Sweater girls

You have to hand it to the twinset. At the ripe old age of 70 it could be forgiven for hanging up its buttons and remaining the stalwart of the First Lady (we’re talking Laura Bush - the jury is still out on whether Teresa Heinz Kerry would be quite so devotional) but instead it is enjoying a sneaky little renaissance.

Ever since the mid-1990s, the twinset couldn’t get arrested; cardigans and even jackets were seriously out of favour, and we either melted in "statement" coats or shivered sans cover. In fashion speak, the twinset had RIP embroidered along its neckline and had been hijacked by the Tory faithful - which obviously meant, in the twilight of its years, it was ripe for a revamp. The catwalk is all about contrast, and if designers aren’t taking the Footballers’ Wives vibe further than is strictly necessary, they are investing in Inauguration chic.

Which all means that, perfect for this year’s retro-fest, the twinset is currently more must-have than a reason to be cheerful. Sophie Dahl looks kittenish in Pringle of Scotland, Prada fans have gone elegantly ga-ga for Miuccia’s shrunken ombre cardigans, while Calvin Klein’s Francisco Costa refreshed the button-up by teaming it with tourniquet-tight pencil skirts in caf-au-lait neutrals.

But while it may look as classic as a string of pearls, the twinset was once as groundbreaking as Alexander McQueen’s bumster jeans.

As far back as the 1930s the fashion industry took no prisoners. In the period between the wars, it morphed with amazing speed thanks to female emancipation, a burgeoning leisure industry, mass production and the desire for a less restrictive, if no less prescriptive, wardrobe. And until Christian Dior hit the headlines with his beautifully radical wasp-waisted New Look in 1947, every decade of the 20th century stripped the silhouette of yet another layer of overt formality.

User-friendly and ultra-comfortable to wear, knitted garments started to flood the market. Coco Chanel created a new language of leisurewear with her boyish knitted Breton tunic tops, while Elsa Schiaparelli, a woman not unfamiliar with surrealist motifs (ice-cream cones and lamb cutlets being her two most popular hats), hired Dali and Cocteau to create fabrics, and in 1927 launched her entire business on the demand for a sweater bearing a little trompe-l’oeil bow.

It was, however, Otto Weisz (then Pringle’s in-house designer) who in 1934 invented the iconic cornerstone of every lady’s wardrobe: the twinset. Founded by Robert Pringle in 1815, the company originally sold lingerie and hosiery throughout Europe, the States, Canada and Japan. Keen to develop its product portfolio in the fast-moving fashion market, Pringle was one of the first brands to use knit for outer rather than underwear and for Weisz - a firm favourite of Edward, Duke of Windsor - the twinset was a natural next step.

By the 1940s, the Hollywood sweater-girl set had embraced its double-edged charm as an excellent publicity tool: it was demure in double-ply and yet saucy when worn a size too tight over a cone-shaped brassiere.

During the next decade, it became a fashion staple, perfect with circle skirts, gloves and vertiginous court shoes. Stars such as Jean Simmons, Margaret Lockwood and Deborah Kerr, and ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn all offered Pringle an early taste of celebrity endorsement as the knits were flown out to Los Angeles and worn for those "informal" publicity shots that showed perfectly coiffed couples frolicking in front of borrowed mansions.

In fact the cashmere twinset - cardigan worn buttoned at the neck with a brooch - became as synonymous with the 1950s screen goddess as vintage dresses are to our current gaggle of surgically enhanced lollipops. Just try to imagine Grace Kelly without some sublimely chic cardigan perched on her shoulders, Lauren Bacall teaming something else with mannish slacks or Brigitte Bardot lolling about in something other than twinset and capri pants. Waspish, classy and well-bred, it was as much part of the Hollywood lexicon as red lips and a gay "walker".

As we all know, however, the iconic little two-piece didn’t get much of a look-in during the 1970s - it wasn’t chiffon, highly patterned or cut by Ossie Clark - so it was left in the very capable hands of the middle-class housewives who didn’t swing or shop on London’s King’s Road.

Today, with everyone from Pringle to Gap to Jean-Paul Gaultier doing their bit to revive the classic, it would be churlish not to give it a go. It may be 70 years old, but it seems there is life in the old dear yet.