contrasting sports jacket. For around thirty years, starting in the mid 1920s and then declining with the arrival of ‘youth fashions’ in the 1950s, this was the look that was seen everywhere. From the promenades and beaches of the seaside resorts, to the terraces of football stadiums and throughout society. This fashion crossed the boundaries of age and class. It was a look that was just as popular with the average British working man as it was among Hollywood’s elite, (Fred Astaire was a huge fan of wearing Grey Flannels.) Even today, it is common to mix and match a jacket with contrasting trousers. Now when you hear the term flannel it conjures up a soft warm often woollen mixed fabric, and this is quite correct, but not exclusively so.

Falling For Flannel FredAstaire 1

There are various types of flannel fabric — it is really a milling technique that can be used on a variety of textiles. However, to the majority, the focus is going to fall upon cotton flannel, normally used to make buttery-supple shirts, and woollen (or perhaps wool-cashmere) flannel, that is employed in suits, odd coats and trousers.

So, what is flannel, exactly?

Essentially, “flannel” simply refers to any cotton, wool, or synthetic fabric that fulfils a few basic criteria:

• Softness: Fabric must be incredibly soft to be considered flannel.
• Texture: Flannel has either a brushed or unbrushed texture, and both textures are equally iconic.
• Material: While many materials can be used to make flannel, not all materials are suitable for this fabric. Silk, for instance, is too fine to be made into flannel, which is supposed to be both soft and able to keep warmth in.

It’s believed that the word “flannel” emerged in Wales, but we know for a fact that the term was in common usage in France in the form “flannelle” as early as the 17th century. While flannel was periodically popular among the French and other European peoples throughout the Enlightenment era, ( the time of Rousseau, Spinoza and Voltaire) interest had waned elsewhere while Welsh flannel use managed to increase.

How is flannel produced?

First, the base material for flannel is acquired. Depending on the type of end product desired, this material may be cotton, wool, or a synthetic textile

Next, the textile yarn is spun in much the same way that other fabric yarn is constructed. Some considerations may be made for yarn that’s intended for use in flannel, but the main distinguishing marks of this fabric appear during the weaving stage.


A twill or plain weave is usually used to make flannel, and the woven fabric may be napped on one or both sides to create a soft texture that hides the weave. Napping is a process that distresses the spun fibres, and makes it take on the appearance of unspun fibre. Naturally, the fibre stays together since it has been woven into a matrix, but napping does decrease the durability of the fabric somewhat.

Synthetic flannel is often provided with a flame-retardant coating that may be toxic. Wool is naturally flame-resistant, and any number of treatments may be applied to cotton flannel. If you’re looking for the safest, most organic flannel on the market, merino wool flannel is probably the wisest choice.

Falling For Flannel 7

Getting back to the traditional Flannel Suits of yesteryear you see examples in almost every classic movie of the mid 20th century. As stated Fred Astaire liked wearing Flannel, when he wasn’t dancing in top hat and tails. Gregory Peck actually starred in a movie from 1956 called The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit. Examples have been seen widely throughout history, and obviously movies have influenced and reflected styles of those periods.

Funnily enough when it comes to “Widely” seen examples, there is also a style of trouser that was quite popular in the 20s, and the 70s, and that was “Oxford Bags”

First, let’s do a description. Oxford bags were typically made of flannel or another lightweight material. They are not particularly weird in terms of construction; a typical design sported all the normal pockets, had a crease down the front of each leg, and was cuffed at the ankle. Where things get weird is in their dimensions: these were among the earliest, perhaps the original, pants that were baggy to the point of ridiculousness. The most extreme examples could be 44 inches in circumference at the ankle; this is big enough to completely hide the lower leg and any evidence of a foot. For comparison, the leg opening of a Levi’s 501 jean—a fairly loose cut, by modern standards—is 16 inches. These pants were bonkers.

The story of how Oxford bags became a trend is considered controversial; at least, as controversial as a debate over 100-year-old English trouser can create. The explanation for their size and name comes from 1924, at the University of Oxford, when the school administration supposedly banned the wearing of knickerbockers (or, more specifically, plus-fours). Knickerbockers are those baggy almost-pants that end at just below the knee. Plus-fours extend, as the name suggests, another four inches down. (There are also plus-sixes and plus-eights.) Plus-fours were, the story says, beloved amongst students at the prestigious University. As a rebellion, the students decided to keep wearing them—but to wear something over them, to hide them. Something fairly lightweight and billowy enough to hide the already loose plus-fours they loved so dearly. And so was born a fashion trend. To me this sounds like an unlikely tale. There is also a more credible tale of rowers wearing wider leg pants over their rowing shorts. Much in the way a track suit is worn over an athlete’s kit. The wider leg allowed them to put on and remove the said trousers without removing their shoes. Like anything, when things become popular there are those that try to push boundaries, and as a consequence the wider trousers became even wider and extreme.

Those fans of the style decided that if baggy was good, hugely baggy would be even better. The pants got bigger, and bigger. Twenty-four inches became, possibly as the result of a mix-up between circumference and diameter, 44 inches.

As the trend of huge trousers moved beyond Oxford—it moved to the U.S. very quickly, and was rebranded and slightly retooled as “collegiate pants”—new parts of society began to realise that really baggy pants could actually be pretty useful.

Workers found that it was easier to move in looser pants, so discarded the wool flannel for hardier textiles like corduroy but kept the looser look. Criminals realised they could store all kinds of weapons alongside their legs.

The enormously wide-legged look fell out of fashion as quickly, as all extremes in fashion do, but it came back a few decades later. In the early 1970s, a new club trend started up in the cities of the north of England, spawning a movement which would come to be called Northern Soul. It was an unusual musical movement in that it didn’t actually involve new music; instead, it was essentially a fan base of Northern English teens and twentysomethings with a passionate love of a particular brand of mid-1960s American soul. The music this scene favoured was generally the rarer and more up-tempo four to the floor music that was not initially commercial when it was first released.

Falling For Flannel northern soul

The fashion for Northern Soul clubbers was just as specific and significantly older than the music they danced to: for men, it was, you guessed it, Oxford bags, paired usually with a tank top. But as with the likely original use of the Oxford bags, the Northern Soul kids liked Oxford bags because they were utilitarian: Northern Soul was very serious about its dance moves, which involved a lot of spinning and kicking the air and dropping down for splits.

Now we are in the 2020s the fashion world has been taking inspiration from some silhouettes from yesteryear and gradually we are seeing fabrics and styles returning and being adapted for modern times.


Read 806 times Last modified on Wednesday, 19 August 2020 13:32
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Jason Disley

Jason Disley

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