For over 300 years London has been a centre of excellence for men's tailoring, shaped by tradition and innovation in equal measure.
THE BIRTH OF ENGLISH SUITING TRADITION
Samuel Pepys, the son of a tailor recoded in his diary that Charles had adopted ‘a long cassocks close to the body, of black cloth, and pinked with white silk under it, and a coat over it’. This marked the birth of English suiting tradition and over time the waistcoat lost its sleeves and got shorter until around 1790 it became the length it is today.
THE NEW FASHION
The earliest origins of the three-piece tailored suit can be traced to the same year. It was Pepys who recorded Charles II's adoption of 'the new fashion', which was intended to replace the male uniform of doublet and breeches with a new combination of tunic, breeches and vest. It was described by Pepys as 'a long Cassocke close to the body, of black cloth, and pinked with white silk under it, and a coat over it, and the legs ruffled with black riband like a pigeon's leg'. Fellow diarist John Evelyn commended the King for his rejection of the French mode, which he noted had been 'hitherto obtain'd to our great expense and reproach'.
THE RISE OF THE BRITISH TEXTILES INDUSTRY
Life at the Royal Court determined fashionable taste during this period. Tailors made clothing for men at all levels of society, but only those at the highest levels could afford the luxury textiles and fine trimmings that characterised court dress. Sumptuary laws in the sixteenth century determined that the use of velvet for gowns an coats should be limited to those with £200 or more per year. In the 1660s, silk was only available as an expensive import, a factor in society. The sartorial excesses of the Restoration Court attracted moral censure. Charles's choice of cloth (wool) for his new 'vest' can be seen as an early gesture of retraint in the history of the English suit and a royal endorsement of the English woolen textile industry.
ADORNED IN SILK AND BROCADE
At the end of the seventeenth century. Huguenot immigration into Spitalfields and Bethnal Green triggered the development of the English silk-weaving industry. James Leman and Anna Maria Garthwaite were notable Spitalfields designers; Garthwaite's botanically influenced design gave a peculiary English slant to the designs of London silk.
Portraits painted in the early eighteenth century show waitcoats of embroidered or woven silk providing a decorative focus in a style of more relaxed tailoring. Sir Godfrey Kneller's portraits of members of London's Kit-Kat Club show how the formalities of court dress were being rejected by an increasingly powerful political class. Kneller's portrait of Charles Mohun, ca. 1707, shows his rich brocade silk waitcoat contrasted with simple linen and worn with a collarless, loosely cut, velvet coat, which has a voluminous sleeves and evenly spaced silver buttons. Although made of rich materials, the simple lines of Mohun's clothing illustrate a further move towards decorative restraint.
By the mid-eighteenth century, knee-length waistcoats, often made of silk, were a common form of fashionable display for wealthy gentlemen. The Market for such fashionable goods was supplied by London's new West End following its development as a high-class residential and shopping area around St James's Fields from 1660s.
A SUIT OF DITTOS
A painting of Richard Arkwright, by the artist Joseph Wright of Derby, portrays the northern industrialist wearing a ‘suit of dittos’ made of the same coloured cloth across coat, breeches and waistcoat. Many of Wright’s subjects were leaders in the world of science and industry who lived in Britain’s centres of manufacturing rather than fashion.
The rationalisation of men’s dress in the eighteenth century ran concurrent with the increasing professionalisation of commerce and manufacturing, which fuelled Britain’s economy.
LONDON: THE CENTRE OF FASHION
By 1700, London was already the largest city in Western Europe and by the end of the century, its shopping and leisure areas formed a backdrop to increasingly fashionable display and consumption. Formal dress in the 1780s was worn for visiting friends for tea, walking in the park or shopping. It comprised a cloth dress coat and matching waistcoat, often decorated with embroidery or military-style frogging (braiding).
THE NEW TAILCOAT
Functionality informed the style and cut of outdoor sports clothing. Thick wool fabrics had a sculptural quality, which allowed closeness of fit on even the most utilitarian garment. By the early nineteenth century, the equestrian riding coat, cut high under the arm for ease of movement, had developed stylistically into a tailcoat with a double-breasted row of metal buttons, a high collar and a steeply cutaway front.
Tailcoats were worn with buff coloured breeches, riding boots and one of the many fashionable interpretations of an intricately tied cravat. Their wide revers (turned-back collars) and simplicity even influenced women’s tailoring in England and France. The ‘redingote’ became a prominent style of riding habit worn by aristocratic women. In its most exaggerated form, the English tailcoat defied the authority of French-style leadership when it informed the flamboyant dress of Paris’s decadent Incroyables. A reputation for fine tailoring was at the heart of the Anglomania that swept Paris at the end of the eighteenth century.
TARTAN: A FABRIC OF FASHION
Traditionally in Britain, the aristocracy had led public taste, yet the style leadership of Britain’s Hanoverian monarchy would emerge only at the beginning of the nineteenth century under the influence of the Prince Regent. Such was his reputation for dress that, following his ascension to the throne in 1820, he wore a kilt on a state visit to Scotland and tartan became a fabric of fashion.
AN ARBITER OF MEN’S FASHION
The Prince was powerfully influenced by a man outside the ranks of the aristocracy, George (Beau) Brummell. Brummell’s contribution to the history of British menswear lies in an approach to dress that has become synonymous with the notion of the English dandy. Brummell’s restrained and perfectly observed sartorial code advocated a simplified form of tailcoat which he wore with long ‘pantaloons’, in a direct precedent of the modern day suit. His fashionability demanded the highest standards of cleanliness, the most expensive and highest quality tailoring, and accessories that he sourced in Mayfair’s shopping streets.
RISING TO INTERNATIONAL ACCLAIM
By the early nineteenth century, Bond Street was an exclusive thoroughfare, home to tailors, jewellers, hatters and perfumers. The Burlington Arcade opened in 1819 and Regent Street’s sweeping façade was completed in 1825. Many tailors and bookmakers were located on the Strand, with the most exclusive and renowned working in the area north of Piccadilly. John Weston of Old Bond Street and Meyer of Cork Street are both names that have been associated with Brummell. Although traditionally silk had been the most costly - and therefore the most exclusive sort of cloth - the dense mouldability of woolen cloth gave it a superior edge when used in tailoring that demanded absolute perfection of fit. By the turn of the nineteenth century, London’s tailors’ skill of working with the subtlety of wool cemented their reputation internationally as the finest tailors in the world.
THE WELLINGTON BOOT
Brummell was not the only innovative ‘beau’ in Mayfair. The Duke of Wellington, another notable dandy, asked his shoemaker Hoby of St James Street to modify the functional hessian boot, thus creating the first Wellington boot. In its early fashionable form, the Wellington was made of leather and cut close to the calf so that it could be worn neatly with pantaloons. So prevalent was the self-conscious dressing of the men who employed London’s tailoring talent that Pierce Egan’s Life in London, 1821 satirised the sartorial pretensions of London’s dandies in illustrations, which caricatured the relationship between fictional Regent Street tailor Richard Primefit and his precocious young clients.
THE CONSIDERATION OF DRESS
Yet Brummell’s significance lay in his ability to mobilise personal style in order to make fashion out of an essentially rural form of clothing. In doing so, he elevated functional, understated design through attention to detail, cloth, cut and fit. Fashion historian and menswear expert Christopher Breward has written of Brummell:
No other sartorial philosophy has come close to wielding such influence on either the day-to-day process of dressing or the more rarified consideration of dress as an idea... [his] unsettling style has sustained a dandified mode of living for almost two hundred years, inspiring, subverting and critiquing urban modes and manners with surprising consequences for the character and direction of modern British fashion.,
Clothing the military at the end of the eighteenth century forged the reputations of several tailoring firms whose names are now synonymous with London’s most famous tailoring street. James Gieve worked in Portsmouth for the firm that tailored Lord Nelson and Captain Hardy’s uniforms at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Military cap- maker Thomas Hawkes held Royal Warrants from King George III. By the time Gieves and Hawkes united on Savile Row in the 1970s, their individual reputations had secured high- profile commissions and Royal Warrants from across Europe. Military tailoring and royal commissions were also important to the firm of Henry Poole & Co, which, following a commission from Queen Victoria to design a new style of court dress,opened its first showroom on Savile Row in 1846.
THE INFLUENCE OF MILITARY TAILORING
A reputation for strident respectability has made men’s tailoring in the nineteenth century associated with sober uniformity. Despite this, fashion historians have argued that the bespoke system of tailoring allowed men to experiment with new forms of clothing and to explore a range of masculinities through dress. Stylistic development in London tailoring followed the three-piece conventions of the previous century. Decorative waistcoats offered opportunity for self-expression, as did novelty cravat pins and selective use of stripes and checks.
Appropriateness in dress was annotated in editions of The Gentleman’s Magazine of Fashion and in the publications of Benjamin Read. Read was a London tailor who recognised the value of depicting the tailoring details of new fashions in dress set against a backdrop of the city’s fashionable landmarks and streets. The double-breasted frock coat, with its high buttoning and military shaping, remained the hallmark of respectability throughout the nineteenth century. From the 1860s, the lounge coat, originally worn only for sports and leisure, became more acceptable as a garment for informal public occasions.
THE INFLUENCE OF SPORTS
Sports clothing was strongly associated with Victorian masculinity and this allowed it to be an area of experimentation without fear of the taint of effeminacy or accusation of inappropriate preoccupation with personal appearance. The Norfolk jacket was adapted from military clothing in the 1860s to become a standard shooting costume. Often made in Harris tweed or homespun cloth, it was worn with matching knickerbockers. An 1888 edition of the Tailor and Cutter suggested that it was especially suited to bicycling, business and fishing.
THE BOWLER HAT
The ‘Coke’ or Bowler hat has become synonymous with the look of the London City gent. It was created in 1850 by London’s oldest and most prestigious hatter, James Lock & Co, as working wear to protect the heads of Norfolk farmer William Coke’s gamekeepers. The Coke hat’s rural and lower-class status changed only after it became associated with the dress of British aristocracy at the turn of the century. The Coke was worn by Edward VII and later popularised by Edward, Prince of Wales.
Descriptions of Poole’s showrooms in the 1880s describe a lavish and immersive environment furnished with mahogany tables, piled high with dark-coloured cloths. It had palatial fitting rooms furnished in gold and satin.
Luxury was also becoming available in the new department stores being built on Regent Street and Piccadilly. The expansion of Liberty & Co on Regent Street catered to London’s most artistic clientele. It provided smoking jackets, decorative accessories and oriental silk pyjamas made from imported Indian silks, or fabrics printed in Liberty’s own printworks at Merton in south London.
By the end of the nineteenth century, London was a global city in both its population and its vision. Its tailoring industries, including those in Savile Row, relied heavily on the talents of a skilled immigrant Jewish workforce, which operated out of the East End producing goods to sell in the luxurious outlets of the West End. Its manufacturers and retailers worked to meet the fashionable public’s enthusiasm for goods that exploited the colours and patterns of fabrics imported from the Empire.
THE TRENCH COAT
Thomas Burberry’s innovation of waterproof twill-weave gabardine gave his company a competitive edge in the early twentieth century. Burberry’s first London store opened in 1891 on Haymarket, the busy thoroughfare leading to Piccadilly.
By the 1910s, Burberry’s outdoor wear was clothing Britain’s early expeditions to Antarctica and the South Pole. In 1901, the firm was commissioned by the War Office to design its officers’ uniforms, a charge that would lead to the creation, in 1914, of its most iconic product - the Burberry trench coat.
Beyond heroic association with the battle fields of Flanders, the Burberry trench coat represents a peculiarly British modern sensibility. Traditional craft values of quality workmanship and robust materials combine in a garment with stylistic associations that have varyingly been military, county and high fashion. Hollywood’s adoption of the Burberry trench, notably worn by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca in 1942, has only added to its glamour and appeal.
THE MODERN SUIT
Beyond the rarefied, bespoke world of royalty, menswear ready-to-wear retailing was modernising between the wars. Austin Reed introduced ‘The New Tailoring’ at its Regent Street menswear department store in 1926 and opened its first international outlet on the transatlantic liner RMS Aquitania in 1929. Simpson’s of Piccadilly, with its DAKS range of tailoring and sportswear, opened in 1936. These firms, amongst others, responded to the democratised desire for stylish and well-cut fashion.
After the war, Savile Row also modernised. The arrival of Hardy Amies, best known as the Queen’s couturier, in 1945 introduced the notion of fashion and challenged the overt masculinity of the street. In addition to serving his bespoke customers, Amies designed collections for the Leeds rm Hepworth’s. The prototypes of their ‘made-to-measure’ suits were often cut by Amies’ neighbour, Norton & Sons, at 16 Savile Row.
THE CASUAL ELEGANCE
By 1951, The Ambassador magazine was promoting English fashion abroad by evoking a nostalgic sense of Britishness and by framing the practice of bespoke tailoring as able to transcend the forces of mechanisation. In an article entitled ‘This Casual Elegance’, its author noted: There is an idea that the well-dressed Englishman is the epitome of studied disarray... This is an inversion of the truth. It is not a planned disorder but an unconscious elegance... While mass production methods have forced the cobbler from his traditional squat, the bespoke tailor sits today as he always has.
THE RISE OF THE TEDDY BOYS
By the 1950s, a bohemian London coexisted with the still authoritative voice of the conservative establishment. Ex-guardsman and inveterate dandy Bunny Roger employed the precision skills of Savile Row to recreate decorative waistcoats and the slimline silhouette of its early-century tailoring. Yet, Roger’s neo-Edwardianism sought to preserve the distance between nineteenth century codes of class and behaviour and the socially destabilising forces of modern, democratised shopping.
In London’s less prestigious districts,Teddy Boys were a new class of dandy asserting their influence by paying local tailors up to four weeks’ wages to appropriate the neo-Edwardian codes of Savile Row; their ‘stovepipe’ trousers, velvet-collared coats and reputation for street violence made them insubordinate arbiters of style.
Fashion historian Alistair O’Neil has written: ‘Carnaby Street became synonymous with a masculine form of colourful peacockery not seen since the early nineteenth century, and made a spectacle of men being self-conscious in their consumption of fashion.’
Yet it was not the only London street with a reputation for selling distinctive clothing that pushed the boundaries of masculine convention. Rupert Lycett-Green opened Blades in Dover Street in 1962 and Tommy Nutter arrived on Savile Row in 1968. Both combined fine detail and precision tailoring with a receptive approach to fashion, which marked their exceptional contributions to London tailoring in the 1960s and 1970s.
NUTTERS OF SAVILE ROW
In 1969, Tommy Nutter and Edward Sexton opened Nutters of Savile Row at No 35a Savile Row. They were financially backed by Cilla Black and her husband Bobby Willis, Managing Director of the Beatles' Apple Corps Peter Brown, and lawyer James Vallance-White.
The business was an immediate success, as Nutter combined traditional tailoring skills with innovative design. His clients included Sir Roy Strong, Mick Jagger, Bianca Jagger and Elton John. Nutter himself was most proud of the fact that, for the cover of The Beatles' album Abbey Road in 1969, he dressed three out of the four.
The influence of Glaswegian, John Stephen, on the rise of the street has been ascribed to his talent for sharp styling, innovative retailing and recognition of the prevailing mood, which rejected stereotypical masculinities in clothing. Having opened his first shop at 5 Carnaby Street in 1956, within a decade, Stephen owned more than ten others including Mod Male, Domino Male and Gear Street, all selling his flamboyant take on traditional men’s tailoring to an audience for whom novelty and detail were key.
THE FLORAL SHIRT & TIE
The exacting sartorial aspirations of London’s Mods were met by Stephen, who introduced hipster trousers and slim-cut shirts manufactured in limited production with high, soft, buttoned or tabbed collars. Decorative fabrics in bright or pastel colours were promoted to be worn with wide lapelled velvet frock coats and kipper ties. Throughout the decade the tailoring talent in Soho’s upstairs workrooms were able to provide short runs of suit jackets and coats in traditional suitings, plaids and wide pinstripes, individualised and embellished with trimmings, lining, buttons and embroidery freely available from wholesalers nearby.
John Stephen and Michael Fish can perhaps both lay claim to the introduction of the tailored floral shirt and tie. When Jermyn Street shirt-maker Turnbull & Asser employed Fish to extend their classic lines into more flamboyant and youthful territory, he created vibrant designs of quality tailored shirts and kipper ties. The exuberant orals found in the haberdashery department at Liberty & Co were also catalysts in this flowering of gender-defying pastoral expression.
Liberty & Co’s William Poole and Bernard Neville exploited the firm’s richly decorative archive to create a range of modern fabrics in a luridly colourful print-on-print celebration of 1930s orals and Art Nouveau swirls.
The post-war prosperity and optimism that fuelled entrepreneurialism in 1960s Carnaby Street dissolved in the economic uncertainties of the 1970s. As the promise of long-term unemployment radicalised a generation of youth, dispossession exploded into the DIY aesthetic of punk; between 1974 and 1978, this created an ‘anti-fashion’ assault on the recognised notions of good taste.
430 KING'S ROAD
In 1976, the shop at 430 King’s Road was renamed Seditionaries by its owners Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. Their collection of that year took the fetish-wear sold in their first shop Sex and subverted its meanings further in a new collection that included cloth bondage trousers with bum flaps, straps and zips, striped mohair jumpers and t-shirts with confrontational slogans.
The ‘Seditionaries’ collection quickly cemented McLaren and Westwood’s position as style leaders who epitomised the antagonistic spirit and style of English punk.
MAKE DO AND BEND
McLaren and Westwood’s involvement in the radical sub-cultural activity that defined youth culture in the 1980s was largely realised through their style influence on London’s music and club scene. Their first catwalk collection, ‘Pirates’ in 1981, combined barbed colourful prints with flounced shirts and tricorn hats in a display of swash- buckling histrionics, which played out at street level in the New Romantic movement. Musicians and designers who further challenged orthodox masculinities in dress came together at the Blitz nightclub in Covent Garden. Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Bodymap and Stephen Jones all shaped the look of British fashion in the 1980s.
Westwood has continued to work reflexively with fashion history by appropriating its symbols and allegiances and even revisiting her own contributions from the days of Seditionaries. Finely tailored bondage trousers in traditional British checks have featured in her later collections. In ‘Harris Tweed’ (1987), ‘Time Machine’ (1988) and ‘Anglomania’ (1993) Westwood borrowed the materials and meanings associated with English tailoring to offer a celebration of its heritage, but also to expose what Rebecca Arnold has called ‘the lie of a coherent single definition of Englishness’ in which English tailoring and style assumes a solely aristocratic heritage.
LONDON MENSWEAR TODAY
Today, London continues to be a fashion centre for British menswear. Just as the area around St James’s was a hub of fashionable display and consumption in the early nineteenth century, so today the streets around Savile Row and Jermyn Street continue to offer bespoke and high-quality ready-made menswear and accessories.
In recent years, east of the City in the area around Shoreditch High Street, a culture of small-scale production and retail has transformed London’s historical clothing manufacturing districts into a fashion centre notable for its migrant influence, cultural dynamism and menswear retailers.
London’s cosmopolitanism has been intrinsic to its international reputation. Across the world it is known for its innovative retailing and hybrid sense of style; a vivid expression of its rich fashion heritage.
Based on a study written by Keren Protheroe
Commissioned by the British Fashion Council and Victoria and Albert Museum
Thanks to Edwina Ehrman, Jenny Lister and Oriole Cullen at the V&A, to Timothy Long at The Museum of London and to Jennie Atkinson for their help and advice in researching this history.