Living in Linen: An InsideHook Primer on Summer’s Most Fickle Fabric

All the need-to-know on the need-to-wear textile

June 29, 2023 11:33 am
a model wearing linen cloths from Todd Snyder on a grey background
Linen is a summer lifesaver — and a super fickle fabric. Here's what you need to know.
Todd Snyder

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There are a few buzzwords brandished about when discussing summer garb that you’ve absolutely heard before, given that you’re reading a 1,000-word analysis of a menswear textil — breathable, lightweight and, of course, linen. The warm-weather fabric has maintained a place on the sartorial Mount Rushmore for decades alongside madras, seersucker and hemp, championed by the likes of coastal grandmother Brad Pitt and Tom Wambsgans. (See also: your father in the ’80s. You in the ’80s?)

Three Different Ways to Wear Linen Before Summer Ends
Top picks from J.Crew, Todd Snyder and Alex Mill prove it’s time to show summer’s favorite fabric a little love

But for all its history and clout as a bastion of warm-weather dressing, linen has developed an admittedly notorious reputation as a difficult fabric to wear, exacerbated by the fact that suiting (as we know it) is perhaps dead and technical sweat-wicking fabrics are now an easy-to-make thing. It’s inclined to bunching and creasing, demands specific treatment when stained by, say, mustard and maintains a general ability to maybe make you look like a weird old guy who hangs out on the pier in a full sandstone suit.

Linen doesn’t have to suck. Ask Alain.
Paris Film / Criterion Channel

But we’re not ones to throw in the towel — nor are Zegna and Dior, if recent fashion weeks had anything to say about it — least of all on the patron textile of sprezzatura. Linen, if purchased, worn and cared for correctly, remains the king of scorching Pinterest Pitti Uomo mood boards, undefeated in tricking out your summer closet and winning everything from balmy bar crawls to your cousin’s wedding upstate.

Seeing as how nonno may or may not still be with us, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to transcribe the bible of il lino into a referenceable handbook for getting dressed this summer. From demystifying material to highlighting best drying practices to explaining that yes, it really is okay if your linen blazer has a couple of creases, find everything you need to know about linen below.

What Exactly Is Linen?

Linen has been around for millennia, contradicting the popular belief that the textile materialized into existence on the back of Alain Delone in Purple Noon. A natural byproduct of Linum usitatissimum, also known as flax, the textile tracks its roots to ancient Eygpt.

In contemporary production, Ireland is predominantly cited as the birthplace/workhouse for many of the sourcing and weaving practices that denote modern linen. Mills like Baird McNutt, a 1912-founded mill from the infamous Donegal region of Ireland, produces product for need-to-know menswear brands ranging from Todd Snyder to Buck Mason.

a group of linen suiting from Percival
Linen’s lightweight properties make it perfect for summer — and hard to care for.

Linen vs. Cotton:

Lauded for its natural breathability — anecdotal evidence abounds, please don’t ask us to explain the science — and moisture absorbency rate, linen’s natural properties make it a natural choice over heavier cotton and wools come summer. Below, a comparison of the fabrics.

  • Absorbancy: Linen’s moisture absorbency rate is higher than cotton. And with a thicker fiber and lack of elasticity, linen pulls and draws moisture away from the skin.
  • Durability: Another misconception is linen’s fragility — the textile is actually up to 30% stronger than traditional cotton. And with the aforementioned lack of elasticity, linen maintains its shape and structure for years.

A History of Linen in Menswear:

Originating as a luxurious alternative to traditional materials during the height of the Victorian era, linen worked itself into the tailoring canon via bespoke European houses and eventually American retailers like Brooks Brothers and J.Press, ultimately becoming widely available in the mid-1900s, embraced by high fashion and mall-brand retailers alike as a preferred summertime offering. In modern men’s clothing, the textile is most often available as a blend — a cheap, more durable option than pure linen — and added to a variety of garments, from sweaters to suits. Although saddled with a reputation as a dressier fabric, linen often appears in basics like t-shirts and shorts, adding its signature touch of heat-beating class to daily wardrobe staples. Menswear experts, like Tom Saunders of cult sartorialist label John Lewis, indicate that easier-moving linen is the future of summer menswear. “It’s less structured. The goal is to look smart but to feel comfortable,” Saunders told The Guardian in an interview last year.

a photo of Daniel Craig wearing linen in knives out.
Daniel Craig’s various crime-fighting characters are also prime examples of how to pull off summer’s most fickle fabric.

How to Care for Linen:

Given its unique properties, linen demands a stricter care practice that a pair of beat 501s. (Side note: linen shirt and beat 501s make an excellent combo.) While we suggest you always follow the golden rule of reading the garment care instruction label —like, really reading — there are a few general statutes of thumb to abide by. Washing linen cold, along with being more environmentally friendly, ensures avoiding any potential shrinkage and fading. Treating with a fiber-safe detergent and softener also helps maintain linen’s integrity. And when in doubt, just take your duds to the dry-cleaner.

Legendary designer Eileen Fisher recommends a hang dry opposed to a rough tumble dry, which should reduce general rumplage and pinching of the fibers. Fisher does note that even an air dry comes with a stipulation: “Don’t forget to hang your garment in the shade or turn it inside out to prevent fading.” While we recommend you let your linen live (we’ll get to that), if you must remove wrinkles, iron while damp to avoid singeing the fabric.

How to Wear Linen in 2023:

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: in 2023, linen (not denim) should be beat up. We strongly feel that the more wrinkles, creases and life in your clothing, the better, a sentiment echoed by other menswear dudes, too. Also, leaning into the new era of laid-back cuts is essential to nailing the relaxed Talented Mr. Ripley look — that’s what we’re shooting for here, if that wasn’t clear — as much as a Vespa or smoky brunette attached to your hip is. Accomplish this by reaching for wide, more relaxed pants and billowy shirts paired with little shorts (big pants-little shirt and the little shorts-big shirt is the menswear equivalent of the theory of relativity these days).

In our magnanimous ways, we’ve pulled out a ton of linen styles to cop and rock this summer, good for the total newbie and seasoned summer pro alike, along with a little advice on what each style requires. Ready those credit cards, and remember: linen is going to be your best friend this summer, so get to know it.

Linen Suiting:

The most classic applique, linen suiting is a must for summertime soirees and Succession-cosplay nuptials. As always, we recommend a trip to the tailor, but intentionally relaxed is the way to go here. Percival and Brazilians Frescobol Carioca make some of the best (and most affordable) off-the-rack two-pieces we’ve had the pleasure of wearing, in a cohort of summery hues, no less. If you’ve got the wherewithal for a bespoke joint, try NYC’s own J. Mueser — an experience and a suit you won’t soon forget.

Linen Shirts:

Life is short — live a little. Or rather, live in a funky linen shirt. While flaxen oxfords and dress shirts are a dime-a-dozen, a standout summer weight joint dressed down with your favorite jeans or a pair of euro shorts makes for a ‘gram-worthy summer ‘fit no matter your adjacency to a pool. Try layering, too; a tank and an open linen fatigue shirt from Buck Mason is a killer getup no one will see coming.

Linen Pants:

Any great getup starts with the pants, so why not avoid any potential swampiness and opt for a pair of loose linen trousers? Drawstring, button-fly, even a Gurkha belt — it’s all fair game, as long as you choose pants that are roomy through the thigh and can be worn with nothing but a tank top, a pair of sick shades and a smile.

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