Wednesday, 6 August 2008


This picture comes courtesy of The Sartorialist (not that I actually asked him if I could use it, I'll ask now: 'can I please Mr S.?').

I said I would explain why tank-tops, Fair Isle ones in particular, are cool. Now, of course, I find myself struggling to do so. Not because I've changed my mind, but because what someone finds themselves attracted to isn't subject to reason, logic, or any kind of rational explanation. I am just attracted to Fair Isle tank-tops, in the same way I am attracted to brown leather, sea-side towns that have seen better days, and coloured string.

When I see someone wearing one I immediately invest them with all number of traits they may very well not have: artistic, intellectual, maverick. I think they probably enjoy solitude, wide open spaces, beach-huts, and beer. That they are the sort who only speak when they have something to say, rather than because they want to say something. That they are strong individuals and not part of the herd. How often do you see an adult male in a Fair Isle tank-top? Exactly! I instinctively take them to be the sort I could have an easy conversation with, and that they will be interested in, at least some of, the same things I am.

Fair Isle makes me think of hills, of coming in from a long walk to a warm fire and tea and scones. Of staying at the beach after the sun has cooled to scramble about in rock pools. Of ice-cream sundaes; best china; cake stands with glass domes; camping; unusual punctuation; Dylan Thomas (who knows why); poetry; mixing-bowls; duck-egg blue.

Tank-tops are a little less cosy than jumpers. The arms are kept free for ease of movement. They speak of cool summers rather than cold winters, of getting out and about rather than hunkering down. And they can be worn under a jacket without giving you bulky (never attractive) arms.

This may very well be because I was brain-washed in 1974. Or it may have something to do with when I was nineteen my (then to be) mother-in-law went to the trouble of measuring my tee-shirts in order to knit me a Fair Isle tank-top for the first Christmas I ever spent with my husband's family. And my sister-in-law who, having helped with the subterfuge, was at first envious and then delighted to get one too. We wore them proudly for our Boxing day walk. And I, having been somewhat nervous of the whole event, was made to feel part of the family that I have loved ever since.

All I know is this: I would always give a person in a Fair Isle tank-top the time of day, no matter what the rest of them looked like, and I don't think I'm the only one. When Boden did them a few years ago I promptly ordered one for myself. The first time I washed it - in the machine, defying hand-wash only instructions - it shrunk to the size of a bee, so I went back to the site to order another and they had sold out never to get them back again.

In this day of mass-manufacture, designer labels and tee-shirts that say such ghastly things as 'Real Man' across the chest - 'Really!' I want to yell, 'who fucking says?' - a Fair Isle tank suggests hand crafting and time taken. I know it's a bit like a label that says size four in the jeans of a woman who knows she is really a ten. Or opening a tin of 'home made' soup. Or even, as I saw the other day, a faux-leather handbag that costs as much as a real leather one. But, as I said, it's all based on feelings that however much I try I can't really justify. A bit like preferring the poetry of Ted Hughes to Keats (check), the paintings of Ben Nicholson to Constable (check) or chocolate cake to curry (check).

If I were to find myself sitting in a cafe eating chocolate torte with Nicholson's paintings on the wall, a book of Ted Hughes' collected on my lap, and looked up to see my husband coming towards me wearing a Fair Isle tank top and cords, that would be a good day.


Kim Ayres said...

"Lives with his mother" is an alternate interpretation, although not as romantic and beautifully described as yours.

Mary Witzl said...

I used to feel like this about those corduroy jackets with the leather patches on the elbows, but I have since revised my opinion of them.

I like Fair Isle sweaters and jumpers, but I don't distinguish between the sweaters and the tank tops. I'm not even sure I'd register the difference. But any man in a tee-shirt that reads 'Real Man' is a prat -- I think it's been proven.

debra said...

is a tank top what we call a vest? I love how Fair Isle sweaters look, but I feel as bid as a house when I put one on.

Eryl Shields said...

Sadly, I think that's the interpretation Stevie subscribes to, Kim. Was there a glut of men who lived with their mothers and wore Fair Isle in the 'seventies, when the two of you were of impressionable age?

Mary ~ Oh, I love those jackets still. When I was about fifteen I had a very good looking and kind young geography (or was it history?) teacher who wore one, nuff said.

Debra ~ Yes I think so, basically it's a sweater without sleeves. They are quite unflattering to all but the super slim. Kate Moss and Johnny Depp are the only people I can think of, off the top of my head, who could successfully pull off the look.

Kim Ayres said...

I'm sure Stevie would feel people at work just wouldn't take him as seriously if he wore one.

Not even if it was accompanied by a corduroy jacket with leather patches on the elbows.

I could almost imagine Dr Maroon in one though. You should suggest it. He listens to you.

Eryl Shields said...

Does he? How did I not notice?

The World According To Me said...

Yep, tank tops rule. And brown leather. I have a thing about brown leather as well. Brown leather boots, shoes, belts, sandals and bags. I used to have a brown leather sofa too.

Eryl Shields said...

I'd love a brown leather sofa, I have an 'oxblood' one, that kind of blackened red (someone very kindly gave it to me, actually she gave me two and I gave the other to my next door neighbour) and every time I look at it I wish it were brown. I can't even get it to scuff and crack, it looks brand new. So depressing.

I did a post a while back on my search for the perfect brown leather bag. For me that would be a Mulberry Elgin, but I could only afford Boden and had to darken it with sunflower oil.

Kanani said...

Oh, I love The Sartorialist.
Anyway, I can't wear wool. I break out in hives. Even the finest type just makes me itch. So I end up layering silk sweaters and the old/new standby: polar fleece. It's not very chic, but it does the trick in keeping me warm.

Anyway, what were we talking about?

PI said...

It must be an MIL thing. MTL's mother - a feisty Scotswoman, knitted as if her life depended on it. And one beneficial spin - off: at 79 her hands were the hands of a 40 yr old. She would undo garments and knit them again. We all had Arran sweaters and woolly hats. There was always an error somewhere - probably deliberate. A lovely tank top she knitted for me had a random sugar pink stripe on one side only. God bless her - dear Mary.

Eryl Shields said...

Kanani ~ me too, especially when he posts pictures of people who are a bit more experimental with their look. Like, I love that man with the beard and the red trousers, do you know the one?

How awful not being able to wear wool, not even cashmere? Thank goodness you live in a warm climate.

Pat ~ my MIL is also a brilliant knitter, and also called Mary! She kept Bob in sweaters for the first ten or so years of his life. I search charity shops for those kinds of knits now, the ones with random stripes and loose necklines.

Dr Maroon said...

"We wore them proudly for our Boxing day walk"

that doesn't count, we will wear anything on Boxing Day. Our emotions are all over the shop and we're probably still drunk.

The real test is breakfast at the savoy grill. Only the upper class and feminine women can pull it off.
Kim's right for once, "Stays with his mother" is what I'm getting whenever i see one on a man, and jet what about Paul Nicholas, Robin Williams, yeah wait a minute, I'm still getting "stays with his mother"
Ted Hughs was just plain weird.
Now Bertie Wooster, there is our tank top champion!
It's different for girls, by wearing a boyish garment it only makes them more appealing, as well you know. TEMPTRESS!

Eryl Shields said...

Have you noticed Doc that all the female commenters say positive things about them? Perhaps we are rather endeared to the sort of man who is good to his mother. Perhaps a man who lives with his mother is a challenge we are secretly tempted to take up. What is it about living with your mother that's so bad anyway?

Dr Maroon said...

Perhaps a man who lives with his mother is a challenge we are secretly tempted to take up
yeah in a parallel universe.

What is it about living with your mother that's so bad anyway?

It's unnatural! That's what.

Eryl Shields said...

Typical rhetorical male argument. Where's your logic, your reason, your evidence?

Carole said...

Great post as usual. Good stuff. I have to say, I love the way you write.

I popped in on a previous post because I am closing my blog for the time being. My life is crazy and I feel guilty for writing but have had our youngest son and his family move in with us and I am also looking for another part time job to help with expenses so I don't seem to have the time I need or want to be at the computer much. I hope to keep checking in on you though and will look forward to seeing you published.

Eryl Shields said...

I do hope things calm down for you soon Carole. It's lovely to hear from you, and will always be, whenever you have a spare few minutes. You shouldn't feel guilty for taking a little time for yourself, though I know all too well that that is easier said than done. Best of luck. Oh, and thanks for the compliment.

Conan Drumm said...

Oh deary me. Maroon has the right of it - the FITT wearer lives with mama and collects odd things at church fete bric-a-brac stalls. He probably has converted the attic into an intricate model railway universe wherein he feels safe, and in control.

Eryl Shields said...

Conan ~ we all need some place to feel safe and in control, for me it's the kitchen, but if I had an attic...