I went to Henry Poole & Co, the oldest tailor on Savile Row, for a fitting. Suits start at £5500, and I couldn’t afford to have one made, but the firm had agreed to teach me the principles of bespoke tailoring by measuring me for an invisible one, so I could at least engage in the fantasy: the emperor’s new clothes. In 1955, the Wall Street Journal described the shop as ‘Dickensian’, with an ‘atmosphere that reeks of a timeless and slightly regal splendour’. It still has a faded grandeur, more like an atelier than a showroom, with acres of tweed bundled in precarious bales. The cutters, immaculate in waistcoats and shirtsleeves, work behind high counters, as they always have, marking the patterns with chalk and striking the cloth with huge scissors. The walls are crammed with more than forty gold-framed royal warrants, and mahogany display cases are lined with ceremonial swords, cocked hats and examples of the opulent court dress for which Poole’s was once famous.
In a secure basement archive are rows of huge ledgers, some three feet thick, recording all the firm’s eminent clients, and how fashionable and flamboyant they were. These books are an index of the aristocracy: half the British peerage shopped here, as well as Queen Victoria and a great number of international royalty, from Haile Selassie to the emperor of Brazil. Copperplate inventories, some water-damaged after an incendiary bomb landed on Savile Row in the Second World War, reveal that many spent more on the state liveries worn by their servants than on themselves. One contemporary commentator observed: ‘Footmen tricked out by Poole in brimstone and ruby loafed like great golden carp in half the palace entrance halls of Europe.’ Metal chests are filled with rubbings on fragile tissue paper of the elaborate metallic brocades with which their heraldic costumes were decorated.
Charles Dickens, Henry James, Bram Stoker, Ulysses S. Grant, Toulouse-Lautrec, Lillie Langtry, Robert Mitchum and Jean Cocteau were also on the books. Some of their accounts are closed, crossed out with lines of red ink and marked ‘Dead’. Grand Duke Sergei of Russia’s reads ‘Assassinated’. A ‘Sundry Debtors’ list from 1909-41 fills a hundred pages of one goatskin volume, a blacklist of nearly three thousand names. ‘A man’s first duty is to his tailor,’ Oscar Wilde (another patron) quipped, but obviously not when it came to paying. Winston Churchill was a regular customer, even having his suits cleaned and pressed at Poole’s, until an overzealous clerk sent a letter to Number 10 demanding that he settle his bills.
In 1900, Poole’s was the most fashionable outfitters in the world, with 14 cutters and 300 tailors (there are now 40), and branches in Paris, Berlin and Vienna. On Savile Row, clients enjoyed free claret, hock and cigars in the sumptuously decorated reception area as, making the most of interminable credit, they treated the premises ‘more like a club than a shop’. There was even an artificial horse, Bucephalus, so that ladies’ riding habits could be imagined in the field. The fitting rooms were described as ‘miniature palaces’, and I found myself in one hung with rows of suits, multi-coloured golfing blazers and tuxedos (supposedly invented by Poole), all in various states of assembly. Still visible are the basting lines used to hold the stiff canvas linings temporarily in place: the linings form the foundation of a suit and are stitched with great care to create an elegant contour. The walls of the windowless room are decorated with pictures of the elaborate gas-lit displays with which the Savile Row façade was festooned to celebrate the state visit of Napoleon III and the wedding of Edward VII, both Poole men.
In The Suit, Christopher Breward writes of the tailor’s ‘crucial ritual’ of measuring the client, a practice he believes has been overlooked because of its ‘intensely personal nature’. ‘Customers seem not to have patience enough,’ a tailor’s manual from 1850 states. ‘They do not like to be measured, and looked at in every way … and they are vexed that their tailor sees that they are not the very type of the Apollo Belvedere.’ ‘Remember that your hands are going about a sensitive intelligent man and not a horseblock,’ another guide of the period notes. ‘First rule – never stand whilst taking measurements in front of your man, but on his right side. To do so is to commit a gross piece of familiarity, rather offensive in all cases.’
My tailor was Kevin Levett, who apprenticed to Poole’s in 1989 at the age of 16 and is now a director at the firm. He has a waxed moustache and was wearing a charcoal three-piece suit, with a gold seal depicting Milton hanging from his watch chain. As I caught myself in the narrow mirror, stiffened for ‘awkward one-to-one negotiations’, I was embarrassed to see that my jumper seemed to be covered in pills the size of owl pellets.
‘For almost four hundred years’, Breward writes, the suit ‘has been held up by artists, philosophers and critics as evidence of humanity’s unceasing and transformative search for perfection’. The contemporary suit has endured for decades, subject to only subtle changes, like the looseness or closeness of a jacket’s fit, and the flaring and narrowing of trousers and lapels. The suit, ‘unobtrusive yet ubiquitous’, is the cloak of civil society, global formal attire worn by politicians, estate agents, bankers, rabbis, courtroom defendants and wedding grooms. Breward describes it as the ‘uniform of modern manners’, a clear marker of standards being upheld, whatever your class or political persuasion. But why on earth do men still wear suits, a vestige of an earlier age, seeing in such dress a confident symbol of masculine sexuality and pride?
Anne Hollander, who died in 2014, was the Ernst Gombrich of fashion history and tackled this question head-on in a confident survey of the field first published in 1994. Her text is full of provocations, in particular the idea that women’s fashion has historically always lagged behind men’s, which provides the aesthetic propositions to which women’s costume has been forced to respond. She thinks that, ever since the Middle Ages, men’s clothes, including the suit, have been ‘more formally interesting and innovative and less conservative than women’s’, but also stresses that men’s and women’s clothes can only be understood in dialogue. She describes the centuries of shifting schema that shaped the suit (and the erotic contrast these changes made with women’s clothes): from the close-fitting, padded linen outfit worn to protect the body under plate armour, to Charles II’s adoption of the Ottoman vest after the Great Fire of London; from the Georgian rejection of Rococo taste and the adoption of a fitted buttoned jacket, to the Victorian frock-coat, through to the two or three-piece lounge suit, acceptable as business wear before the First World War and ever after.
Truly classic male tailoring, she asserts, has its origins in neoclassicism, being invented between about 1780 and 1820, a time Pevsner described as modernism’s ‘first chapter’. In the 1930s, the psychologist John Carl Flügel described the era’s ‘Great Masculine Renunciation’ of gaudy ‘peacock’ fashion in favour of strong, simple forms inspired by classical architecture and the heroic male figure seen in Greek statuary. The suit, designed to augment the chest and shoulders, spoke of a serious, utilitarian modernity that women’s fashion, in its billowing frivolity and excess, at first deliberately avoided, but over the course of the 20th century began to emulate. The suit was presented as anti-fashion, a timeless ‘pseudo-ethnic costume’, in contrast to the superficiality of women’s flighty sartorial experimentations. This was, of course, a complete illusion: ‘Male fashion has in fact been an impressive achievement in modern visual design, since it has used an established set of formal rules, rather like the Classical orders of architecture, while flowing along at the same rate of constant change as women’s dress.’
It is this apparent immutable quality, the certainty of quietly inherited assertions, that gives the men’s suit its impression of sober strength. Despite the protests of critics like Edward Carpenter, a simple-lifer who spurned the ‘coffin’ of ‘stiff layers of buckram’ (‘eleven layers between him and God!’) in favour of a hessian tunic, the architecture of the suit remained essentially unchanged. But this conventionality is also the cause of tedium, and Hollander regrets that the suit has ossified, failing to keep up with the times; many men in the early 1990s rejected the superior ease of the suit in favour of homogenous, gender-neutral leisurewear, ‘rompers and playsuits’ more appropriate to kindergarten. Breward ends his introduction with a long quote by Hollander that illustrates this ambivalence:
Although male heads of state wear suits at summit meetings, male job applicants wear them to interviews, and men accused of rape and murder wear them in court … the pants-jacket-shirt-and-tie costume, formal or informal, is often called boring or worse. Like other excellent and simple things we cannot do without, men’s suits have lately acquired an irksome aesthetic flavour, I would say an irritating perfection. Their integrated, subtle beauty is often an affront to postmodern sensibilities, to eyes and minds attuned to the jagged and turbulent climate of the late 20th century. Current millennial impulses tend towards disintegration, in style as in politics; but men’s suits are neither postmodern nor minimalist, multicultural nor confessional – they are relentlessly modern, in the best classic sense. They seem moreover to be surviving.
Breward’s book, which explores the many subtle and not so subtle subversions of the suit – postmodern, minimalist and multicultural – serves as an epilogue and corrective to Hollander. Whereas she dismisses the Romantic, Victorian and Art Nouveau interventions in the suit as a series of aesthetic cul-de-sacs that left the basic form unchanged, Breward explores and takes pleasure in all such digressions. He is interested in the suit as fashion, attentive to its risks and ironies, all its endless possibilities and postcolonial inversions. He shows how Gandhi and Mao, for example, rejected and adapted the suit for political ends. For Hollander, the 18th-century ‘Macaroni’ – known for bouffant wigs capped with tiny hats, and frock-coats with big buttons and ‘killingly bright stripes’ – represents a last, short-lived gasp of male envy for the lassitude allowed in female dress. In contrast, Breward praises the effeminate fop’s subversion of ‘the uniform of power as a vehicle for dissidence and disruption’.
Suits, Breward notes, could be ‘templates for experimentation and defiance just as powerfully as they could be a focus for sobriety and duty’. His alternative history of the suit privileges dandies, such as Beau Brummell (with his careful, chaotic cravats) and Oscar Wilde (with his quasi-Renaissance velvet suits), as well as the female cross-dresser (from George Sand to Marlene Dietrich). We learn of ‘The Anti-Neutral Suit’ in the Futurist Manifesto, which promised ‘three-dimensional colour acrobatics’, and the TuTa of 1919, an avant-garde adaptation of the utilitarian boiler suit that supposedly heralded the end of fashion itself. Then there are the flashy suits of mass culture, the most ridiculous being the Zoot suit of 1930s jazz age Chicago, where young African- Americans wore long skirted jackets, often in garish colours, with baggy, pleated pants and watch chains that grazed the floor. In contrast, the British Teddy Boy of the 1950s, a rebel in frock-coat and brothel creepers, looked positively understated. In 2009, Alexander McQueen, who trained on Savile Row, launched elegant fin-de-siècle mash-ups of suit history, continuing a tradition of Droog-like countercultural menace.
Breward’s subcultural story is intercut with that of the commercial menswear it inspired: the Japanese concept of iki (elegance), for example, resulted in the decentred suits of Kenzo Takada and Yohji Yamamoto with their severe, asymmetrical lines, which became a uniform for architects and yuppie media types in the 1980s. The sprezzatura (measured casualness) of Armani and Versace suits was intended as a kind of tactile ‘second skin’, an effect achieved by removing the structure of the suit to create a soft, sloping fit, as modelled by Richard Gere in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980) – a look much emulated in the City and on Wall Street. Fashion, Breward emphasises, is always provocative, endlessly recycling the aesthetic challenges of the fringe into mainstream culture. Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood introduced the mod and punk to high-end tailoring; Ozwald Boateng and Richard James brought peacock colours and a new, sharp swagger back to Savile Row; Tom Ford and Christopher Bailey revived the louche elegance of Walter Albini and 1930s and 1940s Hollywood; and Hedi Slimane and Raf Simons continue to bring avant-garde absurdism to the dynamic, ever-changing form of the suit.
Mr Levett wrapped his tape measure around my waist and held it there for what seemed like several seconds before instructing me: ‘Breathe out.’ ‘You’re lucky enough to have a waistline, still,’ he remarked. ‘Some don’t.’ Nevertheless, he prescribed a ‘belly cut’, a little wedge of cloth that’s taken out on the line of the jetting to create a more flattering silhouette. ‘A clever tailor can disguise a multitude of sins,’ he promised, explaining the merits of careful padding and skilful darting by showing me a suit in the process of construction. He recorded a sequence of 14 measurements, which in the 18th century would have been marked as notches on a single tape. One of the awkward parts of fitting a suit is the inside leg measure, and a tailor’s manual from the 1880s advises: ‘With great quickness place the end of your measure close up into the crutch, then pass down your left behind his thigh.’ Levett performed that intimate movement; he had already told me that any tailor worth his salt doesn’t have to ask a man which way he dresses, an important fact as the trousers need to be adapted accordingly. The Poole ledgers reveal that 95 per cent of men dress left, a notable exception being Buffalo Bill.
Entries in these ledgers are often written in tailor’s code: ‘powerful blades’ means your shoulders stick out; FS stands for ‘full stomach’. A Poole’s suit can be adapted three or four times in its working life, the marks in the linings hinting at a shifting figure like the growth rings in trees. Their suits contain almost three-quarters of a yard of hidden, excess cloth, so adjustments can be made to accommodate as much as an extra twenty pounds. In 1875, Henry Poole invested in some jockey scales, still on display today, and recorded the fluctuating weight of certain customers in a special book so that they couldn’t demand free alterations if their suits didn’t fit. All sorts of flattery was employed: ‘Sir is looking rather prosperous,’ a tailor would say to his portly client.
Levett promised to dispense with such euphemisms when discussing my ‘figuration’, and he stood behind me as we looked into the mirror, training his expert eye on me as a Victorian physiognomist might look to the body for clues to character: ‘You have relatively square shoulders, but do have a slightly dropped right one – even your jumper’s hanging off you – and we might make it a bit more pronounced with wadding. You’re tall and fairly slim, with no bow legs to worry about, but you hold your head slightly forwards … Your right hip is slightly more prominent than the left, and we’d certainly alter the draft of the trousers to disguise it.’ A ready-made suit, with its synthetically fused linings and fake buttonhole and cuffs, wouldn’t be able to accommodate such Quasimodo-like asymmetry.
Having been thus diagnosed, I was prescribed a three-piece single-breasted suit. Levett showed me some sample books containing 6000 cloth swatches in different weights (20 ounce for draughty castles; about 13 for the rest of us). Breward lists them: ‘smooth worsteds, soft Saxonies and rough Cheviots, divided into standard baratheas, military Bedford cords, glossy broadcloths, sporting cavalry twills, workaday corduroys, elegant flannels, strong serges, hardy tweeds and homespuns, and dressy velvets’. Then there is the choice of weave and design: ‘plain or Panama, hopsack or Celtic, diagonal, Mayo, Campbell or Russian twill, Bannockburn or pepper and salt, pinhead, birdseye, Eton stripe, barleycorn, herringbone, dogtooth, Glenurquhart or Prince of Wales check, pin or chalk-stripe’. Each choice must be made very carefully, as it provides further keys to character. ‘You don’t want to look sharp and fashionable,’ Levett instructed. ‘You want to look well dressed, without screaming it – a well-cut suit made in the West End should look effortless.’ (Beau Brummell hoped that his clothes would appear unnoticeable, which made my invisible suit seem even more apt.) The technique has remained essentially unchanged since the 1860s, and each suit requires three or four fittings and takes sixty to eighty hours to build by hand.
With its shelves of etiquette manuals and well-thumbed copies of Burke’s Landed Gentry, Poole’s may seem an anachronism, but their suits are still much in demand; there’s something very aspirational about commissioning a Savile Row suit. I was taken to see the pattern room, in one of the vaults under the road intended for coal, which was hung with assembled body parts like so many paper dolls. ‘He’s got a bit of a backside on him,’ Levett said, showing me the seat of one pattern, ‘hence the two darts.’ The adjoining basement was lined with rails of suits in different hues destined for America, Singapore, Japan and China. One green smoking jacket with over-emphatic braided frogging was lined with a skull and crossbones pattern. ‘I’d never have allowed one of my customers to have that,’ Levett said, searching the inside breast pocket for a name. (Even at Poole’s it seems that standards are slipping.) Alongside them are japanned tin trunks full of richly embroidered privy counsellor and other courtly outfits, the most costly and decorative items available on Savile Row, which leave these catacombs only for their yearly rituals. ‘I’ve got three state liveries to make for the royal household this year – there aren’t many of us left who can make them,’ Levett said, adding in a hushed voice: ‘They’re preparing for a coronation.’