Swellboy on… maritime clothing

Striking fashion straight from the high seas

Image: Brijesh Patel

This winter I have been seduced by the romance of the roll-neck sweater. Occasionally I come down with a crush on a particular piece of clothing, and I have fallen hard for the polo neck. I was fortunate enough to happen upon a Zegna silk and cashmere polo neck from a year or two ago, and have been wearing it with a 12-year-old grey checked Huntsman tweed for a look that I like to think evokes a little bit of Gerald Harper’s dashing squire Hadleigh, protagonist in the eponymous soap opera that ran from 1969 until 1976, and was a sort of Aston Martin-driving, polo-neck-wearing version of Downton Abbey.

However, my real discovery has been North Sea Clothing. I was put onto the company by a publisher friend. When I was growing up, the North Sea was a fabled El Dorado of black gold, and as a youngster I sat wide-eyed listening to tales of the huge sums of money that were earned by divers on the oil rigs. According to the stories, jewellers in Aberdeen were the nation’s most successful Rolex retailers, as macho oilmen piled in to spend their paychecks.

Apocryphal Arab sheikhs in London at the time were said upon departure to gift their drivers with the Rolls in which they had been ferried around town. In the same way, it seemed that the level of lucre among North Sea oil workers was so great that instead of going to the tiresome trouble of winding their diving watches, they simply went and bought a new one.


However, the marine world evoked by North Sea Clothing is of an altogether different order to the fanciful seas of my youthful imagining. It is more Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea than Harold Robbins’s The Pirate, but beguiling nonetheless. These are the sweaters of the North Atlantic convoys. Called things like “Submariner” and “Intrepid”, they are imbued with the stiff-upper-lip machismo typical of our hardy island breed, recollecting a time when our seafarers could go to war sustained by little more than an endless supply of strong unfiltered cigarettes with naval names (Capstan and Senior Service among them), armour-plated roll-neck knitwear and a chipped enamel mug of hot, sweet tea.

I seem to recall that in We Dive At Dawn John Mills wears a dark roll-neck sweater and shawl-collared pullover at the same time, one on top of the other, and accessorises the look with a week’s growth of beard. Were he appearing in a modern movie, he would doubtless have been signed up for an endorsement deal as quickly as you can say “Fire torpedoes”.

The net effect has been to send me rooting among my headgear for my gin-palace captain’s hat with an anchor on the front and my Captain Birdseye-type blazer with brass buttons the size of clay pigeons and what remains of our nation’s gold reserves turned into gold braid on the sleeves. These items will definitely complete the North Sea look I am aiming at. My one slight concern is that I will be a little warm, as the only time I take to the seas is in locations such as Capri, Cannes and Marbella.