Terry cloth returns for cool leisurewear

Retro towelling has been rebooted for summer in both classic and inventive ways, says Tom Stubbs

Orlebar Brown cotton-towelling Diamonds are Forever shirt, £195
Orlebar Brown cotton-towelling Diamonds are Forever shirt, £195

One of the most memorable style moments from the James Bond film franchise comes from a poolside scene in Goldfinger (1964) in which Sean Connery dons a jaunty sky-blue terry-cloth one-piece. Towelling was the material for resortwear in the ’50s and ’60s and a recurring feature in Bond’s early leisure-time wardrobe. Now, more than 50 years later, it has returned to menswear in inventive ways. 

Clockwise from top left: Camoshita cotton-jersey polo shirt, £205, from Mr Porter. Howlin’ cotton/polyester polo shirt, £105 at Matchesfashion.com. Sunspel cotton-towelling T-shirt, £75
Clockwise from top left: Camoshita cotton-jersey polo shirt, £205, from Mr Porter. Howlin’ cotton/polyester polo shirt, £105 at Matchesfashion.com. Sunspel cotton-towelling T-shirt, £75

Towelling or terry cloth – thought to come from the Old French tirer, meaning “to pull” – is one of Orlebar Brown’s favoured materials, and this month the swimwear specialist launches a collection that pays homage to Bond’s wardrobe, including the character’s terry-cloth pieces. As well as a faithful recreation of that famous playsuit (£345), replete with chest pocket and polished gold buckle, Orlebar Brown has produced a sky-blue polo (£165), beige safari shirt (£195) and piped tracksuit blouson top (£295) similar to the one Roger Moore wears in A View to Kill (1985), all in towelling. Other pieces include an update on its classic Bulldog shorts (£175) in new horizontal-grain towelling and matching short-sleeve tops (£115). 

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Massimo Alba has not only made a lovely grey raglan-sleeve cotton-terry shirt (£170) but also an unstructured cotton-terry blazer (£350). This casual tailored piece has a beautiful handle and looks so suave it could have slipped seamlessly into James Bond’s early wardrobe. 

Massimo Alba cotton-terry blazer, £350
Massimo Alba cotton-terry blazer, £350

Another brand making the most of towelling is Japan-based Camoshita. I love how it does resortwear, which reflects director Yasuto Kamoshita’s easy style, and this season it has short-sleeve polos (£205) in fine terry cloth. “The fabric has a ’60s feel, and the sherbet-red and mustard hues are interesting mixed with neutral colours,” he tells me. P Johnson has chosen retro colours for its long-sleeve towelling shirts (£170), which come in rust or dark inky blue. “Our terry towelling is made in Italy by a leading jersey weaver,” says founder Patrick Johnson, “which means it’s much lighter than most terry cloths.” Éditions MR, too, has a clean-cut long-sleeve towelling shirt (€140) with subtly contrasting collar and cuffs.

Casablanca cotton-towelling track top, £210, and matching bottoms, £195, both at Browns
Casablanca cotton-towelling track top, £210, and matching bottoms, £195, both at Browns

Katharine Hamnett’s towelling, made from French organic cotton, is densely knitted, giving depth to the colours. The Lucien shorts (£125) and Vince top (£175) come in peach or velvety black, teal or warm brown. Sunspel’s towelling T-shirt (£75), in red, white, grey, navy or indigo blue, is also made from lightweight organic cotton and has an equally luxurious feel. 

Katharine Hamnett cotton-towelling Vince top, £175, and matching Lucien shorts, £125
Katharine Hamnett cotton-towelling Vince top, £175, and matching Lucien shorts, £125

Being absorbent, towelling is a natural for sports-cum-leisurewear, and two brands have impressed me with athletic-inspired pieces. New Parisian brand Casablanca is using terry cloth for track tops (£210) with distinct retro influences. I am very keen on the pink and blue ones with matching track bottoms (£195). The matching set is also available in a sleek black option, which reminds me of the fantastic tracksuits in The Sopranos. Another label to work with towelling is Howlin’; interesting pieces include a slim-fit striped polo shirt (£105) and a cotton-blend tee (£65) with contrasting coloured trim.

From top: Louis Vuitton cotton-velour top, £1,400. P Johnson cotton-towelling shirt, £170
From top: Louis Vuitton cotton-velour top, £1,400. P Johnson cotton-towelling shirt, £170

More established brands with towelling athleisure wear include Ermenegildo Zegna Couture, which has a chunky polo sweater (£1,350) in glazed cotton that has the appearance of a towel-like jacquard. Louis Vuitton’s white and black monogram tops (£1,400) are also rendered in a velour-like towelling and bound with neoprene, while Acne Studios’ cotton/wool striped sweater (£320) is reminiscent of the ’80s tops worn in the so-called Madchester rave scene.

Ermenegildo Zegna Couture cotton-knit sweater, £1,350
Ermenegildo Zegna Couture cotton-knit sweater, £1,350 | Image: Salvatore Dragone

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