Killing Stripes

Christopher Turner

  • Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress by Anne Hollander
    Bloomsbury, reissue, 158 pp, £19.99, August 2016, ISBN 978 1 4742 5065 8
  • The Suit: Form, Function and Style by Christopher Breward
    Reaktion, 240 pp, £18.00, May 2016, ISBN 978 1 78023 523 3

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.

Sean Connery being measured for Bond.
Sean Connery being measured for Bond.

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.’

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