Sunday, February 10, 2008

Birthday shopping with my girls - moleskins and double pocketed shirts

Photo: R M William's moleskins

Now anybody who reads this blog will know that I am a tad, some would say a lot more than a tad, old fashioned.

In buying clothes, I am very cautious about ever buying anything in high fashion. Instead, I go for a more conservative cut because experience has shown me that this is more likely to be long-term wearable.

For a number of reasons I have bought very little new clothing in recent years, no more than a few pairs of socks or some undies. So my wardrobe is in an absolutely parlous condition.

This year for my birthday my daughters took me clothes shopping. This was a major event in its own right because they were paying! But it was also a chance to start filling some gaps.

My first targets were some double pocketed shirts plus some moleskins.

Now the double pocketed shirts are easy enough to explain. This country style shirt is both efficient and effective. Efficient in that you have pockets to put things in (to men, pockets are the equivalent of a women's handbag) , effective in that the shirts are dressy enough to wear with a tie as smart casual.

But could we find any suitable ones at Bondi Junction, a major Sydney shopping centre? No. Fashion has shifted. The ones that were there were simply not dressy enough, too checky, to meet my dual needs.

I had more luck with moleskins. Now I have a new pair of pants from bush outfitters R M Williams.

But what, I can hear international readers wondering, does he mean by moleskins? Well, as I said, they are pants that form one element in Australia's national garb as popularised recently by Prime Ministers Howard and Rudd.

According to R M Wlliams, when French King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in the mid-17th century, ending religious tolerance of Protestantism in France, many Huguenots, as French protestants were called, fled to England and other parts of Europe taking their business acumen and trades with them. One of these skills was a special method of weaving cotton into a fabric so soft that it felt like the velvety fur of a mole.

Moleskin quickly became the preferred work-wear of agricultural workers in southern England because of its hard-wearing qualities and low cost. The fabric then became a firm favourite in the newly established Australian colonies.

R M Williams suggests that throughout the 19th century, moleskin rapidly moved into first place as the apparel of choice of drovers, rural labourers and shearers. So much so that it was included in old folk songs like "The Banks of the Condamine" in lines like - "I'll wash your greasy moleskins on the banks of the Condamine".

In the early days of the company, R.M.Williams imported the finest English "Beaver" moleskin to manufacture "Stockman Cut" trousers, jodhpurs and jackets. By the 1950s, a specialist Australian weaving mill was supplying the company with our "national cloth". Since then, R M Williams suggest, moleskins remain the official uniform of stockmen, graziers, drovers and shearers. However, many professional men also routinely wear R.M.Williams moleskins with shirts and ties to the office (especially on Casual Fridays) because they look just as good in a meeting as they do in the saddle.

Now there is a bit of a story in all this from my perspective.

As the company suggests, moleskins were favourite wear in the grazing community. I grew up in a world in which many country people wore double pocketed shirts, wool ties, moleskins and wool sports coats at social functions and on official business.

Now while I had country links, I was also a townie - someone who lives in town. So while I had a wool sports coat and indeed still do, I did not wear moleskins. There are many social overlays here that I will comment on further at some point. At this point, I would simply note that to do so would not have felt right.

I was 25 and living in Canberra before I bought my first pair of moleskins. Then it was a conscious act of identification with the country tradition. I became addicted, and have worn them ever since!

R.M.Williams itself now claims to be the only company to craft clothes from heavyweight 15oz moleskin fabric in Australia and possibly the world. Moleskins last for years, but the fabric is difficult to work with. Now here R M Williams makes a strong claim.

That's why only a traditional bush outfitter like R.M.Williams enjoys such pre-eminence in the manufacture of moleskins, because companies looking for the quick turnover of assembly line clothing wouldn't put in the time and effort it takes to make the finest moleskins. You still can't beat natural fibres for maximum breathability and moisture absorption - and R.M.Williams moleskin fabric is 100% cotton. The light construction and weave allows moleskin to not only withstand the snags of barbed wire and spinifex, it also offers protection and soft comfort. R.M.Williams moleskin - the all-Australian fabric by which all others are measured.

There is actually a fair bit of truth in all this. Moleskins are very comfortable, if also quite hot in the heavy weave. Jeans are cooler. Moleskins do last for a long time, making them good value despite the higher starting price.

Yet in all this there is an irony that I am very conscious of.

Moleskins have largely vanished from the community that I grew up in, their place taken by jeans. This change is partially a matter of price, partially one of changing social and cultural patterns. So the boy who would not wear moleskins on principle now stands out as one of the few people wearing them!

Mind you, I have no intention of changing my dress. I do have jeans, but they are scratchy. My country style outfits are dressier and more comfortable. I also have the satisfaction of being one of those rare beings who from the hat to the shoes is actually wearing Australian made. Only socks and undies are imported!


Lexcen said...

Having just bought a moleskin jacket, I was interested to read your article. Maybe it's time for me to buy a pair of moleskin pants.

Jim Belshaw said...

I think it really is, Lexcen!

Anonymous said...

My - having your daughters take you shopping and it is their treat must really be a red letter day. I hope you enjoyed the moment because I doubt if it will be often repeated. But it also suggests that the state of your wardrobe was getting pretty dire...

Jim Belshaw said...

It was indeed a red letter day, although I still live in hope of a repeat! Dire indeed, the wardrobe.