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Why a Solaro suit is the only suit you’ll need this summer

The time has come to legitimize the Solaro suit as a staple garment in any man’s wardrobe.

Oh please, don’t give me that look. We already established a long time ago that brown and earthy colors are no longer reserved for the countryside, and we integrated them as part of our daily – and even business – clothing. A Solaro suit is going to be your best investment this summer.

Soldier with African pigmies. Photo: Wikimedia

First, let’s go back to the origins of the fabric. Despite being quite popular among the Italians, we owe the invention of Solaro to the Brits and their assumption that the red color repelled radiation caused from direct sunlight.

The Solaro was born at the dawn of the 20th century, during the colonialism of the Tropics. The London School of Tropical Medicine dedicated studies to the wellbeing of the soldiers in colonial lands: climate conditions in tropical areas were incredibly harsh, and a need for new fabrics and garments to protect the colonizers arose as it did the belief that they were responsible for dreadful tropical diseases.

One of the School’s scientists, Louis Westenra Sambon, conducted some studies on the skin of the colonized populations, coming to the conclusion that the darker pigment was able to block off the UV rays coming from the sunlight. It was clear to him that Nature provided the natives with the necessary protection against the harm of the climate, and that the colonizers would have had to find a way to protect their fair skin just as well. Clothes were the obvious choice, as they act as an additional layer to protect the body from the external agents.

sambon inventor solaro

Dr. Sambon, the inventor of the Solaro fabric.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

It was common knowledge at the time that light fabrics retained less heat than dark fabrics; however, white garments were not quite suitable for soldiers. Khaki green, on the other hand, was both light and suitable for a soldier’s uniform, and that’s why Dr. Sambon chose it as the base of the cloth of his invention: the Solaro. He added to it a red layer that supposedly repelled the UV rays.

“Dr. Sambon, assisted by Mr. John Ellis, has produced a fabric hat has a “perfect khaki effect” on the outside and a red colour screen on the inner surface, and he has stated that Mr. Bailey has examined it at the University College and that it has proved as impervious to the actinic rays as is the skin of natives of tropical countries. This cloth is called Solaro. We have not seen specimens of this cloth, but we note that it is obtainable at Messers Ellis and Johns, Tailors, 21, South Moulton Street, London, W.”¹

“Unlike clothing promoted for use in tropical climates today, Solaro was meant to prevent more than sunburn and carcinomas. It was designed to inhibit the “actinic” rays—what we would now call ultraviolet (UV) radiation—of the sun, which were thought to disrupt proper physiological functioning and produce nervous disorders. The design of the clothing was linked to the observation that skin color was darkest where sunlight was most intense.”²

Another debate concerned the type of fabric that would work best against the heat: cotton or wool? German zoologist Gustav Jaeger pointed out that many animals survive in tropical areas with a wool coat, and that wool breathes better than vegetable fabrics, which are not meant to be used in clothing: Nature has clothed the animals. Man clothes himself. Animal wool, which Nature has created to clothe the animal body, is the ‘survival of the fittest’ clothing material.”³

His assumption is at the base of Dr. Sambon’s choice of wool for the Solaro.

solaro fabric

Original Solaro fabric

The patented Solaro fabric –“Original Solaro Made in England”- is produced by Smith Woollens (now part of Harrisons). It weighs 310 gr and is in a tan/olive-ish color with a herringbone pattern. It features an underside woven with brick red yarn;

solaro suit fabric history

Solaro fabric. Photo: No Man Walks Alone

this characteristic produces an iridescent sheen that is most evident when the light hits the fabric at a specific angle, but it is nonetheless quite subtle.

Today there are several mills – Loro Piana, Drago, Angelico, to name a few- that produce Solaro in a variety of weights and hues, yet remaining somewhat faithful to the mid-weight, khaki-and-red original version.

The most common fabrics employed to create Solaro are pure wool twill and yarn-dyed gabardine.

As I mentioned, the Italians are particularly fond of Solaro suits, as they embody perfectly the Italian sprezzatura with the relaxed, casual, and slightly impudent look provided by the semi-iridescent cloth. It’s not uncommon to spot distinguished, elderly Italians wearing Solaro suits, whether they are businessmen riding a bicycle in Milan, or classy Neapolitan gentlemen savoring espresso at a café while reading the Corriere della Sera.


Here are a few good reasons why a Solaro suit is the perfect integration to your summer closet:

It’s a conversation starter; we are not given that many chances to make fun of the Brits (if we don’t consider Brexit) so why lose the chance to make a joke of their belief that a red thread in their suits would keep them safe from tropical diseases? Jokes aside, the history of the fabric and its continental charm make a good topic of conversation for anyone who has an interest in menswear or history.

It’s unconventional but not crazy extravagant; the red sheen is barely there, just enough to remind the world that you are confident enough to pull off a suit that goes beyond the conventions. You own it.

It suits everyone. Just take look at the gallery, and you’ll see that a solaro suit looks good on every single person, flattering every complexion from the fairer to the deeper. Additionally, it seems to class-up everyone’s style, making the solaro suit the male equivalent of a pearl choker.

It makes a great option for business casual. I promise not to roll my eyes and scoff when you tell me that America is too conservative to allow such a suit to be part of a business environment. However, to the West Coast fellows that suffer from suit envy because their workplace is too casual to wear even the most innocent two-piece navy suit, I say: this is your chance! A Solaro suit is casual enough to be worn even in an office where the most formal piece of clothing is not-ripped denim, and you won’t be labeled as “the uptight dude in the navy suit”. Plus, you can lose the jacket any time and not look like you forgot a piece of your outfit at home.

If you’d like to read what other forumites have to say on the matter, there is a whole thread dedicated to wearing Solaro for business.

It’s incredibly easy to style. Click here to read our guide to wearing a Solaro suit – including some spezzato options!

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@AriannaReggio


1. The Indian Medical Gazette, Volume 42, p. 188

2. Bulletin of the History of Medicine: Bull Hist Med. 2009 Fall : 530-560

3. Jaeger Gustav. In: Dr. Jaeger’s Essays on Health-Culture. Tomalin Lewis RS., translator. London: Waterlow and Sons; 1887. p. 116.

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Arianna Reggio

Arianna is an Italian trapped in Southern California, and she's still trying to cope with the fact she's living in a country where they put pineapples on pizza. She is into both Style AND Fashion, but she hardly ever writes about it because all her free time is spent between yoga, rock concerts, and Victorian poetry.

16 replies »

  1. Arianna,

    Great write-up! I enjoyed learning more about this history of the fabric. I knew it as something quirky that Italians wore but was for some reason made in England. Now I get it.

    I’m curious as to how and why Italians wear Solaro. Does it have any functional properties or is it truly just an affectation? To put that question in context, Fresco breaths, seersucker wicks; does the ‘reflectance’ of Solaro help it wear cooler or is more of a shoulder season fabric?

    Best,

    Patrick

    • Hi Patrick!
      The red thread in the Solaro doesn’t offer any protection against the heat; I think that the belief that it wears cooler because of the red layer comes from the wrong assumption that that was its original purpose (very few articles online mention the science behind it).
      Of course wool breathes and absorbs moisture, which is why it makes for a good summer fabric, but it has nothing to do with the red iridescence. I’m sure most Italian tailors know that and consider Solaro a pure aesthetic choice.
      Its charms lies in being a memento of a historic moment, but aside that, it is beautiful and useless 🙂

    • Most Solaro suits are bespoke, but there are a few RTW options (No Man Walks Alone carries them sometimes). Sartoria Formosa, Eidos, and Lardini are the first names that I can think of.
      You also have the option of MTM with Lanieri, which gets you a half-canvassed Solaro suit made with a Drago wool.

  2. Which makers of Solaro do the less iridescent version? I’m quite keen on getting one made but I don’t want to stand out all that much.

    • I’m not sure, you’d have to see them in person as the cloth picks up a different hue at every angle. My guess is that cotton would have less of a “shine”, but I would check with your tailor beforehand to make sure you like the effect (or request a sample if you’re ordering the fabric online).

  3. I’ve bought 3m of Original Solaro in Bologna a week ago, I gave it to my tailor and I’m waiting for a call to do a first fitting.
    It is a very nice fabric with a beautiful shade of olive/brown (Original Solaro only comes in a single color) but I have to say.. I’ts heavy! around 320/350g so I would not call it a summer fabric, maybe for spring, but I’m pretty sure I will have to wait the next year or maybe september to wear it, It’s going to be hot out there!

    • Yes, the original Solaro is quite heavy for a “summer” fabric…it will be perfect for the first weeks of fall and on breezy summer days! Don’t forget to share the final result on the forum 😉

  4. As a fellow Angeleno, you’re doing god’s work! I wear suits or sport coat/trousers most days, and I stand out like a (well dressed) sore thumb! I hope proper dress makes a comeback on the west coast.

    • Hi Eric,
      Showing up at work well dressed is a sign of respect for your colleagues as well as yourself, so it can’t possibly be a bad thing – even if you stand out.
      If anything it’s the other people that should feel underdressed, and that’s usually what happens, and it’s the reason they complain and joke about it 😉

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