Last spring, I visited my great grand uncle Nissie just before he turned 100, and I faced a startling revelation: My cantankerous ancient relative and I both sported argyle sweaters. The out-of-season autumnal palette of yellow, brown and orange was perhaps coincidence, but our affinity for the Scottish pattern itself bore further examination.
Nissie, my maternal grandmother’s uncle and the last of my relatives born in Russia, was living in an old folks’ home in Toms River, N.J. For years, he’d been saying, “I’m ready to go.” Nonetheless, he endured and cracked wise with his personal nurse, inevitably named Comfort. I used to believe that my allegiance to the sophisticated argyle pattern derived from cultural osmosis. In my native Princeton, a sharp Pringle sweater marked a certain class of intellectual — strolling by the Institute for Advanced Study, throwing it over the shoulder on brisk evening walks and linking the sleeves like a pair of socks.
That sturdy tenet of my sartorial life crumbled when I realized argyle was also the favored geometric sequence of this man whose native shtetl had changed names so many times since his 1914 birth that he’d lost track of its actual location. It was not preppy affectation that dictated Nissie’s taste in sweaters. In 1923, after the Revolution, he’d roughed it in Moscow — a city I’d inhabit for a college summer, speaking a language I’d learned to connect with my ancestors – and eventually boarded a boat to Philadelphia. He grew up near Newark, and after living on Delancey Street in Manhattan and helping relatives run a delicatessen, had a career as a postal worker back in New Jersey. He brandished a non-conformism in his peripatetic nature and refused to settle down. Never marrying, he had a decades-long relationship with his neighbor Sylvia and remained a bachelor after her death.
So perhaps the diamond formation on Nissie’s sweater is not incongruous with his humble, wandering nature. Argyle is derived from the 17th century tartan of Clan Campbell of Argyll in western Scotland. Such is the origin of the funky kilts and Scottish Highlander socks. According to “The Scottish Historical Review,” after Mary, Queen of Scots ended the 1565 Chaseabout Raid that opposed her marriage to Lord Darnley, Archibald Campbell (aka fifth Earl of Argyll) was the only rebel at large within Scotland. He returned to his castle at Dunoon, where Mary dared not pursue him. In the lineage that spawned this pattern, there is a recalcitrant instinct: anti-establishment with regard to the crown.
Argyle knits and woolens rose to popularity after World War I after Pringle of Scotland employed the pattern, capitalizing on its association with the Duke of Windsor, formerly known as King Edward VIII before his 1936 abdication. It became a popular golfing pattern used in the long socks worn with the plus-fours trousers of the day. But argyle is not strictly a pattern of elite leisure.
The argyle pattern, with diagonal lines criss-crossing the pointy lozenges, has a duality. It is on the socks of Wall Street bankers and the sweaters of wry centarians. It is nerd, but Old Boy. It’s a slight rebellion beneath a twill suit. It is the ultimate high-low pattern.
The fondness Nissie and I shared for the diamonds of argyle extols the virtues of classic quirkiness, like the vintage LC Smith & Corona floating shift typewriter from the 1930s he gifted me. Like the argyle pattern, the machine is at once timeless and anachronistic.
The pattern connotes an air of tradition, even in modern contexts. Thin argyle strips appear on the sides of North Carolina Tar Heel basketball jerseys, originating from designer Alexander Julian, whom legendary coach Dean Smith enlisted to redesign the team uniforms before the 1991-1992 season. Michael Jordan reportedly provided his stamp of approval.
Russell Simmons recently launched Argyleculture, a fashion line geared toward the “Urban Graduate,” which the brand defines as “an emerged male and female consumer born and bred in the hip hop culture, now mature and successful in his or her own right.” This new brand is a collaborative effort with tailored clothing company Peerless Clothing. Simmons here hints at the egalitarian sophistication of the pattern in highlighting its “inclusionary intentions” and “classic elements, with highlighted twists, that add irreverence and unpredictability.” There is, indeed, something baiting or performative about argyle.
Unlike plaid, say, which skews rugged and slightly blue collar, or gingham, effete and non-threatening, argyle presents something of an intangible challenge. It elicits a response.
In keeping with this irreverence, Nissie’s sense of humor matched his taste in sweaters – subdued but pushing the envelope just enough almost to dare people to react. During last spring’s trip to see Nissie with my wife and my parents, he kept asking why my grandparents didn’t visit him. He was well-aware they had passed away.
“Diane and Danny are so close by,” Nissie said, meaning their graves. “What, they can’t make the effort?”
To my eye, his morbid moment indicated a playful mockery of death itself, a kind of twisted jocular strain well within acceptable social mores but stretching the limits ever so. His joke also carried a whiff of braggadocio – that he has outlived his generation and the one that came after his. The argyle pattern has a similarly oblique audacity.
And in that way, the argyle pattern serves as protective armor, a type of woolen kevlar. Nissie and I stood out as vagabonds with our pullovers of curiously motivated motifs.
Earlier this year, I got word from relatives that Nissie, after so many years and dozens of nursing home girlfriends, had finally succumbed to old age and died.
Though my predilection for argyle might be more about love of collegiate town flair and his more about functionality amid the heavy nursing home air conditioning, our base motivation is iconoclasm. It’s a pattern whose wearer refuses to adhere to common rules and dares to provoke. It’s a statement of independence. It is with that rebellious mindset, and as an hommage to my dear Nissie, that I wear argyle.