Tuesday, 13 September 2011


Steve McQueen and Jacqueline Bisset on the set of Bullitt

Americans are likely to call them turtlenecks. A mock turtleneck is different: that's where the collar is high enough to cover the neck but not fold. Roll-necks are the same thing as polo necks. Say polo in relation to tops, though, and the possibility only increases that an image of what people used to call a tennis shirt comes to mind, since Lacoste first marketed his and Ralph Lauren subsequently did his bit.

Roll-necks have long been synonymous with sailors, which entirely befits ex-Marine McQueen. Ideas of the classic roll-neck jumper tend to centre on World War II, when the government issued Royal Navy deck sweaters, more commonly known as submariner sweaters. This is often the kind of thing people mean when they think of an RAF sweater. Motorcyclists in the 1950s and 1960s wore surplus deck jumpers in winter under their leather or wax jackets (Barbour or Belstaff, naturally). The motorbike association suits our man as much as the naval, of course.

Steve McQueen wore a roll-neck most famously in Bullitt. It's something other than a submariner sweater. Despite the claim of Grand Prix Legends, it's something other than a French Navy roll-neck too. The book The Ivy Look, by Graham Marsh and JP Gaul, says it's made of cashmere.

Hollywood And The Ivy Look

I have another Graham Marsh and JP Gaul book to recommend, by the way. Hollywood And The Ivy Look, also by Tony Nourmand, is due for release in the first week of November by Reel Art Press (RAP), which publishes deluxe art entertainment books. (Gaul's name is left off the cover, although RAP's website credits the text to he and Marsh.) Nourmand is the author of many film books. He's also co-owner of the internationally acclaimed Reel Poster Gallery in London - which deals with original vintage film posters - as well as editor for, and co-founder of, RAP. The blurb Nourmand sent me calls Hollywood And The Ivy Look "a pictorial celebration of the look and attitude of 'Ivy'". It deals with the Hollywood embrace of Ivy style, as the title suggests, and features previously unpublished photographs of McQueen. You can currently order the book from RAP at a pre-launch price of £35. It's £45 otherwise.

Where was I? Somewhere other than here, but a comment on this blog recently pointed me towards the Bullitt DVD commentary. That was the second prompt I'd had to listen to it. I finally did.

"Most of his clothes were in fact from Dougie Hayward," director Peter Yates says, as McQueen puts on his roll-neck. "He loved English clothes."

I'll talk about Hayward, and McQueen's love of English clothes, in another post. The only thing I have to say here in relation to that comment is Doug Hayward was a great, and greatly expensive, tailor. If he supplied the roll-neck, it's easy to see how it'd be a decent chunk of cashmere goat. If you know of an equivalent, get in touch.

Perhaps Ballantyne Cashmere supplied the roll-neck. It's a high-end company that began in Scotland in 1921. It's been Italian-owned since 2004. Steve McQueen wore Ballantyne, and Daniel Craig, our favourite modern-day McQueen, wears it.

Neil Starr of North Sea Clothing in the Submariner sweater in navy.
One cool, as they say, dude. Photograph from Concrete Editions

It's rare enough to see a roll-neck in an office and, when you do, odds are it's a fine black material. A thick blue wool roll-neck is one man along from that, and that's why Steve McQueen Style recommends a submariner sweater. Yes, the Bullitt roll-neck is more refined than a submariner. However, on the other hand it's certainly more than some flimsy number. It's best, in this case, to err on the side of chunky.

Neil Starr is a collector and trader of vintage clothes, musical instruments and other items. He supplies designers, and he deals especially with military and motorcycle clothes and accessories. Neil Starr has two ropy websites where you'll find a selection of vintage Barbour and Belstaff motorcycle clothes. They appear to be identical:

Mr Starr also runs North Sea Clothing, a project to produce a small selection of clothes and accessories made to meticulous specifications. It's successful enough that demand tends to outstrip supply. The website is almost as ropy as the other two, but here you'll find the ultimate version of the deck jumper. It's £125. It's a tenner less from a men's style website called The Mandon Store, though.

Mr Starr deviated from his vintage roll-neck template only on the couple of points where it was too eccentric for anything like modern tastes. He took the arms beyond the original mid-forearm finish. The body was especially long, conversely, so he shortened that.

The North Sea Clothing Submariner sweater is made in Nottinghamshire from English wool: poor quality subs are susceptible to shrinking and bobbling (or pilling). It's made in the same heavy five-gauge knit as the original, which supports the tough, warm, resistant-to-rain aspect. (The more gauge, or tension, to a yarn, the thinner the garment. John Smedley clothes, for instance, are fine: the company's Pembroke roll-neck is extra-fine 30 gauge.)

The unwashed ecru North Sea Clothing sweaters come with quite a lanolin smell. What is lanolin? A wax found naturally on sheep's wool that helps make it resistant to the weather. Lanolin also helps give wool the authentic smell of sheep. The less brave of you interested in ecru should be able to wash the bulk of it away easily enough.

The closest alternative I see to the North Sea Clothing sub is by designer Nigel Cabourn, who takes inspiration from vintage work, military and exploration clothes. The navy 4 Way Roll Neck is based on that worn in 1953 by Tom Bourdillon, part of the same expedition when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people known to reach the summit of Mount Everest. You can wear it back to front and, as Tom did, inside out, hence name. It's made in Scotland from Shetland wool. It's five gauge as with the North Sea Clothing jumper. £199 from Oi Polloi. (The first size on the Oi Polloi website says 48". That's a mistake, but the website provides further size information: 48 is a small, a 40" chest.)

I must say I've discounted a host of others I've seen, but let me know if you can come up with another suitable deck jumper.